Category Archives: Spirituality

Love Your God; Love Your Neighbors

My thoughts have been pinging on the phrase “your God.” More specifically, Matthew 22:37-39 has been on my mind: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. … Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus proclaimed these…

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Do Merton’s Observations on American Myth and Frontiers Apply Today?

 Asher B. Durand (American, 1796-1886). The First Harvest in the Wilderness, 1855. Brooklyn Museum.

Thomas Merton proposed in his 1965 book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that a widely accepted U.S. myth was that “America is the earthly paradise.”

“When a myth becomes a daydream, it is judged, found wanting, and must be discarded. To cling to it when it has lost its creative function is to condemn oneself to mental illness,” Merton wrote.

Read the Full Article at Good Faith Media.

What About “What About Easter?”

I wrote “What about Easter?” several months ago posting it to a local media blog The Tyler Loop Babble before posting it here. Not long after it went live on the site, probably within minutes if not seconds, I had this mind-rattling thought, Oh, my, what have I done! The thought was disturbing enough, but the accompanying feelings were downright unsettling.

The feelings of vulnerability and exposure surprised me. Those feelings had little if anything to do with the content of the piece, and a whole lot to do with the fact that I said it out loud – well, I wrote it down. I threw my questions, thoughts, and belief journey out into the ether world for all to peruse, analyze, criticize, and judge. Now, I suppose that’s not a really big deal since anyone – aka yours truly – writing editorial and/or opinion content knows that it’s the nature of the beast and comes to expect analysis, criticism, and possible judgment. Thus, the need for a “tough skin,” a steadfast stance on said opinion, and/or solid supporting empirical evidence where applicable and available.

So, what was the vulnerability and exposure about? Hum! Reflecting on that question, the best answer I came up with regarded cultural context. I/We live, work, and play in the East Texas Bible Belt where the faith tenets of traditional and evangelical Christianity abound. Texas as a whole ranking #11 in the 2022 Most Religious States with 64% of adults reporting as religious.

I doubt that my thoughts expressed in “What about Easter?” reflect those of most East Texas religious folks. Or I wonder? Does our fear of vulnerability and exposure when going against the grain of perceived or real public opinion thwart the expression of our genuine thoughts and feelings? Maybe there are more folks with questioning, outside-the-box thoughts and beliefs, but keep them to themselves. Does that fear shroud our genuine selves? If that fear did not exist, how many of us would risk stepping out and going against the grain for the sake of freedom of expression and an authentic life.

I found it interesting that not long after my bout of vulnerability and exposure, a group of friends posed the question, how do we help folks with different, against-the-grain, outside-the-box thoughts and feelings on any issue be able to step up and speak out? I don’t know. However, I do have an opinion on that: As more of us step up, risk the vulnerability and exposure, and respectfully express our against-the-grain thoughts and feelings, others will as well. There is encouragement, motivation, and power in knowing one is not alone.

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What About Easter?

NOTE: I wrote What About Easter? during Easter week some three months ago, but did not post it here. I did post it on a local blog, The Tyler Loop Babble. Why did I not post it here on my personal blog? What About ‘What About Easter?’ coming soon!

It’s Palm Sunday and much of the world is gearing up for Holy Week and various remembrances – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Black Saturday, and the celebratory Easter Sunday morning.

 For those like me, and there are many, who have experienced or are in the midst of a spiritual shift away from the D’s & D’s – the dos and don’ts, the dogma and doctrine – of evangelical or traditional Christianity for that matter, Easter is a conundrum. What do we do with Easter? After decades of hearing, sincerely believing, and even teaching the Jesus story, we question, we doubt, we just can’t buy into the whole story 100% anymore. It’s like a suit of clothes that no longer fits, or maybe, new wine, bulging, ripping at the seams of old wineskins. Still the question – What about Easter? 

