Category Archives: religion and spirituality

Are We Just “Dust Bunnies” Here on Earth?

I like to tie together different pieces of literature together at times when the connection is very subtle at best.  Here is a collection of wisdom about the existential predicament of humankind, starting with the very creation of itself from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament:

Note here the relevance of the Shakespearean wisdom that I quote so often, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  The Psalmist recognized the sentiment of many men and women that life is as if some architect is spinning the web of life in which we are all caught up and, indeed, is spinning the web of our own individual life.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:14-16 King James Version (KJV)

Compare with this excerpt from the W. H. Auden poem, “In Sickness and In Health”:

What talent for the makeshift thought/a living corpus out of odds and ends ?/What pedagogic patience taught/Pre-occupied and savage elements/To dance into a segregated charm?/Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,/And gardened from the wilderness of space/The sensual properties of one dear face?

And then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, overwhelmed with existential angst, bemoaned his fate with the following:

… that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Here three literary greats, indeed one of them “Divinely” great, artfully put into words the mystery of how we came into being and asked the question, “What are we doing here?”  And take note of the “quintessence of dust” notion which brings to my mind the biblical admonition that we are but “dust of the earth,” an humble state to which we will return.  There is a sense in which we are but dust bunnies, bouncing about this lonely planet for a while.  However, therein lies our glory if we but have the courage to look beneath the surface of things, things which can appear grim on occasion.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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Hypocrisy as Performance Art

A few years ago I was a member of St. Paul’s Episcopalian church in Fayetteville, Arkansas and there had the most meaningful church experience in my life.  This church was very open minded and I found myself involved in a Sunday Morning class in which meditation was emphasized as well as reading books on the subject from a Christian and Eastern perspective.  And one morning each week there was a “Men’s Group” available for coffee, meditation, and discussion.  This was a very formal get-together without any of the perfunctory religiosity which I had always found to be an essential part of other churches I had been involved with.  On one of these Men’s Group meetings, a man that I became pretty close to casually observed that most of his Christian life had been that of “acting Christian” and then pointed out that the word “hypocrite” meant “actor.”  I knew this already, but I was ready to “know” this to a deeper level and realize just how my Christian faith had been an effort at performance art.  Even more so, my whole life had been a “performance” trying to win the approbation of others and ignoring my internal subjective experience.  My friend’s observation prompted a discussion on the subject, but none of the traditional Christian “weeping and gnashing of teeth” over something which might have been seen as a confession.  This was just a casual observation from the depths of this man’s heart in a setting which facilitated such disclosures.  The point I’m trying to make is that here a simple honesty was possible, a simple honesty that allowed human weakness and even duplicity, in some sense, to be put on the table.

Since that morning about five years ago, I have continued to explore my “hypocrisy” and done so with complete comfort, without any feelings of guilt or humiliation on that note.  For as a result of my experience in that church, I had learned to own my “human-ness” and realize that this is what God is actually after.  God does not want us to invest ourselves in “performance art” but in simply being human which means that from time to time we have recognize dimensions of our faith, and of the whole of our life, which we had not grasped before.  We have to open ourselves to disillusionment, to the owning of what the Apostle Paul called “the flesh.”.

But many expressions of the Christian faith, many of them in the evangelical fold, have no room for this gut-wrenching disillusionment and relentlessly stick to the “performance art” they learned by rote as a child.  They are mere “actors” which is what we all are but until they can accept that human limitation, they are missing a dimension of grace that their faith affords them.  They will continue with their rote performance which is not what Jesus had in mind.

But please note, I am not questioning the validity of their faith, for in the Christian tradition, Grace is bestowed upon us on the basis of what God has done in Christ and not in what we believe or do.  All of us are actors to some degree, i.e. “hypocrites,” for none of us are perfect.   But those who think they are perfect scare the hell out of me.  I know.  I used to be one and I was scary.  Shakespeare put it so eloquently, noting that we are “imperfect actors on the stage of life who with his/her fear is put besides his part” but then he insisted, “There is a divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized that our fear keeps us away from our authenticity but, “divinity” nevertheless is shaping our ends.

Listen to W. H. Auden on the subject:

Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it, and they can be divided not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.

The Ego and “Distinction Drawing”

Fr. Richard Rohr today offered observations about the ego which are relevant to my present focus on the “distinction drawing” that is an essential part of our identity.  He pointed out how the ego is concerned only about itself which is just a basic dimension of being human and only becomes toxic when it metastasizes and begins to project its shadow outside onto “them” and in extreme attempts to obliterate “them.”  The best example is Isis but the same phenomena is found with any extremist group.

