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Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

A Controversial Subject

This morning is a glorious early Fall day in New York. The temperature is hovering around 70F, the sun is shining from a cloudless sky, the crickets have established a base of sound for the world, upon which sparrows, eagles, frogs and humans have woven a delicate aural web. It’s the sort of day containing such beauty that I am grateful for every breath I draw. It is a day to be out of doors, soaking in the sun’s rays, smelling the early decay of autumn leaves and wishing the day could last forever.

Unfortunately for us, there are only 7 hours and 11 minutes until the sun sets and this beauty is gone forever, not to be recreated the same way again. It is a day that makes me think about God and whether one exists or if “He” is an elaborate construct of humanity’s need to explain the absolute beauty of a day such as this. After all, surely a being that loves us would give us a gift once in a while to sustain us through the deep winter months, right?

I have serious doubts about such a loving other-worldly being. I totally understand that there was once a need to explain the world and all the mystery therein. All ancient societies had a belief system to help their people understand the world around them. From ancient pagan religions to more recent poly- and mono-theistic religions, there was a need for belief when ignorance reigned the world. As Christopher Hitchens wrote about religion, “It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”

As time went on, however, men and women gifted with curiosity and logic began to discover the real reasons behind the workings of the world, and even the universe. Telescopes and microscopes were invented, allowing us to discover the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the inner world. These intelligent people discovered that lightning is really the discharge of electricity from the atmosphere and that disease was caused by bacteria or viruses, and that the body’s ability to produce antibodies is what “cures” illness, not some celestial being with a magic wand.

I would like to pose a few questions: Is it time for us to rethink the concept of God? Is our attachment to God and religion a crutch that enables us to allow someone else to think for us? Are we essentially a lazy species that would rather hand over control and be virtual slaves to a completely intangible being “out there” than assume responsibility for our own actions and behaviors? Why are we so willing to believe what common sense tells us is false? Is life really so terrifying that we look forward to a reward after death that makes our trials here more acceptable?

Anticipating the reaction of some people, I submit the following: Mankind is an inherently moral species. To say that we are wicked and incapable of determining right from wrong is an incredible insult. We are bound through love that comes naturally to us to care for each other, to be kind and giving to each other, to nurture and protect each other. Otherwise, the species would never have survived its first few centuries!

It is impossible for me to believe that the Hebrews wandering the desert with Moses would have self destructed had he not gone up on Mount Sanai to get the ten commandments. However, it is very likely that whoever wrote the book of Exodus had a need to control a free and diverse (and ignorant) society. It is important to remember that, according to Exodus, when Moses came down from the mountain, he got pissed that people were partying, smashed the ten commandments on the ground and ordered that the Levites (his tribe) arm themselves and go through the crowd. They killed 3,000 people that day, and THAT was how Moses instituted the Judeo-Christian ethic. The horrified people who were left would believe anything he said at that point because they had just seen their friends and relatives hacked to pieces. Unfortunately for us, fear and bloodshed are still the tools used today to keep people in the dark in many religions around the world.

Also, I submit that sometimes life IS difficult, people DO get sick, life ISN’T fair. There is no guarantee at birth that we will live a life full of health and plenty. Modern science has made it possible to improve the quality of our outer lives. Our barometer as “good” people should be, therefore, in how we care for each other, in how we love each other and nurture each other, providing for the longevity of our species. We should not discriminate against other humans who love each other, regardless of whether they love someone of the opposite sex or the same sex. Love is love and should be encouraged.

So to get back to my original question – does God exist? Is the notion of God a crutch? I have no space in my psyche for a being that is responsible for the fomenting of hate. I want no part of a being that says it will turn a large percentage of our species into crispy critters when we die, regardless of whether our intent and our hearts were set on that which was good and kind. I also cannot ignore that science has revealed that which man dreamed up the gods to explain. To that end, I say there is no god.

However, I, too, have days when I want to hand over control of my life to another person, and it would sure help if that person had a magic wand. There are also moments of life filled with breathtaking beauty, when I see the twin gifts of love and compassion in action, or hear a piece of music of such perfection that make me feel part of something greater. Perhaps that something greater is our shared humanity. After all, we are but energy in the end, connected by cosmic forces to every other bit of energy in the universe. Maybe some days we just feel that more than others.

As of today, in my mind, magic wands don’t exist. The reality of my life this moment is that man made god, god didn’t make man. I believe in the goodness of humanity, which transcends religion and faith. We are good because it is in our nature to be good.