I start with Jesus. I believe, at the very least, Jesus was a man of God, called to preach, teach, and live a life exemplifying justice, mercy, and humility. According to Micah 6:8, that is just what the Lord requires of man. Jesus called out the unjust and oppressive practices of the tax collectors, money changers, and civic powers. He lambasted the legalism and ritualistic show and sham of the church hierarchy. He demonstrated care, compassion, dignity, and respect for lepers, children, the ill and infirm, beggars, prostitutes, and all sorts of marginalized folks. He lived humbly as an itinerant preacher with no property of his own and dependent upon the generosity of others for sustenance and shelter.

Jesus consistently and passionately bucked the status quo riling both civic and religious leaders. Feeling a threat to their authority and fearful of a populous revolt given Jesus’s growing influence with the people, they arrested him under trumped up charges, carried out a sham trial, convicted, and crucified him. They killed the man – a good man, a godly man, possibly the anointed son of God. Jesus was crucified because of pride, greed, and fear – the sins of the people of that day and particularly those in authority. Has our manner of sin really changed much over the centuries? They had power, position, wealth, exclusivity, and they wanted to keep it that way. Fearful of losing it all, they killed Jesus, period. Not going to wade into the theological weeds of sacrificial atonement here. That’s good Friday, on to Easter morning!

What happened that long-ago Sunday morning may be the prime example of God’s working in mysterious ways. Not to be flippant, but truly only God knows. I know I don’t know! I believe that’s a good thing, maybe one of a multitude of things that keep me mindful and in awe of the mystery of the Divine and tethered to him/her/it through faith. After all, if one is so certain one knows, there is no need for faith.

Whether one chooses to believe in Jesus’s physical resurrection or not is up to each individual. No need to get caught on the theological sticky wicket of resurrection. These days my takeaway from Easter morning is a renewed spirit. Regardless of what happened to Jesus’s body or whether his disciples encountered him in the flesh, as a ghost, in visions, or hallucinations after his death, we know what they did. They went from being grieved, dejected, and fearful to being excited, energized, bold, and committed in continuing to spread the message and do the work of justice, mercy, and humility that Jesus had begun. I can buy into the disciples having an emotional and/or spiritual experience resulting in a renewed spirit and greater focus and commitment to a cause – been there and done that, maybe you have as well.  No doubt, ultimately, the disciples walked away from Easter morning with some form of spiritual renewal. 

What about Easter? For my part I will remember the life and work of Jesus, grieve his death and the shameful manner in which it occurred at the hands of sinful men, and celebrate the hope of a renewed spirit. A renewed spirit that will lead and sustain in being and doing all that God, by whatever name,  requires – to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. That takes care of the Easter conundrum for me. 

Pull up, Level off!

I lay in bed this morning way too early to be awake, unable to go back to sleep, and taking a nosedive into a shit storm of shame and fear – to use Brene’Brown’s vernacular. Self-talk was descending, once again, into Why did you. . . why didn’t you. . . you should have known. . what’s the point?  During all that, I heard, “Pull up, level off!” We know the scene. The plane is going down and someone in the cockpit yells “pull up, level off.” Disaster is averted, and all ends well. Well, at least the plane lands and all appear physically intact.

Pull up, Level off!

The storm of shame and fear has been ongoing for several days alternating from tornadic intensity to relative calm. I’ve done the work — several years of it in fact many years ago — addressing the obvious anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts as well as the lurking, menacing feelings of shame, fear, anger, not good enough, etc. Yet, in some moments of conflict, personal fallibility, and disappointment, I find myself pommeled by the storm, again. I suspect all of us humans experience some levels of shame and fear from time to time, and I wonder if those of us with a long history of shame, fear, anger – all that stuff we don’t like to acknowledge or talk about – and subsequent mental health issues are more prone to the storms. That’s a hard reality for me.

At any rate, I do know the storm drill, and it does require pulling up and leveling off. Although, I had never thought of it in those terms. Pull up, resist and reverse the downward spiral of self-talk. Level off with some truths of my humanity such as I am human. I am both capable and fallible, I am enough and lacking at times. I am loved and loving. I am courageous and fearful.  I am a both/and. Fly out of the storm. 

