Smartphones in the Sanctuary

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I took this photo on a blustery afternoon a few years back.  This is the roofline of the chapel at Linwood Spiritual Center, home to the Sisters of St. Ursula, and an important place of meditation and learning in my life. Taken in the waning days of autumn just before the inevitable slide into a cold winter, the stark nature of the cross against a gray sky speaks graphically to me of the existential challenge facing religious institutions, in my case, those of the Protestant mainline, and specifically, the United Church of Christ, which is my spiritual home.

Contemplative life has a built-in appeal to those who characterize themselves as spiritual, be they religious or not. The language of meditative practice is spoken across a wide spectrum of spirituality, and is probably the most organic form of ecumenism that exists. What we have not been able to do institutionally, we often do experientially when people from all walks of life get in a room and get silent. We may have different language to describe where we are, but when we practice together we can recognize that it is taking us to the very same place, and this alone exceeds the spiritual power of any institution.

So, of what value are those institutions and traditions that we still embrace? Does going to church on a Sunday morning have any connection with the consciousness we experience in a group of meditators? Have we been fooling ourselves all these years by doubting that people really do find God on the golf course, on a hike, or in private prayer vs. participating in a weekly worship service?

These questions might be more simply put, “Why go to church at all?”

My own answer has to do with the power of community, the quantum energy found in sheer collaboration. But this is where the social media platforms have outdone us, providing instantly what used to take a lifetime in institutional process. We speak often of the need connect our churches with the missing “millenials” only to wring our hands in defeat because our communities can’t compete in such a marketplace. Many studies show what we already know intuitively, that young people aren’t looking for something else to join, but they are looking for community. They may not share their grandparents’ religious brand-loyalty, but they do respond to the causes that they care about. They are more comfy in their smartphones which take them anywhere they wish to go, than in the sanctuaries which seem cold, distant, and worst of all, boring.

Most young people care very little about what we believe. They just want to know what we’re going to do about the things that matter to them, like economic justice, homophobia, the rights of immigrants, or the sullied and sickened earth that we are handing them. What are we going to do about the refugee crisis, about the rights of women and minorities that are under constant attack? Are we going to get busy and help them create a new world, or just kick the problems down the road and hope they come up with something when their time comes?

And what if we made this THEIR time? What if instead of handing them the future, we let them bring us into the present moment? What if we invited the smartphones to church and let them have their way with us, tweeting furiously for all the world to see?  It might radically alter what we do inside and outside the walls of our aging structures, and that wouldn’t be so bad after all.

There is always that uncomfortable moment when the kids must be allowed to drive the car. For awhile it’s hard to let go of that imaginary brake pedal in the passenger seat, but once we do, it can be a pretty nice ride.

 

The Gifts of Evil

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The whole of life includes both light and shadow, much like this path in Fort Tryon, experienced on summer’s most beautiful morn. The light calls us forward, calls us higher, transforms us into everything we are created to be, but not without first moving through some shadows.

Recently, we watched the new documentary that Princes William and Harry have made in honor of their mother, marking 20 years since her death.  Through their losses, these young men embody an intense humanness, an authenticity that forms a beam of light into the darkness of our current circumstances.

This, on the same day that the new communications director from the White House let loose a public stream of profanity, an orgy of passive aggression, toward the chief of staff. The contrast could not have been greater in my own psyche, the words of young, noble humanitarians vs. the ego driven hate speech from a former hedge fund manager who is far, far outside of his league.

The brighter the light, the more intense the shadows become.  The deeper the darkness, the brighter is the light when it appears.

My soul is groaning these days over many things, but chief among them is the presence of unchecked evil in the world, the corporate greed, the callous disregard for the basic needs of human beings, the rampant bullying that goes on in the name of government, the kind I have not experienced this fully since third grade. My groan says it this way, “HOW LONG MUST WE DO THIS?”

It is not altruistic to take comfort in ancient words from time to time, and what comes to mind is the Genesis story of Joseph, having been sold into slavery by his vengeful brothers, and years later elevated to a prominent and powerful position that would enable him to in turn save their very lives.  In a scene of deep emotion, once the brothers were aware of the truth, he says simply this, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”

The evil we see in the world today is indeed evil, but we need not be at it’s effect. It hurts; it stinks to high heaven; it makes me feel ill. But try as it might, it only intensifies the brightness of the light, which is the true gift of evil itself.

Higher, Brighter

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There’s just something about a rainbow, isn’t there? I have been known to park my car just so I can stare at one, perhaps photograph it, or just drink in the hopeful energy it seems to represent. The storm feels threatening, flashes of lightning and startling claps of thunder, driving winds and rain, and then . . . a strange and sudden glow in the sky.  It doesn’t appear every time, but when it does, it brings me peace.

