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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How do you stack up?

All About Soul

How often we get caught up in defining who we are in relation to those around us.”
Mark Nepo (The Book of Awakening, p.169)

When my friend, Ann, goes out of town, she sometimes asks me to water her garden. Ann is a master gardener; she knows how to plant, where to plant and she loves variety in color and texture. Her terraced rock garden is a masterpiece; she has plants I cannot identify since I don't have the time, money, or expertise to research and purchase exotic plants. I love watering her garden, but then I come home and look at the tangled mess of weeds in my own, and feel like a failure as a gardener. In comparison to Ann, I'm hopeless.

When I visit my cousins in North Carolina, and see their big, beautiful houses, with every gadget known to man, and dishes that match the serving bowls and cups, I compare myself to them and wonder what happened. How did I, the hyper-educated, so-called professional one, end up with so little? Am I just that bad? Am I a failure? This is the kind of head-space we enter into when we compare ourselves to others. We measure one or two aspects of their lives against the same parts of our own, and we come up short. But there will always be someone richer, better looking, more socially connected, more vivacious, and smarter if we look for them, and we will always be lacking in comparison. If our identity depends on “being better than” then we are in for a rough ride.

Life is not a competition, no matter what you've been told. Our culture promotes the notion that more is better because commerce depends upon it—we won't keep buying things if we don't care what's in fashion, or don't feel we must have the newest gadget. This drive for the ever-new creates a restlessness in us that will never be satisfied. Our task here on Planet Earth is to become fully ourselves. Not in comparison to someone else, and not the bigger-better-best variety, but the truest, most authentic self we can be. When we do that, we will not concern ourselves with what others have or don't have, and we will not worry about how we stack-up in comparison. Being who we are, as opposed to being “better than” is the way to claim our own identity and fulfill our life's purpose. It's all about soul, y'all—your soul and mine.

                                                      In the Spirit,

Monday, May 21, 2018

American Phoenix

Ashes to Ashes

There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been the first cousin to Man...”
Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)

I had a dream last night about ashes—the ashes of children put into small galvanized cans on plaques that could be hung on a wall or a tree. I woke up wondering about this dream—it didn't seem particularly sad, just matter of fact. Like this is what you do when a child dies. Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451 that we have one advantage over the phoenix. We know what a “damn silly thing we just did.” He surmises that when enough of us know and remember perhaps we'll stop doing it. Perhaps we'll realize that children don't have to die young, and their deaths should not become ho-hum.

My son, Jake, who works in drug and alcohol recovery, posted this about the Sante Fe School shootings that happened in Texas on May 18th. “This makes 16 school shootings already this year, and all we can talk about is whether we need more or less guns in school and in our communities. There is so much more to this issue than gun control but we get distracted by the flashing neon signs placed in front of us by politicians, big business, and the media. Lost behind that smokescreen, we more or less ignore (or at best downplay) other symptoms of this epidemic, like the need for more available and effective mental health services—services that might be able to intercede with the bullied and the bullies, the potential shooters and the potential victims, the lonely, the depressed, the confused, the people just trying to grow up and find their way in this increasingly crazy world.” This is one of the damn silly things we have done. As a result we have ten more dead children.

There are no adequate words for this, and all of us are out of breath from screaming at one another. If more eyes (and hearts) open among people in power, who have the ability to act to change these conditions, then perhaps someday we'll stop making the funeral pyre and burning ourselves up. Rising from the ashes is a romantic notion, but it would be far better for our precious young people to not have been thrown into the fire in the first place. Our refusal to deal in a merciful way with this problem with go down in the annals of history along side slavery, and lynching, and the trail of tears as a tragic failure on the part of the American people.

                                                          In the Spirit,

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Beautiful Berries

Holy Garden

“Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”
Wendell Berry

I went to the Hickory farmer's market yesterday. I bought red berries and way too many other things—kale, radishes, blue berries, raspberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and braided bread—right from the hands of the farmers who tilled the earth, planted the seeds, and harvested the fruits of their labor. Each item was more expensive than the one before, but I didn't complain because they were fresh and beautiful, and because they were the ingredients for my cousin's 70th birthday dinner. It was a happy day.

