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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Shared Meal


There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk.”
M.F.K. Fisher

One of the pillars of Jesus' ministry was the shared meal. They were gathered for the passover meal when he said goodbye to his disciples. He did so by blessing the bread and wine and passing them around the table. As they ate and drank, Jesus explained that he would be leaving them shortly, but in future, they could honor him by sharing a meal in his remembrance. Blessing the bread and wine is steeped in Hebrew tradition. These prayers are still said today:

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.”

When we share a meal, it is a form of communion no matter what our religion, or lack thereof. Sharing food is a holy endeavor, full of historical significance, and deeply spiritual. It is a way of providing for one another in the truest sense. Blessing the broken bread is a symbolic way of blessing our own brokenness. Of acknowledging that it is in that very brokenness that we are most blessed, since that is where the Divine meets us.

This week, as we celebrate the Thanksgiving meal, or for that matter, any shared meal, remember this: Jesus ate with everybody, with anybody who happened to be there. He fed the thousands, he broke and blessed fishes and loaves, and fed their bodies as well of their souls. He did not cast out the alien, or refuse food to the gentile, or use his power and influence to deprive others of sustenance. Just as the Native people of this country shared food with the invading settlers, let us go and do likewise.

                                                         In the Spirit,

Monday, November 19, 2018

More Ways of Giving Thanks

Break With Tradition

'I love tradition,' Dalinar said to Kadash. 'I've fought for tradition...But merely being tradition does not make something worthy, Kadash. We can't just assume that because something is old it is right.'”
Brandon Sanderson (Oathbringer)

I must preface this post by saying, I am not a traditional person. Don't ask me why, because I came from a very ordinary place and people, and my family's customs were well within the camp of traditional. But, it just doesn't matter to me if we do things as they've always been done. As my grandmother told me, “You just ain't right, child.”

Yesterday, as part of his sermon, our pastor told a story about a little child and her mother. The child is watching her mother preparing a ham for baking. She first cuts off the hock end of the ham. Seeing this, the child asks, “Why did you cut off that end of the ham?” Her mother looks perplexed, and tells her, “I don't know. It is just the way my mother did it, so that's how I learned to bake a ham.” But the child persists (as they so often do), so they go to the phone and call the child's grandmother. “Grandmother, why do you cut off the end the ham before you cook it?” Her grandmother responds the same as the child's mother. “Because that's how I learned to do it from my mother.” Since the great-grandmother is still living, the child then calls her and asks the same question, why cut the end off the ham? The great-grandmother seems surprised by the question, and responds, “Because I didn't have a pan large enough to cook it otherwise!”

Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “The less there is to justify a tradition, the harder it is to get rid of it.” And he was right. There is something about the holidays that puts us into robot-mode. We crank out those turkey's and hams—baked, fried, roasted, grilled—and serve them up with cornbread dressing and cranberry sauce. Year after year, decade after decade. There is security in that I suppose, but as Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “Tradition becomes our security, but when the mind is secure it is in decay.” It's okay to ditch the big bird and stuff some portabella mushrooms instead. Sausage, Italian breadcrumbs and freshly grated Parmesan cheese make a very good stuffing, and mushrooms go well with some lightly steamed asparagus.

W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” Cook up some new traditions this Thanksgiving. Be wild. Be free. And, please, don't cut the hock off your ham!

                                                    In the Spirit,

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Ways of Giving Thanks:

Nurture Relationships

...They had built those faults into the usual messy, comfortable, patched-up, beautiful structure that any functioning long-term relationship ended up being.”
Joseph Fink

In one of his “Weekly Intention” posts, Mark Nepo asked us to, “Describe what is at the center for you in a long-standing relationship.” Many of us have friendships and love relationships that have endured for decades, and that we know will go on until death. Family relationships are among these, though we usually think of them as somehow different. I'm not so sure that's true.

We all have family members we don't see very often, but we still care about from a distance. There may be no animus between us, but our lives don't intersect very often—our connection is blood, which is a strong link. Sometimes, distance is a factor, but not always. Some family members, we stay in close contact with, regardless of the distance. The difference is usually based on shared lives going back to childhood; we spent more time together, and our families were more involved with one another. Sometimes, we have a shared worldview, and sometimes, we have almost nothing in common other than DNA. Long-term family relationships never disappear, but they can grow remote—like islands that are not within eye-shot of each other, but are connected as an archipelago. When families are close-knit, however, we run into the same sorts of problems encountered in other intimate relationships. We can get on each other's last nerve.

Love relationships go through many changes over time—from infatuation and perception of the other as the “ideal” man or woman, to noticing little habits and traits that aggravate us, to screaming, “Who the heck is this person!?” We almost always arrive at the point when we say, “This is not the man/woman I fell in love with.” And that is true enough—the person we fell in love with was pure projection of our own ideas of perfection. Now, suddenly, they have faults which are not appreciated. Irritating little things accumulate over time, and wear down our patience. There are several junctures when we have to ask ourselves, “What is at the center of my attachment to this person?” Is it based in fear, or is it based in love? Does my love for them take precedent, and because of that, I can overlook these flaws? Or, is this relationship broken to the point that it cannot be patched up? Do we stay or do we go?

