Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Slipping into My Mind

"One could say that the true philosopher does not have to be a great and famous human being. There are thousands of philosophers living quietly among us. They tend to look very much like everyone else. They marry, have families, and hold jobs. They watch football on Sunday afternoons and drink beer."
This quote from the first chapter of "Philosophy: Something to Believe In" won me over. It appears on page two and when I read it I thought, well all right then - one does not need to be Plato or Kierkegaard or Facault to be a philosopher - and thank goodness because I've read their writings and they are a little dense.

Actually it is the next quote that got me thinking that I too am a philosopher. I mean I do watch a little football on Sunday's but I almost never drink beer. I might have a glass of wine now and then with dinner. Anyway, there's this idea:

"..They do one more thing, a thing most people don't bother doing: they enjoy slipping into their minds and putting their thoughts together, not just for practical purposes but for some deeper, unexplainable need to think on a broad scale."
A philosopher thinks about humankind after solving problems in their own household. This is my life in nutshell - only it also includes the church - so I spend all day "problem" solving for home and work....and then I need to take a little time to slip into my mind and think for sake of thinking. 

"the philosophical life, the life marked by the love of wisdom or at all events the love of the search, is a life-style all its own. It can survive lack of status, loss of wealth, even broken love affairs. Like the life-style of artistic people, it finds its joy in itself, not in what it may lead to in the way of social success or recognition. It need not produce superachievement, even by its own standards. A true philosopher may end her life feeling she has never to her own satisfaction answered a single question; but she will know that she has asked many questions others have never thought about. At the very least the philosophical life is an examined life, and as Socrates tells us, the other kind is not worth living."

The chapter goes on to discuss the difference between spontaneity and reflection, arguing that reflection is way to wisdom. "Reflection suggests that we view things in a larger perspective than the urgencies of the moment." Our experiences become meaningful when we are able to reflect upon them, learn from them, perhaps respond to them - and not just react to the experience. 

I do think we are living in an age when most people, by and large, are reactive not reflective. It seems to me that if people really took the time to think things through carefully, logically, factually we would not a Presidential race as close as it is. If we were better able to each reflect upon, examine, our own thoughts and motivations and beliefs, we might be a different people.

Unfortunately, because of the general insecurity which prevails deep down inside us concerning our beliefs, we sometimes viciously attack the premises of others as a defense against having our own questioned.
I think that sums, exactly, what is going. Rather than examine our own ideas and understand them better and how they motivate us for better or for worse, people simple attack the other. Easier to attack than have one's own beliefs questioned, which may require us to think, reflect, question, examine what we believe and why. And how those beliefs motivate us.

Take for example prejudice. Many polls lately have shown that the American people are more actively prejudice than we were in 2008. However people deny their prejudice and mask it with with criticisms of the other rather than looking their fear - for prejudice is rooted in fear - in the face. Without being able to examine one's own life one cannot understand one's own limits, fears, hopes, and dreams.

And so people go on the attack. Surely it is the other person who is wrong. And, since people cannot name the true root of their fear, what is wrong is stuff that isn't even wrong. Lies are spouted as truth and rather than reflect on the lies they are simply accepted. It's easier that way. "The generally nonreflective-life style is attractive to many persons..."

But I fear that in this day and age those who follow a nonreflective life style are making decisions that will have grave consequences.

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha." he said.
"I see that none has passed here
in a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."
- Stephen Crane






We're on a path leading somewhere. Will we just simply go, though the way is sharp? Or will we take time to think, reflect, ponder, listen, discern, examine and understand what motivates us?


Monday, October 29, 2012

Inherent to Who I Am

My seminary advisor and New Testament professor spent time "counseling" me in academics. He was the sort of man who could never look a person in the eye, always had his gaze to ceiling, as if in deep thought. This made conversing with him a little disconcerting. It was especially odd when he preached, his gaze ever heavenward.  I have a clear memory of him instructing the student body on the correct manner of receiving communion. "Never touch the bowl of the chalice. If you must touch it, guide it from the base of the stem...." Apparently we were touching the bowl and mucking it up with our finger prints... I remember him gazing to the ceiling while he told us off.