Having said that, I look forward to your comments.

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Oprah

OK, the truth is out. I occasionally watched Oprah. Her show on ABC is now over, and she is moving on to other projects so I can confess my occasional guilty pleasure. I have to say that, despite my sporadic viewership, I loved her show. It made me think about who I am, what I mean and why I am here on this earth. From watching her show, I discovered that my love of reading was perfectly normal, that being positive and grateful were good things and that my perception of life as a glass (or a ladle) half full was not only appropriate but healthy. I had known all this instinctively, but she gave voice to the notion that to explore the inner self is divine and for that I thank her.

A few weeks ago, I played my last weekend as a church organist. It had been years since I was happy at that job, and finally I took the very frightening step of quitting, with no fall back job. I’ve always struggled with finances, but when I made the decision to leave that second job, I had full faith that the Universe/God will provide what I need to survive. Whether it was foolish to take that step in this economic climate or not, it was simultaneously thrilling and paralyzing. I attached my energy to the thrilling half of the emotional equation and leapt. I will not look back and I do not regret that decision. Regret has no place in my life. I learned that from Oprah.

This morning Rick and I had a conversation about the words “I can’t”. To me, they don’t exist. “I can’t” really means, “I haven’t figured out how yet”. There is nothing we can’t do. Perhaps the things we want to do are difficult, or require specific training or skill in order to achieve. Perhaps they will force us to confront some of our deepest fears, or overcome emotional obstacles that are decades old. I want to skydive someday, but am afraid of falling. It’s possible to overcome that, however. I want to see Broadway shows, but am ridiculously uncomfortable in crowds. I can (and will) work past that, though. Paul McCartney wrote in his song Blackbird, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise.” My moment has arisen and I will learn to fly. I learned that from Oprah, too.

One of my students is fond of saying she can’t do things. Fact is, she’s never been pushed to succeed. Fact is, she’s a smart kid but has always been told she was dumb. She has learning challenges, so reading is difficult for her. However, she thinks that, if she doesn’t confront her learning issues, they will go away. I can’t force her to believe in herself, but I can repeatedly say to her “You CAN do this. You just haven’t found the way that works for you yet.” Hopefully, one day, she will begin to believe in herself. That would be the greatest gift I could give her.

“Start embracing the life that is calling you and use your life to serve the world.” – Oprah Winfrey, 5/26/11

I haven’t figured out what my calling is yet. I hope to find it, and, when I do, I will embrace it. I may also wind up living it but not recognizing it. Perhaps my calling is to work with students and show them how to succeed. Perhaps my calling is to feed people. Perhaps my calling is to encourage and support and be a friend. Perhaps my calling is to go to a foreign place and encourage a person there, who will, in turn, go out and do great things.

The day before her last show, ABC aired the second half of a star-studded extravaganza tribute to Oprah. The most touching moment of the show was when Kristen Chenoweth sang “For Good” while 200 young men that have been recipients of the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship at Morehouse College entered the auditorium from the rear and filled the stage and aisles, carrying candles that symbolized the ability to build a new life through education. She has spent $12 million of her own money to put over 450 young men through college since 1989. The impact of that one action is phenomenal and far-reaching. I don’t have $12 million to give to anyone, I barely have two nickels to rub together. However, I have a big heart and that counts for something in the long run.

Thank you, Oprah, for helping me understand that even the smallest pebbles make waves that widen and spread. The farthest shore will never feel the effect of our energy unless we drop ourselves into the center of the pond and start the first ripple.

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New Chapter

It’s been a while since I blogged. The days and weeks have been flying by at a blazing pace. It would be gratifying to say I have accomplished something tangible in that time, but, in reality, Life has been teaching me her lessons in the most mundane and humbling ways. Through the angry young man whose comment, “Do you want me to piss on the floor right here?” almost brought me to tears, I’ve learned patience and compassion. Through the student who asked me for money one too many times, I learned to say ‘no’. Through the gift of a lollipop from a usually sullen and frequently volcanic eighth grader, I learned that even the most difficult and obnoxious kids have goodness at their core, something I seriously questioned. And, finally, by making a HUGE mistake while proctoring a state exam, I learned humility.

These are lessons I needed, and for which I am grateful. However, during the past few weeks I also observed that life is passing me by, and I’ve been so set in my ways with my eyes focused some imaginary, far-off finish line that I’ve missed some important events.