For me, flying out is usually a bumpy, doable ride often made easier by sharing with someone I trust who will listen with empathy, compassion, and perhaps shared vulnerability. Heaven help us if we truly are alone in our experiences of the shame, fear, anger storms. Judgement and catastrophizing are not helpful – I’ve already done enough of that myself. Guidance for any next steps may be helpful.

As I said, I have done lots of work gaining insights into my shame, fear, anger, etc. Unfortunately, insights don’t necessarily eliminate the occasional storms. In this current storm I have been drawn to the image of a six-year-old little girl alone outside hiding, crying, trembling, and clinging to the corner of the school building. 

I say image because I experience this memory as if I am above it, watching it unfold. It was in the spring and our first-grade classes were dismissed at noon for Roundup Day – an afternoon for next year’s first graders to come register for school. I did not know what I was supposed to do to get home. The usual routine, walking home with my older sister or Mama picking us up, was not possible. My sister was still in class, and Mama was not there. I became a small speck on the yellow brick wall.

Someone found me and my teacher just hugged me. Surely, she said some things, but the scene I watch is silent. She took me back to the classroom, brought me a lunch tray, and let me show the rising first-graders around when they began to arrive. When Mama came to pick us up, my teacher told her what had happened. Again, from above I watch as Mama gives me a finger jabbing “tongue lashing” right there in the school breezeway in front of my sister, my teacher, and anyone else that was passing by. Mama grabbed my arm and walked-dragged me to the car continuing the scolding, finally with sound, “You should have known. . .” I still have no idea what I should have known.

As the current shame and fear storm has punched the “play” button on this memory, perhaps for the first time ever, I have connected viscerally, with the fear and shame felt as a child so long ago. Even though I lived in the shadows of those feelings for decades, it is painful to imagine the impact of these feelings on that little soul.

Now for the bumpy, but doable, ride flying out of the storm. I am human. I am enough. I make mistakes. I can and will own my mistakes. Mistakes do not define who I am. I am not a mistake.  

PORCH MUSINGS

It’s morning on the bayou. The porch is cool and pleasant even though the temperature is already 79 degrees at 8 A.M. I suspect the “cool” is attributed to the fans. Fans on the bayou in late Spring serve two purposes – cooling and mosquito repellant!

There is, however, a bit of a breeze this morning. I hear it and see it as the leaves rustle, and the otherwise glassy bayou surface occasionally convulses and shutters. The bayou is up, filled with murky water from the recent rains and runoff, and flowing at a good clip. The spring rains came late and lasted longer this year – through May and into June. I spent several hours yesterday mowing. I have enjoyed mowing since I was a kid. For me, repeatedly making the square, focusing on the line between mown and not-mown grass is calming – almost sedating. I must say it is a bit easier now with the riding lawn tractor than it was back then with the simple, little 22-inch push mower. I see images of myself bent at the hip, focused, and determined to move the mower forward. 

On the Porch!

The receding water level has left areas, usually dust dry, soggy and squishy – ideal for getting stuck. I am extra cautious remembering last year when I got “too close,” and the lawn tractor slipped leaving me stranded on the muddy bayou bank. The 4Runner and a long, heavy chain saved the day.

When I first came out this morning the birds were in full flight and voice darting here and there to a cacophony of birdsong – tweets, warbles, chirps, screeches, and caws. Not so much now! Perhaps the wind has stilled their flight and voices – yielding to a higher power. Yielding to a higher power – that seems to be easier here on the bayou while immersed in silence, solitude, and the ordained simple, exhausting tasks of “chopping wood and carrying water,” which is according to Brother Lawrence in Practicing the Presence of God, finding God, the Holy, in the ordinary tasks of our days.

I am often drawn to the “monkish” life feeling immense contentment, peace, and joy in silence, solitude, and simple work while observing the awe and wonder of the beauty, complexity, simplicity, and horror of our natural world. I have sometimes felt the “monkish” life” to be a calling. Yet I question – calling or escape? I suppose there is a balance to be had.

