Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.

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A Time To Remember

prodigal_sonI grew up in Catholic schools and we were not exactly Biblical scholars. I understood the gist of the stories and parables in that great book, but I would be lost if I had to name the chapters and verses that contain various elements. Still I have enough familiarity with the four books that comprise the volume that I am able to relate both the history in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus in the New. What I learned is that Jesus was all about love and redemption. Over and over again he pushed back against the rule oriented Pharisees and preached the importance of understanding that He had come to remind us all that God is open to each and every one of us and that it is never too late to ask for forgiveness.

Jesus was often misunderstood by the people of His time which ultimately resulted in His being hung from a cross like a common criminal. So it is little wonder that even people who profess to be experts in the interpretation of His words might come up with ideas that appear to be more in line with the Pharisees than with Jesus. Somehow we can all hear or read the very same passages and come up with differing interpretations of them. It’s been happening for centuries and no doubt will continue as long as we humans attempt to unravel the instructions of how best to use Jesus’ instructions for how to behave toward one another.

One of my favorite parables was that of the Prodigal Son. Jesus told this story after the Pharisees and other critics suggested that He was often sinful in the selection of people with whom He associated. They disliked that Jesus was friends with tax collectors and women of dubious character and such. They worried about how He flaunted the religious laws by performing miracles on the Sabbath. They felt that Jesus too often excused bad behavior when He should have instead condemned it. What they didn’t appear to understand is that Jesus was preaching a new way of living that promised every human a pathway to amnesty regardless of how egregious their sins might once have been. Somehow large numbers of people who purport to be loving Christians have forgotten this message and instead use fire and brimstone passages from the Old Testament to defend their unforgiving stances on various issues.

The whole idea of illegal immigration, and in particular the Dreamers is a perfect example of how very religious people have somehow become unwilling to even consider the idea of forgiving those who broke the law or those who were brought to our country without consent when they were children. We have forgotten the story of the the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most powerful tale that Jesus ever related. In it he spoke of a very wealthy man who had two sons, one of whom became impatient to receive his inheritance and asked his father to give it to him immediately. The errant son took his father’s treasure and went away with it, forgetting about his family and living a profligate life. After losing everything he was starving and desperate. He came back home with the intention of begging his father to take him back as a servant to earn his keep. Instead when the loving father saw his son returning he rushed out to meet him, instructing the servants to clothe his child in fine robes. He not only forgave his son but planned a celebratory meal for him. When the other son who had been faithful to his father heard what was happening he was irate, questioning why his brother should be honored when he had been so thoughtless. The father reminded the angry son that a parent’s love is unconditional and that by prostrating himself the prodigal son had demonstrated his willingness to change and seek forgiveness.

I think of this parable whenever the subject of illegal immigration is mentioned. I realize that we cannot as a nation continue to allow people to break the law without consequence, but there are people here who came for very good reasons which we may or may not understand. They have lived peacefully among us, working hard and doing their best to fit into our society. Since we did little to turn them back initially they have little hope of returning to their native countries and finding a livelihood because they have been gone for too long. The truth is that we sat back for decades and did nothing to stop them. Now many among us want to simply turn their backs on these people and send banish them without any thought to what doing so may mean. There are even some who wish to punish their children who were brought when they were too young to even understand what was happening. Like the Pharisees so many Americans and lawmakers only see the rules and not the humanity of the situation. They shout down any plan that might rectify the status of these individuals without giving them actual citizenship, but requiring them to come out of the shadows. They speak of amnesty as if it is a dirty word rather than one that Jesus Himself would no doubt have appreciated given His propensity for forgiving people thought to be hopelessly broken. 

I tend to believe that our political leaders who continually oppose all immigration plans that propose even a smattering of forgiveness are mostly concerned about losing political power. They don’t seem to realize that their unwillingness to bend and compromise even a bit is only exacerbating the problem. They spread silly ideas that they should not concern themselves with the fate of immigrants rather than the safety of Americans. They point to the lawlessness of those who would cross our borders without permission and insinuate that most who come here are criminals. They raise the fears of our citizens by suggesting that terrorists will be coming if we do not have a hard line. Instead of telling us what chain immigration is and why we have it, they just make us afraid of it. They point to criminals who came here through chain immigration as though such incidents are the norm. They constantly speak of rules that must never be broken, forgetting how often Jesus did just that to emphasize our need to be compassionate and loving. They conveniently forget the ultimate message of redemption by His death on the cross.