The tulips bloomed without me this year. They are my favorite flower, but I didn’t notice that they had grown and budded and opened. A week ago, as I drove down the driveway focused on the workday ahead, I noticed a blur of crimson in the corner of my eye. From the rearview mirror the tulips waved a greeting in the early morning light, and I felt so forlorn at that moment I wanted to weep.

My nephew turned 17 last week. The gift was planned, the card bought; that part I did in April. However, April came and went, and with it my birthday, Easter and Mother’s Day. For the first time since he was born, I screwed up his birthday. Nope, that’s wrong – I totally forgot it. Instead of consciously sending his package in time to arrive on his birthday the 5th, I thought I had more time and my brain put his birthday on the 17th. Turns out the 17th is my girlfriend Virginia’s birthday. {sigh}

My eye doctor died last week of pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know he HAD cancer. And now he’s dead. He was a caustic, drily funny man, once commenting, when I told him I liked the SpongeBob statue he had in his office to distract kids during their exams, “I hate SpongeBob.” I was at his office today and saw a tribute to him on the wall where his cat trophy used to be. He loved his cats. I wonder who took them when he passed on.

These three events together, although they might not seem like a big deal to some, made me step back and ask, “Am I going to continue to chase after some illusion that one day I will arrive somewhere?” There is no valid reason for me to run like a madman 7 days a week. Louise has been telling me for years to slow down, Richard has been trying to teach me how to say “no” (I seem to be allergic to the word). But I have been overextending myself, working seven days a week during the school year, and refusing to take vacations because I didn’t want to leave the church parishioners without music – I love them! In February this year I finally broke down and told the priest of the church where I play organ that I couldn’t work Saturdays anymore. I said I needed the day off, but, in no time, Saturdays became full of activities, too.

Last Saturday, while spending a rare moment reflecting, I realized how desperately unhappy I am. For years I have wanted to leave my weekend job, but thought I really needed the money. I complained weekly about how I would love to stay home on Sunday morning and have coffee on the deck. Richard would always say, “keep your foot in the door” or, “maybe you can quit next year”. I always listened and took that to mean I had to stay, as though the decision was his to make. After all, my Dad always made those decisions for my Mom, or so it seemed. The job was also taking its toll on me physically – I would get so stressed at being there some weeks that I would have to go outside the church during the sermon and throw up, or I would have to pull over to the side of the road on the way to work Sunday mornings and do the same. It got to where I wouldn’t eat anything before going to work. I would have some toast and tea after the 9:00 Mass if I felt up to it. I told people it was allergies and mucus at the back of my throat making me gag, but in reality it was stress shutting down my body and rejecting sustenance. I didn’t take the hint, though.

I tried to come up with other ways to make money – after all, the economy is in the crapper and prices are steadily increasing. If I could only figure out a way to earn some extra money during the week, I could quit and have weekends free. That magic solution never materialized, however, and I stayed miserable, working week after week at a job that no longer held meaning for me. My “ah-hah” moment came while preparing for last week’s First Communion Masses. I pulled out a program last Friday night for the First Communion Mass I had played in 2006 and realized that nothing had changed since then. The music selections were the same, the readings were the same, the psalm was the same, all that had changed were the names of the kids. This was a metaphor for my life! I decided then and there to quit for good. I wrote a letter to the pastor of the church and resigned as of this coming Sunday.

I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t terrified about finances. How am I going to pay for the groceries? Clothing? Incidentals like bandaids or milk in the middle of the week? Textbooks? My family gets medical benefits through my school job, but I still pay the vast majority of the premiums and take home about $10 a day, a pathetically small sum, so I rarely have cash in my wallet. Richard has drummed into me for years how important it is to keep that job because his income is uncertain and my income gets us through the “bald spots” of his work year. I was expecting a mini-explosion when I told him I quit. However, his only response was, “Good!”

This stunned me. I had expected whining and complaining. I had expected a lecture about money. I had expected a pronounced sigh and the silent treatment for a day as Richard came to grips with my stupidity. None of that happened. He was actually glad that I could finally be happy and that we could go away together. Imagine my surprise to learn that the decision had been mine all along but I had given away my power and my freedom to an imaginary keeper! When Louise found out she hooted and squeezed me in a giant hug. I was moved to tears to know that they wanted for me what I wanted for myself all along: the chance to be happy.