Being here on the bayou, this “monkish” life, feels like a return to all that is true and real in life – me, the presence of God, work, and rest. Wow!  Where did that come from? Though drawn to the silence and solitude, I know that even as an introvert I am a social being. I enjoy personal interaction with others just not a whole lot of folks at one time and not all the time. 

In the natural setting of the bayou, it is not difficult to discern, feel, and commune with God – to practice His presence. But out there in the world, it is not as easy. I get caught up in the activity, the business, the people. In practicing the presence of God in the world I seek to experience a greater awareness of God’s presence in people, all people – created in His image – as I live, work, and rest with and among them.

That’s me, and perhaps humankind as well – a paradox, a jumble of contradictory qualities and traits. I suppose living with and within my contradictions while seeking a sustainable, functional balance that allows me to grow and mature into all I am and was created to be is the stuff of life and the spiritual journey. Whether on the bayou or in the world may I live in the realm of all that is true and real for me: me, the presence of God, work, and rest.

These words from Thomas Merton”s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, some of my reading on the porch, seem to be germane to my musings:

Solitude has its own special work: a deepening of awareness that the world needs. A struggle against alienation. True solitude is deeply aware of the world’s needs. It does not hold the world at arm’s length.

—-Thomas Merton

Questions and Questioning: The Lord’s Prayer?

I have read, memorized, and recited Matthew 6: 9 – 13, “The Lord’s Prayer” since I was a kid in Vacation Bible School and never questioned its content, context, or origins. I can still recite it, but no longer can I say that I do not have questions.

The questions started a couple of years ago, but until now I have only mulled over, sat on, and questioned my questioning. Since I can’t seem to stop chewing on the questions, I suppose it’s time to spit them out!

The first question surfaced around the phrase “. . . lead us not into temptation. . .” What? If we are asking God to NOT lead us into temptation, are we to logically conclude that God would indeed lead us into temptation?  There is something unsettling about imagining a father, heavenly or otherwise, who would lead his children into temptation.  

That leads to the second and third questions regarding the phrase “Our Father in heaven…” “Our Father. . .” – what about the feminine, our Mother God? Have we forgotten Genesis 11:27 and being told that God created them, male and female, “in his own image?”  I interpret that as God being equally male and female. Remember Deuteronomy 32:18, “you forgot the God who gave you birth” – mothers give birth. What about Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” It seems to me that God is as much feminine as masculine! We’ve missed Her way too long, and in my opinion, we have suffered for it.

Moving on!  What’s with “in heaven”? God isn’t just out there somewhere way over yonder! God is right here among us. Whether I ascend to heaven, make my bed in Sheol, or paddle around in the uttermost parts of the sea, God is present (Psalm 139: 7-10). Christ admonishes the Pharisees to “Behold” — pay attention for this is important — and then informs them that the kingdom of God is in their midst (Luke 17: 21). I would assume then that God is in our midst for surely God inhabits her kingdom.

As I have chewed on these questions, my prayer to my Lord has evolved:

Father God, Mother God,
In the heavens and on earth among us,
Hallowed – holy, sacred, majestic – is your name.
May your kingdom in heaven and on earth be nurtured and flourish 
As we seek to know and do your will.
Give us this day our daily bread,
As we give gratitude and praise for your provision and sustenance.
We ask forgiveness for our sins,
Things done and things not done,
Words spoken and words not spoken.
Through the grace of your forgiveness,
May we forgive those who have sinned against us
Guide us in your will and righteous ways.
Guard us from temptation.
Deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Yes, I know there is a lot of stuff – opinion, interpretation, research – out there regarding “The Lord’s Prayer” and its content, context, and origins. All of which is probably interesting and thought provoking! I’ve read a good bit of it. However, for my purposes in this writing, it is irrelevant. Mine is not a scholarly discourse, I write simply expressing my knowing as I continue my journey as a pilgrim, seeker, heretic.

Guns — A Terrible Thing Happened!

The Smith County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a shooting incident at Starrville Methodist Church.
.ZAK WELLERMAN/TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH

           Pastor Mark McWilliams (no relation to me) was shot and killed in his home church, Starrville Methodist Church, last Sunday morning. Starrville is a small, rural community approximately 15 miles northeast of Tyler in Smith County, TX.