In his office, cramped and small, sitting across the desk from him,  planning my academic career was no less bizarre. His eyes perpetually gazing some where beyond my head, as he made pronouncements about what classes I should take and why. He was a very well thought of and intelligent professor. He just made me feel like I was, well, not quite up to snuff academic-wise. Smart enough as intelligence goes, but not an academic. At least that is what I got from his assessment of me.

On one occasion he spent time processing my "inability" to ask questions. I never, or rarely, raised my hand to ask a question in class. Truth is I rarely had questions to ask. I just soaked up everything I was taught and read like a sponge. I hadn't time nor the opportunity to process it nearly enough to question what I was learning. As an introvert, that continues to be how I function - learn, read, listen, think, take time to absorb, and then later...the questions come, the responses.

My professor however had another assessment as to why I didn't ask questions. He told me it was my Mormon upbringing. As a Mormon I was told what to think not taught how to think. I was told what to believe not taught to ask questions. I suppose there is truth to this. I do remember asking a lot of questions in Sunday School, I don't remember anyone thinking my questions were valid or good nor do I have any recollection of having my inquisitive mind and thought process reinforced.

I'm pretty sure that had a lot to do with being a young girl in the 1960's. It's still true today, but I know that women's voices are rarely heard over male voices. So the paradigm is not so much MY voice as women's voices in general. I do have the double bind of being an introvert which means I never speak up in a group, too busy processing data.

The other thing this professor assured me of, I had no mind for philosophy. I took that to mean I really was not the most intelligent person.Not smarter than the average bear, as Yogi used to say to Boo Boo. I was the average bear.

I imagine this is what influenced me to buy, for a $1.98, from a book sale at the seminary book store a book titled, "Philosophy Something To Believe In." I bought this book sometime between 1996 and 1999, thinking that maybe I could learn something about philosophy even if I couldn't really understand it. It's sat on my bookshelf, unopened, forgotten ever since. I've moved this book from Illinois to Wisconsin, back to Illinois, to Arizona and back to Illinois and now to Michigan. A few weeks ago I *saw* it on my bookshelf, as if for the first time in a decade. And I took it down and started to read it. I am fascinated by this book - it is no doubt very readable. But it cracks me up, it was printed in 1975, written by Richard Paul Janaro of Miami-Dade Community College. I have no idea why it was at book sale at the seminary. Then again, maybe I didn't buy it - perhaps it was in one of the boxes that appeared every year as students graduated and moved, leaving behind items "free for the taking?" Anyway, however I got this book I'm glad I did.

In the preface the author states that this is a book about philosophical belief, not a history of philosophy. It is an introduction to the nature of belief; how a number of major philosophers have attained belief; what those beliefs were, relative to a number of ongoing concerns that appear to be with us still; and most important of all, how we may involve ourselves in the act of believing. The book endorses the philosophical processes as source of belief, as opposed to allowing belief to spring from unknown or unexamined influences.  The underlying theme of the book is that we do not need to be passive victims to the many undeniable forces, such as media, social customs, or peer group pressures, that can condition our thoughts and behavior. "It is that human beings are fundamentally rational in the broadest sense of the word; they are capable of sustained, reflective thought, as well as profound flashes of insight or intuition."

Janaro's thesis and argument appears to be that the reflective and self-examined mind is one that functions philosophically. Philosophy is being reflective, pondering one's life, and striving to understand one's motivations and actions. The book is intended to be a springboard for "thinking" and the philosophical tenents of "belief" that rise from reflective thought.

And so I've come to realize that my professor was very wrong about me. I may not be the kind of academic he was, but I am a philosopher in my own way. I actively embrace an intentional thought process and reflection. I like to explore and understand the regions of my mind, actions, and motivations. The reflective process is inherent to who I am.