Every life has its share of storms, those circumstances that are noisy, threatening, and anxiety-producing. And then comes that beautiful moment, when you can feel the universe at your back, when you get up from a time of meditation as a different person than the one who sat down. It’s when you have approached the field of all possibilities, and have clearly chosen a new one, a new trajectory, a different outcome. There is a calm that reaches into your soul that is like an array of colors arching in front of you beckoning you to a whole new life, one that you love more than anything.

I took this photo a few weeks back at a time when I was mourning the loss of a long-time pet. It was a hot summer afternoon in the Hudson Valley, the kind that easily kicks up a violent storm, and after racing around the house to shut all the windows, the storm passed almost as quickly as it began. Then came that soft glow that summoned me to end of the front porch, toward the sycamore tree which, for now, was against a backdrop of vibrant color. At that moment, I was swallowed up by my own gratitude, the kind of thankfulness that chokes out all the fear, and rearranges my soul just when I need it the most.

Every day has a storm. Every day has its rainbow if we look for it, the moment that lifts our energy to better frequencies, higher, brighter, and far more beautiful.

It is not to be missed.

David

At the Moment

IMG_9043I have said it many times, in conversations, in sermons, and in writings: I cannot change the past.  I cannot control the future.  The only place to effect change is in the present.

Hence, the point of meditation, to bring us deeply into the present moment, to breathe, to notice, to notice what we notice, and if we are persistent in observing ourselves without judgment, we find those exquisite places where the reprogramming takes place.

The great bulk of what we do on a daily basis is done without conscious thought, and is therefore based on the subconscious, which contains all those unspoken habits that showed up in our early lives. Our present reality isn’t determined so much genetically as it is by the ways our parents, grandparents, and siblings affected our “hard drive” in the first months of life. And much of that was done by them without consciousness as well, since they were programmed by their own experiences and those of previous generations. Apples fall, of course, right beneath the tree.

Evolving consciousness, also known as spiritual depth or even spiritual growth, comes when we make the unconscious conscious, then consciously choose something different. It is the practice of co-creation, beginning with meditation and mindfulness, moving into what we might call prayer. This kind of prayer might consist of words or sentences, a mantra to be repeated, or just an attention to the breath.  It is this state of awareness that sows the seeds of new life, new designs, and big changes for ourselves, for those around us, and for the world.

“I’m praying for you!” is the oft-repeated phrase which may at times just be a nice thing to say, but the deeper our practice of it, the greater the prospects for real and lasting change. This is the energy that moves mountains, and brings healing, or peace, or abundance. It is the fuel for true activism, the movement toward justice for humankind and for the earth. It is a language that belongs to all of us, regardless of tradition, religion, or background.

We cannot control the future, it is true, but we can create it. We can open wide the doors to allow all of the unexpected synchronicity of Spirit, and from the field of possibilities begin to choose things that are better than we ever imagined they could be.

The door to the future is the present moment. Enter early and often.

David

Stop and Sniff

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One of the great things about having a dog in New York is that you have to walk. A lot. Sometimes very slowly. Canines collect information by sniffing, and none of it happens on anyone’s schedule. When we are “onto something,” it is a singular focus, and if it doesn’t involve a subway grate, a pile of poop on the sidewalk, or a half eaten meal under a park bench, we ARE going to follow where it leads.

This picture is of a garden just inside the entrance of Ft. Tryon Park, across from our apartment in northern Manhattan, and it’s the first thing we see every time we enter. The trails in this park are hilly and we eventually climb to the far side of the Cloisters Museum where there are magnificent vistas of the Hudson River, the palisades, and the George Washington Bridge. Violet and I have a couple of cherished meditation spots up there. By the time we arrive she is ready to relax, having discovered all the smells that exist in her quantum field.

And then it’s my turn. On our bench, I get to do my own “sniffing.” Can I call it prayer? Yes, I think so. Is it reflection? Definitely. Meditative, mindful? Yes! I have waited for to complete her practices, and when we get there, she allows me mine.  She’ll stay as long as I want, and I often do.

My sense in this place is that I am in the world but not always of it. I hear the sounds of traffic below, horns honking, tires screeching. I can watch and hear the barges heading down the river, helicopters zipping past, or the airliners preparing to land at LaGuardia. But I might as well be at Walden Pond, for though I am aware of what is going on around me, I am not necessarily connected to it. I am in the field of all possibilities, much like when I spent millions of lazy hours in an old rope swing that hung from the Buckeye tree in the Ohio of my childhood.

Everything was possible then. Everything is possible now.  For you, as well!

David

Resist or Not?

The cultural byword of our current era is “resistance.” It greets us in social media, on t-shirts, and on bumper stickers. It is uttered by pundits, social activists, and preachers. “Resist! Persist!” has become the rallying cry for a new movement which possesses a passion once reserved for the “We Shall Overcome!” days of the 1960s.