            Upon entering the church and preparing for the morning services, McWilliams, his wife and another church member opened the bathroom door and found a young man hiding and holding the church bank bag. According to authorities, the young man had been the focus of an unsuccessful police pursuit and man hunt the previous night.

            According to the arrest affidavit, upon finding the intruder in the bathroom, McWilliams, who was armed, started telling him to leave and pulled out his handgun. The intruder lunged at McWilliams, and a struggle ensued in which the intruder seized the gun and shot McWilliams. He also shot at Mrs. McWilliams and a third man who was approaching the church after hearing the gunshots. She was not hit, but the third man was shot. The intruder fled the scene in a truck belonging to one of the victims. He was caught later in the day by Harrison County deputies and returned to Smith County where he was treated for a minor injury and booked into the county jail on numerous charges including capital murder.

            When I first heard about the shooting, I was shocked that something of this nature could happen so close to home and in the sleepy little community of Starrville. I began my teaching career 50 years ago in Winona just up the road from Starrville. Many of my students had lived in Starrville. I was saddened by the pastor’s death and the loss for his family, the church family, and the community. I felt sorrow for the intruder, undoubtedly a troubled young man. Yes, a terrible thing happened! 

            As I considered the incident more, my thoughts began to dwell on the gun. If there had been no gun at the scene, there is a very good probability that the pastor would still be alive, the third man would not have been shot, and a young man would not be facing a capital murder charge. Granted, it was not a good situation, the young man had committed a crime for which there would be consequences, but the presence of a gun compounded the danger and contributed to a tragedy for all involved.

            I can remember a time in the not-too-distant past when carrying a gun was an oddity, an exception to the accepted norm. Carrying a gun to church while worshiping the Prince of Peace was never considered a possibility! Today, our society seems to be enamored with guns – concealed carry, open carry, shooting ranges, and long guns slung over shoulders while walking down the street. Yes, such a tragedy!

             I just wonder what might have happened if the pastor had approached this troubled young man as the Prince of Peace, the Christ of turn the other cheek  — in peace, with grace, love, and compassionate confrontation.  Maybe something we all might want to think about as we keep all involved in this terrible thing in our prayers.

We are Breaking or Broke! Why?


UnknownIn my recent reading of My Beloved World, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, I halted at this statement:

Was it so hard to see himself in the other man’s shoes? I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down:  people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view.


61BP89uLAbL._SX380_BO1,204,203,200_As an elementary school counselor, I read How Do I Stand in Your Shoes to my third-grade students. I introduced the story by presenting the children with an assortment of shoes and allowing them to speculate on who might wear each shoe and what their life might be like. The room always filled with “Oooh’s” and “Wow’s” when I pulled out my uncle’s size 16 house shoes. The lesson was not about shoes, but about empathy and how we can learn to put ourselves in another’s shoes and try to understand and feel how they are feeling in any given circumstance. Sotomayor had her revelation in 1969. I was teaching my third graders in 2001-2010.Unknown-2

      It is 2020, and Sotomayor was correct in her understanding of 51 years ago. Our society seems to be breaking down, if not already broke. Why? We don’t seem to be able to, or refuse to, empathize – to imagine someone else’s point of view and understand their feelings as if they were our own. If we can’t empathize with someone, then we can’t feel or even identify with how they might be feeling.  The “Golden Rule” – we are to treat others the way we would want to be treated – is often asserted as the guide for our actions toward others. But if we can’t put ourselves in the other person’s situation and feel what he/she might be feeling then how can we be expected to discern how we would want to be treated in that situation and act accordingly.

    getty_614212068_370098 Without empathy, we have lost our guide in making just and compassionate choices in our behavior. Without empathy, we become susceptible to indifference, apathy, and lack of concern for others’ well-being. Without empathy, the spark that informs our humanity is snuffed out.  Without empathy the bridges needed to traverse the chasms of race, culture, religion, and nationality for the enhancement of our greater good are absent – simply not there. Our sense of community is based on empathy, and without empathy our communities crumble. Our communities are the foundation of our nation.