The other day I considered closing down this blog and doing something else. Another blog, perhaps. What I've come to realize from reading this book is that this blog is a history of my reflections and thought process for the last six years. Here I have struggled to understand cruelty, prejudice, being devoiced and devalued as a woman. Here I have processed the challenges of working in a small, apathetic parish, several large corporate business parishes, and a mid-sized dynamic creative parish. Here I have processed scripture and how it informs our lives. Here I have pondered how I am being called to live my life as a priest. Here is where I am reflecting on what it means to use my voice in the most authentic way. Here is where I take the time to process what I read, hear, experience. Here is where I reflect on what I believe. From here is where I am able to move out into life, more self aware, more capable of asking questions, more able to understand the world around me and what motivates me.

Seeking Authentic Voice, therefore, is an ongoing process, reason enough to keep using it just as it is.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Inspired, not....



Over and over I think about changing this blog. I don't mean just change the color scheme, template, or photo which I change frequently. I mean change it drastically, change the name and the focus. I've been blogging on this blog, as it is, since 2006. A change seems like a good idea. I even went quiet for a few days and put all of my previous posts into draft form so I could think about it from a blank slate. But even with that, no ideas for "what next" came to me. Nothing inspired me. So, I guess I will continue as is for awhile longer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Healing Heart



For the last seven weeks a group of people at the church have been reading and discussing Parker Palmer's book, "Healing the Heart of Democracy." I think this book has worked on my inner being, changing me completely in this anxious pre-election time. While not offering anything I haven't already through about (practice active listening, learn to respond with thoughtfulness not react with emotion, and so forth), it is a steady hand of profound reflection.

The conversations we have had have been engaging, insightful. I am most delighted by a woman who is in her 80's. She comes to most every book discussion and Bible Study class that I offer. She is very articulate and clear thinking, frequently astonishing me with the degree to which she pushes the idea's presented and makes connections that expand all of our thinking on any subject. She is simply brilliant. The other night she came to out discussion and brought a friend with her, a neighbor. These two women are profoundly engaged, and have been for years, in the social, religious, political world around them. Speaking from their long history, making references from meetings, coffees, women's groups, and other activities they have participated in over the last 50 years, these women were the center of the discussion. We talked about the Presidential candidates, prejudice, race, women, the two political platforms, and what is at stake. They consistently brought in a level of awareness that reflected their intelligence and awareness, couched in the experience of old women looking back across their lives, and all that has changed since their birth in the late 1920's.

These women stand in sharp contrast to most of the women and men I knew at a former parish, even though they are the same age. Reminding me to be careful about "lumping together" people of any generation.

One woman brought in an article from the Adirondack Daily Enterprise (a New York State newspaper). It was published on December 13, 2011 titled, Benchmarking taxpayer expectations - which is a response to an op-ed that apparently stated that rich Americans are paying their share of the nation's tax burden.

Here is the most startling statistic: In 2010 the U.S. had the second largest budget deficit as a percentage of GDP among the world's 24 richest nations. It also had the second lowest tax revenue as a percent of GDP and was last for public social spending as a percentage of GDP. Fifty years ago, the ratio of U.S. total taxes to GDP was the same as European nations, but since 1965 the European nations has increased; the U.S> ratio has remained constant and is now among the lowest among the richest 22 nations. Accordingly, from 1965 to 2009, 21 nations devoted a larger percentage of national productivity to taxes and to public social spending than the U.S.

The U.S. ranked second highest in income inequality and the worst in health and social problems. The ratio of income inequality is the ration of income (after taxes and benefits) of the richest 20 percent of the population relative to the poorest 20 percent.

Specific U.S. rankings include:
  • fourth lowest UNICEF index for child well-being
  • Second lowest percent of national income spent on foreign aid
  • Last in infant deaths per 1,000 live births
  • Fourth lowest life expectancy
  • Highest adult obesity
  • Sixth worst math and literacy scores for 15 year olds
  • Highest births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 (how many of these are from rape and incest I wonder?)
  • First in the number of prisoners per 100,000 of population
Importantly, nations with greater income equality consistently had higher rankings of citizen well-being, as measured by health and social problems, across their total populations and for a diversity of problem categories.