Mystics, contemplatives, and people of prayer from every faith tradition and non-tradition may struggle in times like these to maintain a sense of peace and equilibrium. Anger easily becomes the fuel for action. Tensions rise and passions flare as our societal polarities move beyond the extreme fringes, creating the kind of civil unrest not seen since the 1860s and the 1960s. But as noted by Martin Luther King, hate-filled resistance will eat you alive. It turns you into the very people you are trying to resist, quickly depleting its own energy, unlike the power of love and non-violent forms of resistance which bring a momentum that is at times unstoppable.

My own tradition teaches me, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” To be honest, those words bring me little comfort at the moment. My impulse swings widely like a pendulum from screaming and jumping up and down to crawling under the covers and waiting for the storm to pass. It depends upon my energy level and the mood of any given day, and I have concluded that I cannot live successfully at the effect of either of those things. Something’s got to give or I will soon be melting down.

Someone very wise in my life said to me the other day that the strongest form of resistance is in refusing to engage the evil in the first place. I have thought about that a great deal, especially as it relates to the idea of turning the other cheek. Turning the other cheek isn’t really about rolling over and playing dead. I think it is about deflating the power of evil by not rising to meet its energy. It’s about letting a tweet go by. It’s about deleting an inflammatory post that only cements the polarizations that are killing us. It’s about plugging ourselves into Source and staying there long enough to arrange our priorities in such a way that we aren’t wasting precious time, words, and power being hateful. 

Entirely new generations of people who may be less aware of Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Theresa, and people like them, will need for us to demonstrate the powerful center that these giants have emulated. We must emulate the emulators. We must “be the change we wish to see in the world.” We must take the bullies on the playground or the ones in cyberspace or other places of power, and consider that their ideas, their bluster, their half-truths, and even their lies, are irrelevant to our vision of the the world.

A tweet is equally empowered by its audience, regardless of the viewpoints of that audience. Perhaps the best response is to choke their fuel by giving it as little attention as possible. Having made that decision, then, we can move toward the persistence of Spirit (insert your preferred term here). Resist. Persist. Together we can shift the momentum.  And so it is.  And so it shall be. 

Deeper, Farther

It is a different world than the one I knew a year ago, having shifted on its axis in a way that I do not fully comprehend, radically altering the energy around me. It might seem like a political change, but it is far more pervasive than that.  It did not happen on a single election night, though that was indeed the slap that woke me from my slumber. For months I’ve been wandering around with my coffee cup trying to figure out if this is real life or just a nasty hangover.

And in what amounts to a virtual bloody mary, I take to social media, goaded by incessant tweets emanating from the executive mansion. Before long I say, “Crap! I’ve let him lure me in again!” His addiction has become mine. Now I feel sullied, so I move my Facebook app to the very end of my iPhone and turn off it’s notifications so it’s harder to access.

But then there is an op-ed in the Times, and without blinking I share it as a post, adding my own piece of snark, building enough self-righteous steam to get me through the day. Later, I look for a positive quote or a picture of a seagull at sunrise, anything  to get me out of the dirty soup. Then I listen to the news and become locked into my own spiritual schizophrenia. Like the apostle of old, I do the thing I don’t want to do and the thing I want to do, I don’t do.

It appears, then, that I’ve gotten religious about my politics, institutionalizing my boundaries in order to satisfy myself. But a political agenda–not unlike a religious one–lures my spirit into a box where it cannot move, a predicament that does not serve me well, let alone the world I live in. 

There must be another deeper, better way, and I think I found it recently on the subway.  It was during rush hour when the train was full and nobody was getting off and everyone else was trying to get on. I was standing, holding a rail, seeing people I preferred not to be smushed into. Amid all the pushing and shoving I decided not to move. I wasn’t being nasty but I wasn’t overly polite either. With my feet firmly planted beneath me I consciously stood my ground, and lo and behold . . . people went around me. 

Then it occurred to me that there is no more powerful resistance than standing still, sitting down, or being quiet. I thought of people like Rosa Parks, John Lewis or Martin Luther King. Here I am, here I stand, and I’m not moving. Not only does it throw others off balance for a change, it protects you from living at the effect of other peoples’ energies.

Don’t get me wrong, I will be morally indignant over government-sponsored injustice every single day. I will continue to make snide political posts because I just can’t not. But if it pulls me off my center until I spin and fall, I’m good to no one, especially myself.

We ask ourselves in these times and places, what can I do to affect change? The answer is that there are a million things we can do, but there’s one thing we must do. History’s  greatest activism has come from lives deeply grounded in meditative practice. From deep within us comes the source of all energy, for we are energy.

We must go deeper before we can go farther.