Blessed Subtraction

The single most important shift in the second half of my life is that I have become a person of subtraction. The earlier years were all about addition, the having of children, the gaining of education, the gathering of possessions.

In terms of religion and spirituality, my focus was on learning more stuff, building a theology, a comprehensible view of the world, full of plausible explanations of reality that, hopefully, enabled me to stand in front of numerous congregations over the years and interpret the great questions of life.

The second half is about letting go. My children are in their thirties. The house has been sold. Nothing feels better than getting rid of some unnecessary thing, the dust-gathering figurine, the book I’ll never read again.

At the risk of horrifying some of my colleagues, the attic of my theology is likewise in a state of subtraction. The older I get the less I know, and the happier I am about it.  Obscure biblical points have become irrelevant to me. Questions that used to occupy my attention, and perhaps send me scrambling through dozens of reference volumes, lexicons, and commentaries, will now elicit a single comment, “Nobody knows! And isn’t this a beautiful day? Have you seen that beautiful heron over there?”

Ideas of church and ministry are likewise falling by the wayside in favor of only the most vitally important.  I don’t know exactly what Jesus said, but if I’m getting the gist of it, we probably should analyze it less and practice it more. It’s not so complicated Just do it. Ask questions later.

There is no doubt that we’re living in troubled times–times that call forth from us new ways of being in the world, times that necessitate the casting off of ballast, of parting with things that no longer serve us, and of focusing on that which is most important: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.

When we have finished the subtractions, that is pretty much it.

David Starbuck Gregory

 

Something In the Water

Something happens to me when I am near the water, something really good–emotionally, energetically, spiritually.

I recently read that my heart and brain tissues are 73 percent water, so I suppose it should come as no surprise that walking on the beach, floating in the swimming pool, or gazing at the bay vistas off our porch bring me a sense of calm that I cannot seem to find anywhere else. It also explains why the places we have lived have tended to bring us into close proximity with water–the Hudson River, the East River, Esopus Creek, and now the Bay, not to mention the Pacific.

Staying centered and calm is my current salvation in a world that tends to frighten me. Our national leaders have turned away from our long and loving relationship with democracy to pursue an illicit love affair with hard authoritarianism. They have turned their backs on the very friends and allies with whom we partnered to destroy fascism–or so we thought.  Oligarchy has become fashionable. Cruelty has become desirable. Human decency has become a sign of weakness, and truth must now surrender to a world of “alternative facts,” or so it seems.

This dystopia is not the world I grew up in. It is not a world I  thought I’d live to see. It is certainly not the one I intend to leave for my grandchildren.

A couple of days ago, I viewed the documentary film about the life of Fred Rogers, the gentle but quirky minister to whom we fully entrusted our children several hours each week . . . back in the day.  I found myself weeping through the entire movie. There were times I feared I would audibly gasp and sob, and I was particularly grateful to be in a theater that offered pinot noir with my popcorn. It got me through, but the film left me feeling a bit hopeless, grieving the loss of the world I thought I knew and marveling at its obvious contrast with the world that is.

That same day, I had stood in front of my congregation and asked them, “What are we going to do?”  My text was from the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the answer I gave them was that we are going to do the loving thing that is in front of us each day, one benevolent action at a time, doing the neighborly thing every single time we have the opportunity.

It has been said that if you take enough baby steps in a row without giving up, you can eventually climb Mt. Everest.  I look at our current Mount Everest and wonder how we’ll ever get to the top, but the answer is one step at a time.

Maybe I’ll start on the beach, just to calm my soul.

Back to Center

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It had been thirty-six years since I packed things up and moved across the country. With my then-wife and toddler son, I made the trek from Denver to Chicago in a ’79 Chevette, to begin a journey I can only now begin to comprehend. Life has taken me in and out of vocational ministry, back in again, then yet again, in new ways and times and places.

Last month my now-husband and I came from New York to begin an entirely new life in the San Francisco Bay area, and again it is something we do not yet fully understand. It reminds me of when Abram and Sarai were prompted to get up from where they were and go to a destination they did not know, a later-in-life transition that was quite unexpected.