I could go on. But you can read the article from the link above, if you are interested. My point is that these women, relatively wealthy, upper middle class, educated women, are fully engaged in the world around them. And they support President Obama. They reflect to me the very heart that Parker Palmer is talking about in this book - the need for people to have honest, compassionate, civil conversations. To learn and grow from one another.

One woman said, "I use to be quiet and shy. I'd never speak up about anything. Now I talk to everyone. I am never afraid to share my opinion. I want to hear what others have to say as well. I learn something from everyone."

These last few weeks before the election I am praying for us all, may the heart of democracy, this brave experiment in equality, be healed. May it be healed because we learn to listen to one another and care, truly, about the lives of everyone and not just our own bank accounts. (Mine is empty anyway, and has been for four years, and will be, most likely for the rest of my life).


I know. I keep harping on this idea of learning to listen to one another. I feel like a silly Polly-Anna. There are so many of us who simply can't or won't do this. But my life experience tells me that everything is different when we are able too. From the intense, emotional reactivity of the people I knew in Arizona (the birth of the "Tea-Party"), people of the same age, race, and religious denomination as these two women, but for whom listening was impossible - to these thoughtful women who came to the discussion group.

 Listening is key. The key to forming a compassionate heart.There are many aspects of the past that I do not wish to restore - we have made many strides toward full equality of every human being - but healing this income equality is crucial to the well-being of all. There will never really be equality for all until we do that.

I truly hope Obama wins this election. I truly fear for us if he does not. And I remain completely astonished that the race is as close as it is. Seriously. Some of us are drinking the Kool-aid of deception, participating in our own demise and projecting the blame on someone else.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Eyes Gaze Reflectively


 
My earliest memories of yoga are of my college roommate Anita practicing poses in her room. We shared a three bedroom house in 1975. Anita was long and lithe, with a sweet smile and great big laugh, perpetually optimistic and pragmatic at the same time. I was a dance major but didn't venture into yoga until nine years later. By then I lived in Chicago and had a high stress job working for a famous interior designer. This designer was intense, prone toward cruelty, which everyone accepted because he was so famous. This wasn't my first foray into working for famous people. I spent six years working as a Lighting Designer and Technical Director for a modern dance theater in Chicago. I worked with some of the most famous modern dance troupes of the time. Many of them were fabulous to work with, a few were very tough. But none were as difficult as this interior designer. Of course none of the dancers were as rich, either.

My response to the stress of working this job (well, besides quitting, which my therapist thought I should do), was to begin a yoga practice. I began every day with yoga and attended class weekly. It was soothing, restorative, grounding. I've been practicing yoga ever since, some 28 years. Most of my yoga practice is done at home, on my own. I occasionally take a class. I often use a Gaiam created DVD "Yoga for Women." But most days I practice from a podcast "Yogamazing" - which is fabulous. I love the short, but effective classes, and the variety of classes. When I was sick I practiced with the cleansing session. When I'm stiff and achy I practice the stretching one. Or a morning intensive....I alternate my exercise - one day I do my weight and core work with a cardio session, the next day I do yoga. All with the hope of building strength and keeping limber.

Saturday I decided to use the "Yoga for Women" DVD for my practice. It's an hour long session with some intense standing posture followed by a series of seated postures. (Those who attended the RevGals only land based retreat, the BE  2.0, which I helped organize in Scottsdale, AZ, know this DVD because I made it available for us to use....).

One phrase the narrator uses during this practice session, which always catches me up, is. "Allow your eyes to gaze reflectively." She never explains what she means by this. But I think I get it. One needs to have a focal point - some point that one looks at - when practicing yoga so that one can maintain balance and hold postures. But gazing reflectively is different from staring intently at the focus point. Gazing reflectively is gentle, relaxed, with at least as much energy put into breathing, and being attentive to the body as it is to the focal point. The object one is focused on is not the point, just a tool, breathing, holding the posture, being aware of the sensations in ones body, relaxing into the pose - these are all the point.