Visiting farmer's markets always draws me back into memories of childhood gardens. In summer, my father worked at his job all day, then came home and worked in the garden until dark. Any one who creates a garden will tell you, it's a labor of love. Caring for the soil, watering, staking up, and picking the fruit at peak ripeness is essential, and it is also hard work. You have to love it and be committed to it to be successful. I remember spending hot June days scalding and peeling tomatoes for canning. Making soup stock with all the vegetable peelings and husks. Shelling black-eyed peas until my fingers were permanently stained brown. So when I have to pay eight dollars for a carton of shelled peas, I do it happily.

At the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle yesterday, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, gave a powerful sermon about love. It was about the commandment to love one another, and about the way that love changes us as individuals and collectively. Loving families and loving communities are sacred environments in which to bring up healthy children. I believe this love must also extend to the earth. We have been given a gift of something holy that we cannot make ourselves, but we can destroy if we are careless. In the words of Wendell Berry, “There are no sacred places and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places. My belief is that the world and our life in it are conditional gifts.” We are, each and everyone, responsible for tending our earth-home in such a way that we don't create destruction wherever we are. Reverence and respect should be given to those who tirelessly tend the earth so that the rest of us can enjoy dew-wet red berries.

In the Spirit,

Friday, May 18, 2018

On the Road Again


“I think being from east Tennessee, you're kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you've got that Appalachian soul.”
Ashley Monroe

Driving through the Ocoee gorge yesterday, I felt my gut begin to unwind. By Nantahala, I was in an altered state of calm, earth-connected joy. I can't begin to explain what coming to North Carolina does to me, but all my cells know I'm home. Those rivers, in the valleys between green, green mountains, are the blood of my blood. There is a little bit of lonely that comes with it, a little soul-yearning that I imagine most people feel when they are displaced to foreign countries and see pictures of home. Your heart reacts; you have both a physical and an emotional response to the land where your genetic roots are planted. I wonder whether you have this response to “home” too. For me, it gives new meaning to the creation story in Genesis in which Adam is created from the dust of the earth and placed in a garden between rivers. (Genesis 2:4-24) We, too, are created from the soil and clay and river waters of home.

Home is an interesting notion, isn't it? I have lived in Birmingham, AL for thirty-seven years—far longer than I lived in North Carolina, yet everything in me knows it is not home. Anyone who lives far from where they were born will understand this—the culture of the place of our birth forms us. North Carolina is full of craftsmen—wood carvers, writers, painters, quilters—and I find myself drawn to these arts because they feel like home. I suppose it's like eating Philly steak and cheese in Pennsylvania, Ramen noodle bowls in Japan, and brats and beer in Chicago. You can go to other places and eat the same food, but it never tastes right. Maybe it's the water or the sunlight, but the greens are greener here, the variety of birds and wild flowers is greater and more colorful. The lilt in the voices carries a particular rhythm that my ears lean into and love. I hope there's a place you feel this way about.

As mobile as we are today, we cannot break the bonds of clan. From birth, we know who they are and who they are not, and we know to whom we belong. We may not agree with our family about a million things, but we share the same blood, we carry the same DNA and we are deeply embedded in their identity, and they in ours. Our souls are connected to both the people and the earth. Wherever we are, even continents and oceans away, we share a homing beacon that brings us back time after time. Back to ground, back to tribe, back to home. My Appalachian soul requires this pilgrimage to stay connected to its Source.

In the Spirit,

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Be Yourself

Embrace Your Strangeness

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frighting or strange that self may be.”
May Sarton

Back in the 1980's, Billy Joel wrote a song titled, “You May Be Right,” that contained these lines:

“You may be right,
I may be crazy
But it just might be a lunatic your looking for.
Turn out the light,
don't try to save me
you may be wrong for all I know
but you may be right.”

In these times, here on planet Earth, I think we need to be a little bit crazy just to get through the day. I don't mean to cast aspersions on people with mental illness—I've had major depression myself and know how painful and hopeless it feels. But I think it helps from time to time to look at our own strangeness and appreciate just how warped we are. Or at least, I am. A therapist friend mentioned to me how “normal” people see the world, and my question was, “Can you define normal?” She said that normal people get through their day without being overcome by neurotic thoughts. Here are a few neurotic thoughts—What will they think of me? Why doesn't she like me? I am a total screw-up. How did I get to be such a dummy? The whole world is trying to bring me down. I am such an asset to this company that it couldn't exist without me. And here's the one most of us suffer from—He/she needs me. Do you ever entertain such thoughts? I do.