As I write this the government shut down for a short time because our leaders were at an impasse. A few days later they grudgingly agreed to a short term fix, but left all of the big problems for another day. Who knows how well those discussions are going to go given the fact that we haven’t had many bipartisan moments in years. We appear to no longer be able to compromise. I suspect that if our Founding Fathers had been this way we might all still be part of the British Empire like Canadians. They would have argued infinitely and gotten nowhere, which is where we are now. 

There are those who want to lay blame for the state of our union and I would like to suggest that there is plenty to go around to everyone including those of us who vote. Of late we have turned our backs on anyone who has shown the desire to bring the country together for the general good. While we are bickering real people are being hurt and we are forgetting about all of those beautiful parables that Jesus taught us, and yet Jesus Himself would be loving and understanding even of those of us who have sometimes forgotten or ignored His message. Maybe the time has come to remember it the way it was intended to be.

The Least We Can Do

california-mud-slides-2018I watched a great program on black holes not long ago. I did my best to keep up with the theories, but the very ideas behind them are totally mind blowing. The universe is amazing and mysterious and we humans are only slowly learning about it using the mathematics and technology that we presently have. I suspect that we have yet to fully realize the depth of understanding needed to unlock all of the secrets, but there are great minds doing their best to unravel the puzzles. Somehow it is humankind’s nature to ask questions and seek answers. We want to know why things happen the way they do, and our creativity leads us ever forward in our quest. Nonetheless, we often find ourselves in frustratingly unprovable situations where it takes a leap of faith to become a believer.

I think of Galileo and the tragic persecution that he endured simply because a sector of his society was unwilling to accept his assertion that the earth was not at the center of our universe, but merely a kind of satellite coursing around the sun. The full acceptance of his ideas would not come in time to save him from a merciless punishment based on an ignorance that appears so clearly in retrospect, but was a bit more difficult to discern in the moment. We humans not only want to progress, but we want rock solid proof before we are willing to accept theories that are far different from our learned way of thinking. It is in our natures to be wary, just as Thomas the apostle was a doubter.

I find it quite interesting that there is a great divide between those who believe that the earth’s climate is changing and those who deny that this is the case. The premise of climate change is that we humans have a dramatic effect on our environment as we use and sometimes abuse its resources. Our numbers are so great that we literally change the natural world with our habits, and sadly we are accelerating a warming trend that is causing ice to melt in arctic regions and weather to be more erratic. Using data and scientific understanding of air flows and currents, those concerned with climate change urge us all to adopt habits designed to begin to heal our planet before it is too late. They point to droughts across the globe, strong hurricanes, and bone chilling winters as proof of the major changes that are taking place. Most of the scientific community is in agreement with these ideas.

At the other end of the spectrum are climate change deniers who insist that the data used to prove that our world is rapidly deteriorating is flawed. They argue that we have always gone through periods of drought and cold and that killer hurricanes are as old as the sea. They scoff at the idea that humans are somehow responsible for the very natural ways of weather that they believe continues with or without us. They use economic arguments to push for more use of fossil fuels rather than less. They believe that arguments about the climate are mostly political and as such support those who ignore the warnings of scientists. They liken the evidence that is presented in support of a theory of change to magic.

As someone who believes in God, but can’t actually prove that He is a true presence in our lives, I find the deniers to be short sighted. It is purely my faith in the promises of Jesus that guides me to prayer, devotion and a certainty that I will one day be united with my Lord in heaven. I have no rock solid proof that I am correct other than the words in the Bible and the teachings of my church, and yet I find no reason to doubt that I have found the truth. My own religious faith makes me wonder why any of us would be so wary of the much more concrete findings of scientists who have demonstrated with hard data that there are indeed great changes taking place that are associated with our habits of living.

I remember attending the funeral of a man that I knew who was originally from China. He had once been a Buddhist, but eventually accepted the beliefs of Christianity. His wife inserted elements of both Buddhism and his Baptist faith into the ceremony for him, noting with a bit of humor and irony that she didn’t want to take any changes that he might have accidentally made the wrong choice. I’ve often thought of her wisdom in conjunction with climate change, and I find myself wondering why anyone would be willing to risk being wrong by ignoring the warnings that Mother Nature appears to be sending us in greater and greater profusion. It would be far smarter to listen to those who are more educated about such things than to join in the rants of people whose sole purpose is to seek power. Namely, if each and every one of us began to live just a bit differently whether or not we are totally convinced that we in fact have an impact on the world it surely would not hurt us one iota. Like the wife who was unwilling to take a chance that her husband had been wrong, why would we want to hand off a more dangerous future to our children and grandchildren? What would it hurt to at least listen to what the scientists have to say? How could conserving just a bit more of our resources actually hurt us?