Ordinary ego functioning is, yes, “egotistic” but it is usually benign and helps provide group/tribal coherence.  It provides an identity which always sets one apart from “them.”  I shared recently about my upbringing in a conservative Landmark Baptist Church and it does provide an example of an inordinate need to “draw distinctions” and thus overly emphasized the biblical admonishment, “Come out ye from among them and be ye separate” and “Be ye a peculiar people.”  I often facetiously note to friends that my little church clearly succeeded in this endeavor and, with chagrin, admit I won the prize for “peculiar”!  But let me assure you that in my little central Arkansas community these people were not toxic, were very good people, and did a great job in providing me the social and educational structure that would allow me to now be able to “discourse” about them.  Conservative groups, with non-toxic ego needs, are the backbone of any tribe and even of the entire world.

But when the toxicity metastasizes, we find phenomena like Isis and Westboro Baptist Church, the latter of which is a caricature of Baptist churches.  In these groups the “distinction drawer” has become so powerful due to repressed fears and anxieties from the reptilian brain that there is a need to strike out at somebody.  In a way they are so much under the grip of the unconsciousness that they are powerless which is how Rohr interprets Jesus’ dying words on the Cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus knew that those who hated him to the point of wanting to kill him merely were not conscious of what they were doing.

When distinction drawing becomes too rigid, when the need for boundaries becomes paramount, it always leads to an over emphasis of what sets the group apart rather seeking for common denominators with others. It is not accidental that one of the most appealing dimensions of Donald Trump is his promise to “Build that wall” to keep out the Mexicans.  And it is not often remembered now but not long after he started this emphasis one of his competitors went to the absurd extreme of proposing to build a wall between our country and Canada also!  Trump’s message appeals to frightened people who see their out dated certainties threatened.  The message of “building a wall” is a symbol that resonates with the need to “set boundaries” and keep change from happening, not recognizing that “change” is an essential dynamic of life and must be embraced rather than opposed.  Otherwise we would still be living in the Stone Age.

Thinking about Momma Nature

A Facebook friend just shared a paean to the tree by Herman Hesse which I will share here when I conclude.  Hesse so eloquently puts into words a passion I have had for the past twenty years or so for trees, part of the love affair I’ve been having with Momma Nature.  For a long time I’ve been telling friends and family that when I pass away,  “Don’t buy flowers.  Plant a tree!  Plant a tree in your yard, in a friend or neighbor’s yard, in the woods, in a park, but plant a tree!!!  There is nothing I feel would honor me more than the planting of a tree, and Hesse’s narrative helps me to understand why.

Nature is a calming presence in my life now.  I see daily the beautiful sights of Northern New Mexico and understand that I’m seeing the handiwork of God.  I’m now an avid gardener and take great delight in finding out what plants and flowers are native to this desert environment and can survive.  My sun room becomes a seedling nursery in late winter and even now still has seedlings ready to find a home outside.

One of the faulty perceptions I learned in my youth was that mankind was separate and distinct from the earth.  In fact, I learned that it was ours to master and control and not Gaia to live in harmony with.  But I’ve matured to the point where I can handle paradox and contradiction, realizing that yes we are “separate and distinct” from the earth but simultaneously “dust of the earth” just as the Bible teaches.  We walk, breathe, live, and die in the Unity of All Things.

FROM “WANDERING” BY HERMAN HESSE

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. It wants to be nothing except what it is. That is home. That is happiness.

 

The following picture is the Rio Grande meandering alongside Hwy 68 south of Taos, Nm.

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What is Going on with Evangelical Christians???

Donald Trump continues to give my clinical mind plenty of “stuff” to play with though much of what he does and so is very scary for the sake of my country. One thing that staggers my imagination is how that he is handily winning the evangelical Christian vote over a much more egregiously Christian candidate, Ted Cruz, and in spite of stances and statements which are anti-thetical to everything Christians stand for. It is as if evangelical Christians have said, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts.” He can so or do anything and his numbers will continue to rise. In fact several months ago, he brazenly declared that he could stand in the streets of New York city and shoot somebody and “my numbers would still go up.” And even with that contemptuous observation about his constituency, he numbers continued to rise!

Two significant evangelical pastors have endorsed him. Jerry Falwell Jr, the son of the founder of the Moral Majority and the present founder of Liberty University, declared Trump an “outstanding Christian” as he endorsed him at Liberty University and then proceeded to listen to Trump use expressions like “What the hell” several times in his speech before the student body. I was thirty years old before I used that expression! And the pastor of First Baptist of Dallas, Robert Jeffress, endorsed him early in the campaign but did not cover his awkwardness real well. When Trump opened his arms to embrace the pastor, I remember noting that the pastor looked like a girl at the high school prom who was forced to embrace a disgusting football jock who she found repulsive.

But I think I understand why the Christian constituency is willing to overlook basic teachings of their faith and support such an unsavory man. Early in the campaign I was listening to one of Trump’s speeches on TV and had to share with my wife, “Wow, I understand why he is so popular! I want to give him at ‘atta boy.'” For his populist fervor and rhetoric appealed so readily to memories of my past when his simplistic solution to complex problemsappealed to me. “Make America Great Again” appeals to me still on some unconscious level though my reptilian brain is now countered by self-reflection.