Gazing reflectively is useful term, it seems to me. One we could use in other aspects of daily life. Particularly in these last days before the election. Personally I can hardly believe the candidates are in a dead heat - that literally half this country would rather have one over the other. This is not at all good. Regardless of who wins there will be half the country disappointed. It's difficult for me to understand why this so. And I really worry about our future if one candidate wins and the other loses. Half the country feels the complete opposite.  I find it very stressful. The idea that everything I have worked on and cared about regarding social justice and women's health - all the way back to those days in the 1970's when I voted for the first time - all could be changed by one vote at this point in time. Seriously, I do think it is that dire.

There are other aspects of life that are stressful. Some of the stress is potentially very good, but stressful nonetheless. I am working extra hard to find balance, peace, serenity. Working extra hard to gaze reflectively instead of stare hard or squeeze my eyes shut.

Every day I make it my goal to gaze reflectively. Breathing. Trying to relax into a posture of trust, that all things will work out for good, in God's time.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

God, face to face in one another...



 A reflection on the readings for Proper 24B: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Mark 10:35-45




I was fascinated this week to watch a video that originally aired on the science channel with Dr. Andrew Newberg, the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomson Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. Dr. Newberg has studied the neuroscientific effect of religious and spiritual experiences for decades.

In the video Dr. Newberg explains that to study the effect of meditation and prayer on the brain, he injects his subjects with a harmless radioactive dye while they are deep in prayer / meditation. The dye migrates to the parts of the brain where the blood flow is the strongest, i.e,. to the most active part of the brain. He was then able to observe the brain in action while the person prayed or meditated.
The red portion of the scan indicated greater activity in areas of the brain. In this case, increased activity was observed in the frontal lobes and the language area of the brain. This is the part of the brain that activates during conversation, and Dr. Newberg believes that for the brain, praying to God in the Judeo-Christian tradition is similar to talking to people.

While observing atheists meditating or "contemplating God," Dr. Newberg did not observe any of the brain activity in the frontal lobe that he observed in religious people.

Dr. Newberg concludes that all religions create neurological experiences, and while God is unimaginable for atheists, for religious people, God is as real as the physical world.[i]

Last week we began our reflection on the Book of Job. Job ponders the feelings of despair that accompany suffering; especially the sense that God is absent in the presence of suffering which heightens the despair. Job wonders, “What kind of a God is this God who in the face of suffering is nowhere to be seen?”

Job, ever faithful, waits patiently for God to appear. But when his circumstances continue to worsen and God is nowhere to be seen, Job loses it. He rails against God and calls God to task. And finally, in the section of Job we heard this morning, God appears. And, it’s not the nicest portrait of God, either.

 Virginia Woolf once wrote, “I read the Book of Job last night – I don’t think God comes out well.”

And Barbara Brown Taylor, a highly regarded Episcopal priest and preacher writes: “ this speech by God seems to reveal an arrogant bully who reaches down a thumb and crushes Job like a bug …a God who has no more respect than that for human suffering does not deserve the title…” [ii]

Those of us who have suffered deeply recognize in the story of Job and in our suffering that the worst thing that can happen is to feel as if one has been abandoned by God, as if God does not care, or perhaps there is no God. That feeling brings with it a deeper despair, the sense that there is no hope and therefore there can be no relief.  Even Jesus in the garden and on the cross felt this profound sense of helplessness and abandonment of God.
A challenge for us as 21st Century Christians is how do we understand the contrasting portraits of God that we hear in the Bible. The story of Job gives us an image of God who is invested in being powerful, omnipotent, absent and then very visible. The story we hear in other portions of the Bible is that God is primarily invested in love and that God’s love is realized in our relationships with other people.

A word search through the Bible reveals that the word “Power” appears 461 times between Genesis and Revelation. The word “Love” appears 872 times. One might conclude that love is the more relevant expression of God’s self and the life of faith.

Our Gospel reading this morning considers the concepts of power and humility, of suffering and faith, of relationship and love. In response to the disciple’s grandiose sense of power which, in their estimation, separates them from other people, Jesus offers a sharp reality check. Being a person of faith does not make one better than others, it does not make us “powerful” nor will it prevent us from suffering. Life still happens. Our faith is grounded in relationship – in what it means to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. So, because life happens and no one is immune to the stuff of life, our faith is challenged when we suffer because our relationship with God is challenged.