Our world is far more fragile than it appears. I have watched it being scarred of late in the most egregious ways. My city filled with water and so many homes were damaged and destroyed. Those of us who live here still shudder when thunderstorms rage overhead. We spent two days last week battling icy roads and temperatures lower than they had been in decades. All the while we watched homes burning in California and mudslides encasing them when it finally rained. We hear of Puerto Ricans still waiting for power to return months after a hurricane devastated the island. The damage to our earth is happening so often that we are almost becoming numb to its forces. We live in grave fear of terrorists and suggest that becoming more isolated from the rest of the world will keep us safer and at the same time ignore the one area where we have the power to make real change. In other words we can and should admit that we can do better in using the treasures of our planet.

Some things just make sense. Taking care of what we’ve got begins with each one of us. It’s far past time to be so silly about something as serious as the healthy functioning of the land on which we live. It can no longer be denied that our earth is sick and we must all work to bring her back to a better state. If is takes sacrifice, so be it. It’s the least that we all can do.

Thinking Inside the Box

clichés-900x675“It’s such a cliche,” she says. “I am weary of platitudes,” he complains. “That comment was so trite,” they observe.

I often see such statements in the quibbling that arises in discussions involving politics or religion. The putdowns are intended to be an assessment of the quality of ideas rather than a sound rebuttal. There is more emotion than rational thought in such outbursts, more insult and arrogance than counterpoint. The use of snide commentary has become fashionable in the modern world of tweets and soundbites. The more outrageous the idea, the more memorable it becomes and so we eschew the old ways of using parables and fables and familiar sayings or themes to explain our human natures. Instead we search for originality and condemn the laziness of quoting ancient ideas.

The dictionary tells us that a cliche is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

“the old cliché “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.””

synonyms:

platitude, hackneyed phrase, commonplacebanality, old saying, maximtruism, stock phrase, trite phrase; old chestnut

“a good speechwriter will steer clear of clichés”

As someone who strives to string words together in unique ways there is probably no greater disappointment than to be considered trite, and yet I know full well that much of what I communicate is as old as the dirt on the ground. There are few totally original ideas. The themes and phrases that we use tend to simply be variations on ways of expressing ourselves that were actually invented eons ago. Furthermore, there is a usefulness of maxims that rings true through the centuries and captures our imaginations even though we have heard them many times before. The best of the old sayings are powerful educational tools perhaps because they are so familiar.

Each day those who watch television find hundreds of possible viewing choices, many of which feature programming that is quite original, modern, even avant guard, and yet in the month of December it was the Hallmark Channel that achieved the highest ratings. This of course was due in the main because of the 24/7 airing of Christmas films most of whose plots were as easy to predict as the fairytales of our childhood. They featured characters who had become lost and eventually found, families that were united in love, communities where the spirit of the season was bright. The stories were predictable and filled with the commonplace, all of which viewers enjoyed with unadulterated delight. They provided an often wished for break from the anger and confusion of our present day situations, and the comfort of the familiar that is all too often missing in the angst driven programming that is the fare of more critically acclaimed features.

The fact that such mundane movies were so embraced should tell us that people are generally weary and prefer light hearted positive messages over the portrayal of the complexities of life that daunt us in the real world. The public is voting for a break from gritty depictions of trouble, and instead choosing hackneyed positivity because sometimes we simply need a time out and a return to the familiar.

Cliches have in fact served as potent truisms whether in the form of fables or films throughout history. They are teaching tools that help us to remember and reflect on important ideas. Just because they are so on target that they are often quoted does not make them useless, but rather timeless and memorable. They provide us with a compact way of expressing important thoughts when our own minds are unable to create new phrases. There is a usefulness in them that we should not eschew simply because they are old and well known, or because they express ideas with which we do not agree.

There are indeed times when we find ourselves at a loss for words. When we hear of a mother who has lost a child or a spouse whose mate is dying, we often find it difficult to know what to say. We turn to the old masters who somehow found the brilliance to create comforting phrases that have a universal appeal throughout the ages. To argue that they make a comment moot simply because they have been used before is a kind of cliche in and of itself. It is a smug put down without really addressing the actual situation. The person who does such a thing may feel superior, but is in reality showing little original thought. An insult is rarely an effective argument as we see all too often in social networking.

There is a disconcerting haughtiness in the insinuations of those who mock the use of time honored phrases that is frankly disturbing to me. It is as disquieting as suggesting that one way of living is superior to another. In reality the abundance of variety speaks to the human need to be free to choose, a reality that we should respect rather than mock.