Major life changes are easier when you are 25.  Youthful innocence and idealism can be energizing, and when coupled with the physical resilience of post-adolescence, embarking on something new can be downright fun.

But for two sexagenarians, it took a call from the very gates of heaven to be certain that this was the right thing to do. I don’t think it’s ever too late to hear and answer that call, but the performance of it is not for the faint of heart. When the Reverend Mother called upon Maria to “climb every mountain,” she didn’t say it would be easy. But then again it was all about the dream, wasn’t it? The vision of a new co-creation is its own fuel, and when Spirit begins to flow, you just get in it and go. Ask questions later.

We’ve truly found our dream here. A year ago, we began to ask, “What is a life we would love living?”  We’re living it. Being part of a contemplative spiritual community, drawing on a bank of shared wisdom, serving alongside people who care deeply for one another, for society’s most vulnerable, and for an even more vulnerable earth–this is our dream.

It doesn’t hurt at all that we wake up every morning with our beautiful bay views and say, “Look at where we live!”

So, now, we are here. Present in this place and time. Returning to our center. Digging a deeper well in a new place, drawing from the same stream of Spirit and consciousness that we found on the east coast. Going deeper sometimes means going farther. Wow! This is great!

David Starbuck Gregory

Divine Intention

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The turning of a new year is by definition a pivotal moment, the launchpad for detox diets and gym memberships, the reining-in of holiday excesses. A clean slate. A fresh start. The turning over of a new leaf. Such is the DNA of what we call “resolution.”

Resolution involves willpower, and if there’s one thing we can say about willpower, it is a limited resource. By February 1, most of us have returned to the same patterns that keep us locked in the lives we’ve been living. As bearers of Divine Image, we have the innate desire to create something new, but there is an energy of homeostasis, a comfort with what is known, that keeps us from the edge of what is unknown.

In this realm of the known, we have often spoken in creeds and formulas that we are “created in God’s image.” The problem with creeds and formulas is that we so rarely believe what is contained in them, let alone experience them as humans. Case in point:  if we really bear Divine Image, then in concert with Divine Spirit, we are also creators. What is it then that we are going to create? 

The deeper stream of “resolution” is to be found in clear, creative intention, supported by the unlimited fuel of gratitude. If you can spend some moments seeing yourself one year forward, and then express those things for which you are profoundly grateful, you will have created something that is far different–far better–than what you would have thought possible.

The default method for moving into the new year is to “take it as it comes,” to “see where it goes,” or worse yet, to let the toxic waste of the news cycle wash over you day after day. We must create something far better than that, a just and peaceful world, one that is characterized by love for one another and a commitment to the common good.

This will not happen until our inner world is at peace, until we have surrendered our willpower to Divine Intention. Take a moment today and just breathe. Listen to a better voice. Release the desire to take in useless information. Resist the manipulators of public discourse.  Find the still small voice within you and stay in its presence for as long as you possibly can.

And then, in the power of gratitude, create the new year that is worthy of your time, your efforts, and your energy. All of humanity needs your best self to be fully centered, utterly present, and completely engaged with what is true and beautiful and filled with grace.

David Starbuck Gregory

 

Light and Shadow

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There is no shadow without light, nor is there light without shadow.  The existence of one requires the existence of the other.

The land we live in, the place we call home, has been transformed into a noisy caricature of itself, devolving into a shouting match between people who are always right and never wrong.  If the world would only listen, we could provide a path where there is only light, and never any darkness.

We’re on a mission to enlighten, to cajole, to persuade, to win over the skeptics, and in the process we hope to make the world a better place.  Compromise is a sign of weakness.  Compassion is for sissies. Creative solutions are irrelevant. We only want our own way, and we want it at the expense of all others, because we know we are right.

The problem is that we are made of light and shadow.  In the arena of incessant argument, we have forgotten that we have no corner on truth, no claim to absolute and pristine righteousness, that our very humanness needs its shadow in order to be.  To be holy is not to be perfect, it is rather to be real.

It has been said that the greatest indicator of spiritual maturity is the ability to observe oneself without judgment.  The light in our own souls is beautiful and life giving, but so is our darkness. Plants require sunlight in order to grow, but they also need the night, which is as  sacred and necessary as the light of a brand new day.