      Even a cursory glance at today’s news headlines – our racial and cultural divisions, our divisive political atmosphere, our petty bickering over issues that should not be argued – illustrate how we, as a society and nation, are breaking or broke. Granted, there is the occasional oasis – oasis whose foundation is empathy – imagining the other person’s point of view and understanding how they are feeling. We have seen teenagers organizing food deliveries for seniors, a 12-year old play his trumpet for weary medical workers, nurses volunteering to serve in Covid hotspots, and moms and grandmothers joining peaceful Black Lives Matters protest. 

      This gives me hope! Hope that these and others of us showing empathy, modeling empathy for others, and nurturing empathy in others will be the incubators for more empathy among us all and the glue that holds our beloved world — breaking or broke — back together.

  

What We Reveal When Wearing a Face Covering, or Not!

      As our nation struggles to manage, mitigate, and survive the initial outbreak and the current devasting spike in COVID-19 cases, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place. We are at the “bottom of the heap” globally due to our leading the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. In the midst of this public health crisis we seem to have lost our focus on who we are, or proclaim to be, as a people and a nation. We are floundering, failing, and flailing at one another! We have allowed our ideological idiosyncrasies – be they political, economic, religious, cultural, or racial – to overshadow our moral judgement and truths which our founding forebearers espoused to be “self-evident.” This is no more evident than in the current bickering, backbiting, and bad behavior associated with the face covering issue.5e7cded7ba85ee690669c204

       It would appear that the science and medical advice purports the benefits of wearing a face covering in lessening the spread of the virus, and thus, “flattening the curve” – a vital step in re-opening our economy and returning our social/community life to some semblance of a “new normal.” So why has wearing a face covering, or not, become such a flashpoint for debate, argument, and even violence. The face covering issue has become politicized. Perhaps this is subsequent to our President and his supporters refusing, against all medical advice, to wear one. Regrettably, and shamefully, the face covering has become one more wedge in our abhorrent practice of divisive politics.

     

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 Also, those opposed to wearing face mask often justify their position claiming rights of liberty and freedom. I get that! We Americans are a gritty lot, forever exalting our independence and railing against any intrusion or interruption thereof. But lest we forget, there are limits to our liberty. In his 1859 essay “On Liberty” John Stuart Mill defined liberty as “the limits that must be set on society’s power over individuals.” That’s good! Likewise, Mill also reminds us that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

     So, given the science and the medical advice, is it reasonable to infer that our government entities issuing orders to wear face coverings are well within the bounds of their responsibility to “prevent harm to others.” With this being the case, the refusal of some of our law enforcement agencies to enforce the face covering and penalty order would seem to be in direct opposition to their duty to uphold the rule of law and protect the citizenry from harm. What does it reveal about our society when individuals refuse to obey a lawful order, and when our law enforcement refuses to enforce that order? A governor’s executive order, though not a duly legislated statute, does carry the weight of law. Does a blatant disregard for the law border on anarchy?

     Putting political, liberty, and law questions aside, what is the bottom line to be considered when we are making the decision to wear, or not wear, a face covering in this time of global pandemic and monumental surges in the number of COVID-19 cases. Let’s remember the words and concepts found in our Declaration of Independence. Counted among our Creator endowed “unalienable Rights” are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Let’s not get hung up on liberty and happiness because, frankly, neither are viable options without life. Imagine rounding second and third base, heading for home plate, anticipating a homerun, but failing to tag first base! Again, science and the best medical knowledge available to us indicates that in our current situation wearing a face covering is fundamental to lessening the risk of spreading the virus.

     In wearing a face covering, we are choosing life – ours and our neighbors. In doing so we are practicing our belief in the self-evident truth that life is an unalienable right for all man(kind). In choosing to wear a face covering, or not, we are revealing a basic personal truth, not about politics, liberty, or the law but about the value, respect, and regard we have for life – all lives.  Our truth is written all over our face — covered or not!

 

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