Friendships, too, are intimate relationships. Sometimes, they are more intimate than our love-relationships, because we are honest with friends in ways that we aren't with lovers. We tell them our secret fears and hopes, our disgust and rejection, our doubts. We're real with friends, and reveal ourselves to them without the veils we wear with lovers and family members. Communication is more forthright and uncluttered with falsehoods designed to support or prop-up their insecurities. Friendships, too, can run into problems that have to be worked through. A careless word, a period of time when we are too distracted to give them our attention, an unfortunate response that wounds. Long-term friendships form strong, flexible bonds that can be untangled and set right.

Let's face it, relationships are the super-glue of a good life. They make life rich or they make it painful, but they are what we live for and thrive on. In all intimate relationships, communication is key. We must be authentic in the way we speak ourselves, or there is no relationship. Learning to say what needs to be said in a way the can be heard is an art and a science. It takes a lifetime to perfect.

This is a week for giving thanks, and relationships are a good place to begin. They force us to grow, they enrich our experience, they stretch and expand us. Thanks be to God for every one of them.

                                                     In the Spirit,

Saturday, November 17, 2018

This Thanksgiving...

Make Memories

Some memories are unforgettable, remaining ever vivid and heartwarming.”
Joseph B. Wirthlin

We're preparing to enter Thanksgiving week here in America. Already the grocery stores are overrun with folks shopping for hams and turkeys, their carts filled with bags of cranberries and oranges, pecans and brown sugar. It occurs to me that it is no coincidence that All Saints Day and Thanksgiving fall in the same month. Holidays always bring up memories of the “saints” in our families, both the living and the dead—the ones we love and the ones we dread. Viewing them from the perspective of age, I'm not sure which stories I love the most—the good, the bad, or the ugly.

My mother was a true traditionalist. Sometimes, it seemed as though she went to the grocery store and bought one of everything there. There had to be a turkey, of course, and usually a ham as well, for biscuits, and later for soup. I remember several turkeys cooked to the point that the bones fell out. They arrived at the table looking slightly medieval; just a heap of meat with bones sticking out all around. No need to slice. Her dressing is still the best I've ever tasted, and I can't replicate it to save my life. She preferred cooked cranberry sauce—probably because it was mostly sugar, and she did have herself a sweet-tooth. She baked for days—pecan pies and chocolate cakes and those dreadful fruitcake cookies—always thinking that there needed be variety so that people could pick and choose, or better yet, have one of each. Forget the fact that everyone was stuffed to their eyeballs before ever getting to the desserts.

One of my favorite Thanksgivings occurred toward the end of my father's life. We were gathered around a loaded table with Ian, who was nine or ten, trying to tell jokes while Jake made rye comments that all Ian's jokes required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” We all tried to replicate the Alabama drawl, “Why, dawlin', would you caah for some cawn, and perhaps you could send those precious little biscuits this way.” My dad laughed and laughed. By the next Thanksgiving, he was gone.

I know the holidays are stressful for many people. There's a performance quality to them, and we all have fallen short at one time or another. We often have to rub shoulders with people we never see otherwise, and never want to see in the first place. These are the dark “saints” of the family. They are fingernails on our chalkboards. It sometimes helps to look at them as players in a larger story—the story of a family with all the mythic characters. There are heroes and jesters, ladies and trollops, villains and innocents, soothers and the disturbers. A good story requires all of them to keep the action moving. It is sometimes fun to decide ahead of time which of your “saints” might fill each role. Keep tabs during the meal, take notes. Be sure to wear Sherlock Holmes' wellingtons and Inverness cape. If nothing else, it will make everyone slightly anxious about what you're up to. You may even become their dark saint.

Make some memories this Thanksgiving. They will sustain you in your dotage—I have that on very good authority.

                                                          In the Spirit,

Friday, November 16, 2018

Contacting the Ancestors

Custard Pie

Is there another room, stage left, one we cannot see? Doesn't something happening in the wings argue a wider net of reality? If there are wings off to the side or behind us, where stuff is unfolding, then reality is more than we can see and measure. It means there are concentric circles rippling out beyond the life we see being acted out on the stage.”
Anne Lamott (Almost Everything, p.17)

My friend, Rebecca, came for dinner last night—lamb chops, pasta and roasted Brussels sprouts. She brought with her a buttermilk pie—an old Southern staple. I was instantly tossed back to a memory of my Aunt Matt's house when I was five years old. All the old sisters, my great-aunts, cooked on wood stoves, and Aunt Matt's always had a custard pie sitting on top. It was as if the pie that Rebecca brought was a message to me from Aunt Matt—how about a custard pie for Thanksgiving? I don't have many family traditions, but custard pie goes as far back as I can remember.