A few months back I wrote a post entitled “The Winter of My Discontent”. I wrote then that “there are still days when I listen to my soul whispering to me that there is more than this. I want to surrender to that seductive whisper and fall in love with Life again.” Finally, I have listened to that whisper and taken the first step to reclaiming my life. It was daunting, but I took it.

My friend Erika said yesterday that she felt the Universe was “seriously shifting some gears.” I think she’s right. Perhaps I’ve tapped into that energy and that’s where the courage to make the change came from. Perhaps my guardian angel poked me in the butt with a sharp stick because she was tired of seeing me punish myself. Perhaps God whispered in my ear, “You deserve more than this, my child”, and I finally heard Her voice. Perhaps I finally gave up the martyr mentality and took back my human right to be happy. Whatever actually happened, I have ended one chapter and started another. This new chapter is yet to be titled and yet to be written. I am certain, however, that it will be an adventure. Bring it on!

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Bloom Where You Are Planted

This time of year my thoughts turn to birth and rebirth. The crocuses poke their heads out of the cold earth that has only recently lost its mantle of snow. Flowers of every color and shape begin to bloom. Pinks, purples, yellows, and whites are sprinkled across the ground even before the trees consider unfurling their tender young leaves.

It was planned that way, you know. In the dreariest, drabbest, most depressing days of the year, when the rain doesn’t stop and the ground is muddy, the most startling proof of the coming abundance of summer reveals itself. Those who are “religious” say that God reveals himself (herself) at this time of year more than any other time of year. This is when the promise of the future comes to light.

Those of you who know me well know I don’t do a lot of God gushing. I believe that “God” exists, but that God is not an old guy sitting on a throne watching people praise him (how boring would THAT be). I think the great religious traditions of the world are all shooting for the same thing – a peace and harmony to life, a belief that there is something better than the mundane and often painful lives we experience. I believe what we call God is our collective consciousness. God is us – all of us, humans, plants and animals – we’re all connected and the idea of God is the amalgam of our pooled wisdom. Heaven comes from the belief that we can be compassionate and loving and kind, and Hell is simply the absence of that connection and love. Jesus, aka Issa in the eastern spiritual traditions, was a great teacher who wanted us all to put love, compassion and forgiveness at the forefront of our experience. He absolutely got that right. I believe the Buddha did as well, as did Muhammad. I don’t think that any one tradition can hold sway over any other tradition, but that they all have value and can make our human existence more relevant. I’ve always found it amusing that the sacred Christian holiday of Easter was named after the pagan goddess of fertility and renewal, Eastre. Fertility and birth become rebirth and new life. It’s a nice connection between spiritual traditions.

This time of year I tend to get impatient with my life. I itch to break free of the dreariness of winter and move forward. It always happens around Easter, when resurrection is in the air. I question what I am doing with my life and wonder how I can change it so there is less dreary, repetition and a little more living going on. I want to LIVE, not exist.

Yesterday as I was driving home from a lunch date, I saw a daffodil blooming in the most ridiculous place. It was on a rocky space at the side of the road, suspended several feet up from the ground. It was an awkward place, but the bloom was vigorous and determined to show the world its beauty. That got me thinking about the maxim, “Bloom where you are planted.”

I always want to bloom somewhere else. What I am doing is never quite good enough. I am forever tormenting myself with the questions, “How can I make my life more meaningful?” and, “What am I supposed to be doing here?” Especially as I approach the age of 50, I realize that my time here on earth is about at the midpoint and I feel a push to figure it out and head in the right direction. However, the daffodil makes me wonder if I’m not already in the place I should be, doing the things I should be doing. Is my work with Special Ed children the work that will make my life have meaning? Does the fact that I love to feed people matter? Are my relationships with my husband and my daughter going to change the world in any way? What is my purpose? Why am I here? Have I been planted in this barren place, on rocky ground, so I can bloom and show the possibilities of life to everyone I encounter? Is this what my life plan is all about? I don’t have the answers to those question yet. I may never have the answers.

Thank you to whoever planted that daffodil in that odd place. You have started a dialogue.

Happy Easter everyone!

P.S. The Easter lily is actually a summer-blooming plant. It is forced to bloom in the Spring for the Easter market. Take from that what you will…

The Smack Upside the Head

Today in church the readings included, “Cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … If you love only those who love you, what recompense will you have?” Also, from a song that I chose last week to be sung at this week’s Masses, “When love is torn and trust betrayed, pray strength to love till torments fade, till loved ones keep no sense of wrong…” These passages came on the heels of a section of forgiveness I read last night in After the Ecstasy the Laundry, a book on inner transformation written by Buddhist teacher and meditation master Jack Kornfield.