Several evangelical voices have dared to confront their “family” and pose the question, “What about simple decency?” For example, Trump has publicly made fun for one of his critics for having a physical deformity, a physical deformity similar to what Jesus described as a “withered hand.” (This man’s entire arm was “withered”.) And on another occasion, he ridiculed a Fox commentator who is disabled from the waist down for not being able to stand on his own two feet. I was, and still am horrified with these two events. And evangelical Christians merely overlook it! And, furthermore, Trump has repeatedly revealed on TV that he has incestuous thoughts about his beautiful daughter but we never hear anything about that…other than Trevor Noah!

I can just imagine what other countries are thinking now as they witness this spectacle. And, the amusement and horror are justified as this phenomena does reveal something about our character, not just that of the Republican party.

Wisdom from Walt Whitman

This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…

This is stunningly insightful, sounding like something straight out of the Old Testament…perhaps the Book of Psalms. And I really was grabbed by the advice to “argue not concerning God” as I see so clearly now the foolishness of such argumentation. His point is relevant to an observation I read recently on an evangelical blog in which the pastor noted he had given up apologetics, realizing that the primary point had always been to prove that he was right and the other fellow was wrong! The need to convert or to win someone to our way of thinking runs the risk of amounting to nothing more than an effort to satisfy our ego’s desire to have the entire world see the world just as we do.

I really liked Whitman’s admonishment, “argue not concerning God.”  Now, I ask, “Why bother to argue?”  I now have firm, faith-based, confidence in God and have no need to argue for His existence.  In fact, arguing for God’s existence has a predicate of profound doubt of His existence; for, otherwise, why would you need to argue?  From my experience, the need to “prove” that God exists springs from a deep-seated existential doubt of my own existence.  It is almost as if I’m saying, “Hey, I am so insecure about my own existence that I must believe in a God who is “out there” and as I long as I can do so I will know that I exist.  The need to argue for His existence was always to prove that I was “right” and in compete disregard for the “Rightness” that was given me in the person of Christ.  But, argumentation always kept the matter within the realm of my ego, that dimension of the human heart which is what Jesus had in mind for us to escape with…and I paraphrase…his admonishment, “Get over yourself!”

Oh, sure, I understand the “transcendent” and “immanent” dimensions of deity…so, yes He is “out there” and “in here” but why sweat the issue if you really believe that?  I believe the message of Jesus was, “Chill out.  I gotcha covered.  Don’t sweat it.”  But that is not enough for guilt-ridden Christians who are still enslaved by the law that Jesus said he had fulfilled.

Waging the War we Are

“We wage the war we are.”

I probably use this quote from W. H. Auden more than any other, in this venue and also in my day to day life.  And, yes, it is very telling for my life is, and always has been a war zone most of these sixty-three years.  Of course, I carefully contained this warfare inside my canned-Christian veneer.  Yeah, I kinda identify with Ben Carson!!!

Auden was an astute observer of the human heart as are all great poets.  He made this poetic observation in recognition of his own conflicted heart and his poetry revealed recognition of the turmoil that rages inside the heart of all human beings.  Yes, “most men live lives of quiet desperation” but Auden knew that beneath the surface of this “quiet desperation” warfare was simmering, mercifully kept under control beneath the social veneer.  Well, most of the time anyway!

Why?  Where does this conflict come from?  Simply stated, we are spiritual beings temporarily confined within a mortal body.  And, a spiritual being is infinite by definition and does not really fit inside what the philosophers call the world of “form.  To illustrate, I am now so very aware of just how I want everything! I don’t want to deal with privation and on some level it even angers me!  Why should I have to want anything? Who dares to get in my path at Wal Mart, or cut me off in traffic, or fail to laugh at my jokes, or scoff at my literary acumen?  How dare them?  On some level I have the narcissitic illusion that the world is my oyster and though I cover it up with this carefully contrived social veneer, I often catch gut-level, reptilian brain, unmitigated hunger surging in my heart.  I want it all!

Though this is a literary exaggeration, it is an honest reflection of “waging the war” that I am.   For, I do have these frustrations and fears and now realize I’ve had them all my life but have kept them carefully pent up, knowing that to do otherwise would not be prudent.  And this “prudence” is what makes us human as without social sensitivities we would all be at war with each other literally. But at some point in our life, it is imperative that we find private venues where we can air these “grievances” about life and hopefully discover that an individual, or group of individuals, can assure us that they are fighting the same battle.  I have been blessed with these venues.

The current terrorist crisis in France is an illustration of what happens when we cannot recognize our own internal warfare.  Until we can own this internal conflagration, we will always see it “out there” and seek to obliterate it.  “We wage the war we are” often by battling that vast category we call “them,” a convenient category comprised of those qualities of our own that we do not wish to own up to.  Yes, this is true for Daesh but also for “us.”