I would so love to see 2018 become the year of understanding and acceptance. It would be grand if we were somehow able to put an end to so much division and unwillingness to allow everyone to live and let live, and we might start by listening to the intended meaning of what people say rather than parsing their words for significances that are more in our minds than theirs. Our constant critiquing and arguing has become so loathsome that we find ourselves wanting to tune out and tune in to make believe worlds where everything comes out well in the end. We prefer staying inside the security of the box to venturing into unknown thoughts.

The truth is that if we worked just a bit harder to be open to differences of opinions and ideas we might indeed find closer approximations of the happy endings portrayed on those Hallmark movies. The platitudes that our mothers and fathers and teachers taught us were not meant to be nags, but guidelines for living more fully. There was a reason why they became so popular that everyone was repeating them, and they may in fact provide us with ways of better enjoying our human experience. Let’s not be so quick to dismiss them or the individuals who remind us of their power. We needn’t snicker with superiority. We all have much to learn.    

The Season of Love

Christmas-LoveI’m celebrating my seventieth Christmas this morning and in another eleven months I will enjoy a birthday that makes me a septuagenarian. That’s a great number of December twenty-fifths, and somehow they have always been of great comfort to me even in years filled with tragedy. Christmas for me is bigger than me or any individual. It represents a brief moment when the vast majority of the the people in the world pause to celebrate, some for religious reasons and others just to have a good time. Whatever the motivation the season is all about showing our love for one another. It reminds us that our purpose here on earth is bigger than our individual needs and wants. From the humble beginnings of a baby born in a stable came a revolution in thought that eclipses even the greatest generals and politicians of history. Whether one believes in the sanctity of Jesus or not, there is little disagreement that His message of compassion and understanding is the key to peace on earth, goodwill toward all.

Perhaps my all time favorite Christmas card was a cutout of the word “Love” with the simple message, “Love was born at Christmastime.” I suspect that it moved me so because I had just delivered my own little girl only days before receiving it. I understood then as I do now that each tiny person who comes into to this world has the potential to be an apostle of Jesus’ message of unconditional love. Our challenge in life is to demonstrate kindness and understanding and to use our talents and our blessings for the good of all mankind. It is a daunting task, but one that brings us much joy when we make the attempt and find even a small level of success.

Even more so than Valentine’s Day, Christmas is all about love. As we gather with family and friends we demonstrate our humanity and its glorious potential. We celebrate each special person remembering those who have passed through this life before us and dreaming of those who are yet to come. We exchange gifts as an outward sign of our feelings for one another. We feast on our bounty as a way of sharing and enjoying our blessings. We send greetings to those who have touched our lives. We assess our yearly progress in becoming better persons who follow the message of giving and sharing and loving.

The world is an enormous place. Many among us have beliefs far different from our own. Christians celebrate the coming of the Savior. Jews continue to follow traditions as they await the fulfillment of a promise. Muslims follow the teachings of their Prophet. The nonreligious seek answers to life’s great questions in the words of philosophers and intellectuals. Our commonality lies in our very human quest to be good people whether for purposes of salvation or simply because it is the right thing to do. Christmas day is a time to embrace all of our brothers and sisters without judgement or self-righteousness. It is a moment to enjoy our individual uniqueness and to celebrate our own journeys through life.

There are those who are suffering on this day. It is up to us to remember them as well and to do whatever we can to help them. Maybe that means little more than brightening their day with a quick phone call or the delivery of food or a small gift. We’ve all endured Christmases that were bleak and challenging, but somehow even the most horrible situations have a way of turning around as long as we just keep trying.

Whether one believes that the little baby who so changed the world was truly the Son of God or just a very wise teacher, His words to us were always so simple to understand. By example and deed He demonstrated that every person is important and worthy of our love. Whether it be innocent children or those with whom we disagree He taught us to forgive and embrace everyone. The traditions of the Christmas season were all invented by people who followed Him to commemorate all that is best in our natures. The trees and sparkling lights are signs of the amazing power of life. The gifts are symbolic of our naturally giving natures. The food and the celebrating point to the fact that happiness is all around us and is meant to be shared.

So on this Christmas day of 2017 my hope is that each of us will find the spirit of love and peace that was born in Bethlehem so long ago. For over two thousand years mankind has been attempting to emulate better and better versions of our humanity. We have certainly missed the mark over and over again, but the most important point is that we continue to try even as we falter. Live your life today as though it is your grand opportunity to truly become the message of this season. Spread the love.