Suppose for just a moment that there is something going on “in the wings.” What if our flesh-and-blood existence is not the only one. What if life is not linear, and people who die in this reality continue to exist in another. I'm not talking about heaven or hell, I'm talking about right here, right now. I have always been a “mystic” in this way, simply because I have always sensed that there's more to this life than our little day-to-day existence.

Someone recently said to me that a friend wanted to research “ancestor healing.” The person who mentioned this thought that an absurd idea, and said that the friend was simply “crazy.” But the belief that life is not a one-way, one-existence, birth-to-death-and-gone sort of thing was the major reason American Indians did not want to leave their territories—the ancestors were there. It was sacred to them because of that. Many traditions and cultures hold the same to be true, and they take care to honor the ancestors as though they are actively involved in life—because they are. I believe that when we do our individual spiritual work, when we advance our own consciousness, we heal not only our personal wounds, but those of our ancestors. Furthermore, we pay it forward to future generations—they are born more conscious simply because we did that work.

Life is not linear. My ancestors and yours are close by, and communicate indirectly with us. They aren't specters or ghosts; they have an existence of their own. And this Thanksgiving, they will be around our tables just as surely as they were back in their flesh-and-blood days. Aunt Matt will be pleased to see her custard pie on mine.

                                                           In the Spirit,

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Speaking of Love

Words and Actions

Though words can carry love, they often point to it. It is the picking up of something that has been dropped, and the giving of space for someone to discover for themselves what it means to be human, and the forgiving of mistakes when they realize that they are.”
Mark Nepo (The Book of Awakening)

That old cliché, “Actions speak louder than words,” is still true. Our words can point to the fact that we love someone (or don't love them), but it is our actions toward them that highlight the truth. Words are easy to “dress up”—we learn early in life to say words that sound loving even when we don't mean them. But to act in a loving way may be all together different. It may go against our grain; require unfamiliar behavior of us. It may require allowing space that we do not desire for however long that space is needed. It may even mean walking away.

My understanding of what it means to be loving may be entirely different from that of my partner or my friend. In intimate relationships, knowing what is needed by the other and doing it, even when it is uncomfortable for us, is loving as long as we don't lose ourselves in the process. Maintaining love relationships is rarely easy. It requires loss of egocentric will, a willingness to negotiate, and sometimes, sacrificing things we really want. We must put on the scale how much we want to maintain a close relationship with this person, versus how much we want to control what happens between us. Living in a loving way is challenging.

Sometimes words help, and sometimes they only make matters worse. Most of us are not very good at expressing our feelings in words that can be understood by another—especially when the other does not want to hear them. It is well to remember that actions often speak better and clearer—but those actions must come from genuine place of love. Allowing space does not mean frigid withdrawal. Keeping words to a minimum does not mean cold silence. Listening is almost always a good idea. And in relationships, forgiveness is essential—forgiveness of oneself and of the other. We're human, and humans make mistakes. Saying, “I'm sorry,” from a truly contrite heart is sometimes all that's required.

                                                      In the Spirit,

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

In the Driver's Seat

Inner Guidance

Something wonderful begins to happen with the simple realization that life, like an automobile, is driven from the inside, not the other way around. As you focus on becoming more peaceful with where you are, rather than focusing on where you'd rather be, you begin to find peace right now, in present time. As you move around, try new things, and meet new people, you carry that sense of inner peace with you...”
Richard Carlson (Don't Sweat the Small Stuff)

Back in 2005, Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote a book about mindfulness titled, Wherever You Go, There You Are. It is a reminder that we carry our definitions of life with us on the inside, and we either “joy” ourselves with them, or we “trouble” ourselves with them. Events and other people are what they are, who they are—the translator and producer of emotions is us. When we feel angry or scared, happy or sad, contented or restless—it is we who are in the drivers seat. We sometimes set in motion events that create our circumstances—though we often blame someone or something else for them.

Here's a case in point: I received a property tax bill in October that was much larger than I'd anticipated. I immediately panicked. I was anxiously delving about for solutions, when the blower-motor on my furnace died—costing me a hunk of cash. Now, I was in even more of a stew about money. Then I hit a month (November) that started on Thursday, meaning that I would not receive Social Security, or any other money until the middle of the month. I was in a virtual frenzy. This morning I was awakened by a dream about being on vacation somewhere and having all my credit cards stolen. At first the dream was troubling—I actually went and checked my wallet just to make sure credit cards were still there. But then I realized that the dream was actually offering a solution—put away my credit cards for a while. Live within my means. Don't create any new debt while I pay off the old, a little at a time, as I can.

All the anxiety was unnecessary. I conjured it from within, and for a while it made my life pretty miserable. No matter where I go, I am still myself. All my fears and anxious thoughts belong to me and are mine to accept or change. The key to living a non-anxious life is creating peace within. When we are peaceful within, we are open inner guidance, and solutions will present themselves.

                                                     In the Spirit,