The evil and violence that plagues us does not come from outside ourselves, but rather from our unexamined lives, our inability to admit our faults, and our unwillingness to make allowances for the imperfections of others.

As we breathe our way into the present moment, seeing ego for what it is–both darkness and light–control turns to surrender, war turns to peace, and hatred turns to love.  This is how contemplative life will transform the world.

No Sense of Time

IMG_8902I snapped an image of these lilies on our front lawn five or six weeks ago. As perennials go, they are vociferous. It’s a yearly effort that keeps them from taking over the garden, and each time I see new ones sprouting, I dig them up and move them out to the creekside, where I can more fully welcome their invasion. Some plants require a lot of work to get them to grow.  Others call for clear resolve and skills of management. Evolutionarily, perhaps I was meant for the jungle, but I can’t seem to go there quietly.

Why not just mow everything down and be done with it? The answer to that question is found in the absolute glory that happens every year in mid-summer, the three weeks of profuse color that I cannot take my eyes off of.  It’s worth the effort. I love them infinitely more than a grassy lawn.  Now they are gone for another year, replaced for a time by the cone-flowers and black-eyed susans.

My father always said that the older you get, the faster the time goes. My theory is that for every year you live, that year becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of your overall life.  And if time were merely linear, it could get pretty depressing, a nihilistic affirmation of “life’s a bitch and then you die.”

But the idea of “time” is much more layered than that.  Within all of the world’s great traditions one finds a place, whether through prayer, meditation, or mindfulness, where one moves beyond time and space to touch Spirit, universal consciousness, divine intelligence, God, or whatever you wish to call it.  If I can make a daily prayer practice that moves me to a place where there is no time, I can come back to the world of clocks and calendars with a much less anxious presence around my lily patch, for example.

For too many centuries my own tradition has been drowning in a sea of materialism, thinking that what we see is what we get, all at the hands of a deity who lives in a far-off heaven.  But once we master the idea of incarnation, God With Us, we begin a co-creative process that changes the way we view the world.  It enables us to see that tyrants rule only for a season, that, as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It may not seem like it when you read the news, but it is true, nonetheless.

 

Reflections

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I keep thinking I will catch my breath, that someone will push a pause button so I can bring some meaning to the present moment. I struggle for the equilibrium to form a coherent thought, and just when I think I have found it, the constant bad news finds me where I am and screams the latest outrage, added to the forty-five or so outrages that have already occurred. And that’s just this week.

It took Tina Fey, stuffing herself with a sheet cake topped with a grilled cheese sandwich, to give me the moment I was looking for. A video of her appearance on SNL’s Weekend Update was as close as I’ve come to making sense of all the craziness.  The cake was there to provide a disarming comedy routine while she delivered a rapid-fire, deadly serious indictment of the absurdity that has become the executive branch of our government. She stepped into the moral vacuum and demanded a level of morality and decency that we used to take for granted in our elected officials, to which I can only say, “What she said.”

Tomorrow will mark one week since the death of a young woman who was merely standing in solidarity with her values. It wasn’t about the statues, though I have my own opinions about revering those who took up arms against the United States of America, and find it reprehensible that those images could be equivocated with the 9/11 memorial as “part of our history.” Yes, these statues are part of our history, so build a museum and charge admission. Nothing about what happened in Charlottesville was about the statues. It was about hate, and the culmination of all the dog-whistling that started two years ago at a building on Fifth Avenue.

A woman’s life has been lost. Lost to the world. Lost to all of us. I might never have known her name, known what she stood for, or admired her fortitude, had it not been for her unlikely martyrdom. But now she lives in my heart, and her face reminds me of many other people that I know, who I fear might be at the next demonstration or show up in Phoenix to protest the next proposed presidential pep-rally.

God in your mercy, hear our prayer, let this madness end somehow. Bring us to a place of collective repentance (archaic term for a change of trajectory), and let the solar eclipse (the new moon on steroids) mark a shift so dramatic, so stark, so completely transformative, that we look back on this and find wisdom for another day, one in which we guard and fuel the true ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Let’s all find a deeper stream.