As the study from Dr. Newberg suggests, if we believe we are praying to a real being, what happens to our prayer and our despair if we begin to feel as if there is no relationship? What happens to our prayer if we believe that God does not hear us or care?

That’s when we begin to pray like Job did. According to Job, we do not have to be polite when we pray. When in pain, we are allowed to yell as loudly and as often as need be: “Why is this happening to me? Answer me!”  or as a friend of mine says, “GOD! Be GOD!”  The story of Job assures us that devout defiance pleases God and it may even bring God out of hiding…[iii]

In response to Job’s rant God makes an appearance. To our modern ears this appearance of God is harsh and commanding. God never does answer Job’s question, “Why did this happen to me?” God just reminds Job that God is God. But Job is transformed from this experience because he has seen God and lived.

The resulting transformation that comes from this reality of God’s presence in our lives is not always a transformation of life circumstances. Sometimes life just gets more difficult instead of better. The transformation that comes from prayer and conversation with God, even yelling at God, happens inside of us. We are somehow transformed. Its grace and it’s a bit of a mystery. And when that transformation happens, regardless of whether life circumstances remain the same, worsen, or get better, how we view our lives changes. An early 20th century sociologist named William Isaac Thomas built an entire theory on this principle – that how we view the world around us defines that world for us.  Dr. Newberg’s study confirms this - because we believe we are praying to and talking with God we are.  I don’t really need sociology or science to confirm what I’ve come to know in my own faith life, but there is something rather satisfying in having it affirmed in measurable ways. It’s almost like seeing God face to face.

We may never actually see God face to face in this life. But we can know God in our prayers. God is made real to us every Sunday in song and prayer, in words and silence, in the bread and in the cup. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asks. This is no easy task, for it is the cup of salvation where power is broken open and transformed into love. Where God abides with us in the whirlwind and from the chaos brings forth hope. It is the same cup in which we too meet the suffering of this world, drink it into our being. Nourished by this same cup of suffering we become agents of transformation through the power of God’s grace and love. The cup of suffering we share is filled with mercy. Let us drink the cup of our baptism, that we may see God, face to face, in one another, and live!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Opening

I'm tired. So much is at stake this election year. Or at least I feel like there is a lot at stake. I worry that the world as I know it, one that is emerging toward greater equality for people in all segments of society, will snap shut. That we will close our hearts around fear. I am tired of the angst and the language and meanness, of the lies and of the mask we humans can wear over our prejudices. It's not socially appropriate to be prejudice so we mask the feelings with anger, distortions of truth, and veiled accusations. No doubt being prejudice is wrong. It's also wrong to think we aren't prejudice when we are, to not see our behavior for what it really is. Watching the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates is an example of this. I'm tired.

I know I need to keep working for justice, as I understand it as a progressive Christian. And I will. 

But I am tired of how we speak to one another and treat each other. I am trying to be a better person, myself. I am trying to not live in anger but reach out in compassion. It isn't easy. Some days I just want to turn off television and not read any social media stuff...but I still continue to read and then work to calm my heart with prayer.
  As usual Mary Oliver says it well. And so, on this Monday morning, a day off, I offer this:

 
The Fist
There are days
when the sun goes down
like a fist,
though of course
if you see anything
in the heavens this way
you had better get
your eyes checked
or, better still,
your diminished spirit.
The heavens
have no fist,
or wouldn't they have been
shaking it
for a thousand years now,
and even
longer than that,
at the dull, brutish
ways of mankind -
heaven's own
creation?
Instead: such patience!
Such willingness
to let us continue!
To hear,
little by little,
the voices -
only, so far, in
pockets of the world -
suggesting the possibilities
of peace?
Keep looking.
Behold, how the fist opens
with invitation.
~ Mary Oliver ~
(Thirst)

One Degree of Difference

I did this exercise with us a few years ago, but I want to do it again. How many of you have your cell phones on you? If your cell phone ...