It isn't unusual to have neurotic thoughts unless you are unaware that they're neurotic and let them rule your life. Having the ability to laugh at yourself is essential. When you don't understand that the whole world isn't looking at you, and judging you, and revolving around you, then you're set up to have a miserable life. I tell myself, “Get over yourself! Nobody cares what you look like. Just be yourself.” It's good advice. It helps me not to waste time primping and coiffing and making up as though I'm going to the royal wedding everyday. Which is not to say that anyone should become slovenly. But it begs the question, “Why am I doing this, and who am I doing it for?”

Growing into one's own skin takes time, and most of all, it takes consciousness. We put way too much emphasis on how pleasing our outsides look, and not nearly enough on how our insides feel. Are you comfortable with who you are, or are you constantly trying to change who you are? How much energy do you put into pleasing others and trying to fit in, instead of standing squarely in your own way of being in the world. Life is lots more interesting, and so much happier when we embrace our particular brand of craziness and learn to love it. Today, breathe inside your own bones, and know that you are good enough just the way you are.

In the Spirit,

Monday, May 14, 2018

Safe Harbor


“Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
pure and holy, tried and true.
With thanksgiving, I'll be a living
sanctuary for you.”
John Thompson & Randy Scruggs, “Sanctuary,” 1982

We sang this hymn in worship yesterday. According to some of the younger folks, it was a favorite camp song when they were kids. It got me thinking about the whole concept of sanctuary, and what it would mean to be one. First of all, let me say once again that I am in no way fit to be a sanctuary—I am not pure and holy or tried and true. I have every human flaw there is to have. But don't we all?

Sanctuary means “refuge or safe place.” We hear today about sanctuary cities; ones that will not assist in the rounding up and deportation of people in the country without documentation. These cities can not truly protect undocumented people, but they can refuse to help with ousting them. At other times, and in a few cases now, churches and other houses of worship did protect people, shelter them, and could not be invaded. Sometimes, my church shelters people who have been forced from their homes by fire or storm. We provide a safe place for them, and whatever provisions we can muster until they can go on their way. And, of course, the area of a church that holds the altar and the cross, where worship, and the rites and sacraments take place is called the sanctuary. It is considered holy in Christendom.

But what does it mean for a person to be a sanctuary? It means, I think, to be trustworthy. To be kind and accepting of people as they are, wherever they are on their life's journey. We live in a time of judgment, when we are intolerant of people who look and live differently from us. We not only judge them as unworthy, but we condemn them. A person who refuses to engage in this stands out in a crowd. They become a safe harbor in tumultuous seas. Others can go to them and know they will not be cast out, regardless of their human foibles and transgressions. Jesus was a sanctuary when he said, “Whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” Most of us can not aspire to be like Jesus, but I like to think we can become safe for others. At least, we can work on it as part of our spiritual path. Today, we might practice being sanctuary for someone else and see how it feels.

In the Spirit,

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Journey of Discovery

Discovering the World

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet and learn to be home.”
Wendell Berry (The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky's Red River Gorge)

Are you a traveler? I have friends who live to travel; they seemingly can't get enough of seeing the world. In my imagination, and in my studies, I read about the world. I look at photos and listen to my friends' stories told in the hushed tones of rapture. But somehow, nothing in me wants to get into an airplane and go there. I love looking at pictures of the colors and canals of Venice, the domes and turrets of St. Petersburg, the moors of Scotland, the vineyards of Tuscany—but unless I can be magically transported there, I will probably never see them with these two eyes. I prefer virtual journeys. Air travel is not my passion, but discovery is.

Parker Palmer writes in his column, “To Be at Peace with Our Essential Loneliness,” for the On Being website (May 7, 2018) that nobody can discover the world for another person, and that our travels, wherever they may take us, are actually journeys within. We don't so much experience the place, as we do our own response to that place. I remember my son, Ian, saying, “Mom, I've stood on Hadrian's Wall, and I will never be the same again!” We are changed by what we see and experience. We “learn what's out there, but also what's in here.” (Palmer) No matter how many people are around us, we are essentially alone in our experience. And what we bring back, besides t-shirts and memories, are newly known parts of ourselves evoked by the unfamiliar sights and sounds. For each new discovery we make about ourselves, we add security to our being in the world—we become more comfortable in our own skin.

Every journey, then, brings us back to ourselves. We stand on our own ground, on our own two feet, and know that we are home not because of a geographic location, but because we are substantial and secure within. Every journey is a spiritual one, not because of the place, but because we are there watching our souls reveal themselves.

In the Spirit,