I think someone is trying to tell me something. Is it coincidence that a Buddhist meditation book I’m reading conveyed the exact same message that is the basis of the week’s readings at my church job? I don’t believe in coincidence. I think that coincidence is our unseen guides, angels, relatives, God, whatever label you want to use, tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, pay attention, moron!” Because I didn’t get a tap, but got a celestial whack upside the head, I’m paying attention. (Side note: As I wrote those last words, Louise showed me an online gif of a penguin smacking another in the head. Hmmm… Another coincidence timed with my thoughts on coincidence?? I’m listening…)

 

 

 

Jack Kornfield says that “to forgive, we must face the pain and sorrow of our betrayal and disappointment, and discover the movement of the heart that opens to forgive in spite of it all.” So what instance of “pain and betrayal” is still stuck to me? Who is it that I need to forgive? There are three people in the last 20 years or so that fit the bill, but I suspect that the one I am going to tell you about is the one I need to address. It comes up in my thoughts and dreams over and over…

A year and a half ago, an older woman who is very dear to me (we’ll call her Donna) said some very hurtful things to Louise. Because Louise is not exploring any religion at this point in her life, she was called “selfish” and a myriad of other insults. {sigh} Even 18 months later, I still feel distress when I think about that day. Donna later told me that she had a knee-jerk reaction to my very stubborn daughter and didn’t really mean anything she said. However, she said that to ME, not Louise. She flatly said that she wouldn’t apologize to her. {sigh} To me, this was a double insult, because she acknowledged her error, but would not rectify it with the one person who needed to hear it most.

I think I was also so offended because my thoughts on religion are similar to Louise’s, although Donna didn’t know that. Even though I grew up in the Catholic church, I don’t embrace the vast majority of its teachings. The divinity of Christ (I believe he was a great teacher, nothing more), transubstantiation, priestly celibacy and abstinence, the ordination of women, virgin birth, the process of sainthood, confession, the infallible pope, purgatory, etc., combined with the absolute arrogance of priests and laypeople who say the Catholic church is the one TRUE church – it all makes my head spin. I don’t believe a word of it. So this insult was also an insult to me. (I should say here, however, that there are things about the mystical side of the church that I find intriguing. I do find inspiration in certain aspects of this and other Judeo-Christian traditions. But that’s another post.)

When Louise was 9, right after her first communion, I pulled her out of CCD (Catholic religious ed). I was uncomfortable forcing her to study something that neither Richard nor I believed. I don’t think I did anything wrong – I think it would be morally wrong for me to force her to believe something I found abhorrent. I know when Louise feels a need to explore this part of herself, she will do so with as much fervor and dedication as she now explores science and math. It’s vitally important, however, that her spiritual exploration be on her timetable, not mine or Donna’s anyone else’s. Otherwise it’s meaningless. Her heart, her faith.

I have tried over the last 18 months to forgive Donna. There is a huge wedge between us still, mostly visible on my side. It is still a deep and raw wound. I sometimes wonder if I should let our relationship heal with the wedge in place. I know that’s not the right thing to do, but it would be the easier path. I’m sure she feels the effects on her side. It has affected every communication between us since then, and I want it to go away; I want healing to happen. In After the Laundry, Jack Kornfield tells a story about forgiveness. He writes, “(Forgiveness) is like the meeting of two former prisoners of war. When one asked, ‘Have you forgiven your captors?’ the other replied, ‘No, never.’ The first ex-prisoner looked with kindness at his friend and said, ‘Well, then, they still have you in prison, don’t they?'”

My guides and God are the ones looking at me with kindness now. I don’t want to remain in prison – I want the freedom that forgiveness brings. I want to completely love and trust Donna again. Louise long ago decided that it’s not worth the energy to stay mad. She may not be terribly fond of Donna anymore, but that’s OK, because she was able to forgive without an apology. I know I’ll always be a little wary, but I need to let this go, too. It’s been too long, Donna is far too important to me, and I love her far too much not to forgive her.

Forgiveness is close. I am “facing the pain and sorrow of betrayal and disappointment” in my heart. I can feel the shifting and opening of my heart, and look forward to the day when I wake up and feel nothing but love again. But I swear on all that is good and holy, this journey is a ridiculously hard one.

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