Category Archives: nature

Panentheism: Filling gaps of ancestral homelessness

A wise teacher said recently, with acute and accurate observation, “Most multi-god religions never really had an issue with the one-god religions. It’s the Monotheistic religions that chronically have taken offence with everyone else.” He went on to note that it may be entirely possible for an animist to sit in a Protestant church and feel fairly at home.

It seems it is becoming less and less tolerable (especially with increased information and awareness coming from science, anthropology, history, and ethics) to claim sovereignty of belief and truth in opposition to a great multitude of beliefs and experiences in the world. This poses an extremely consequential dilemma. On the one hand, there are fundamentalist believers of many different religions, who dig their heals in even more, saying it is a sure sign of the demise of humanity that so many people disagree with “our way.” These groups have to work even harder to preach and evangelize the “one true way.” On the other hand, many who grew up in the church or have Monotheism in their ancestral heritage, leave these “limited and exclusive” belief systems behind in order to find something more authentic to their experience. Sometimes this seems rather fundamentalist on the other extreme.

Granted, there are those who are perfectly comfortable with this arrangement of digging in even harder or abandoning their roots. I would be willing to bet, however, that for many, though, the arrangement, message, or straight up disconnection feels off… like something is missing and can’t be settled. I think this unsettledness is good and is important. It creates a hunger to search for something of meaning, something more reconciling, more inclusive, and more embracing of our ancestral heritage.

Some of us don’t feel quite right about about tossing off monotheism and some of the nuances that we are drawn to within our belief systems we were raised on. Maintaining a spirit of anger and betrayal towards something so central in our heritage is something akin to walking with a profound limp. I have heard so many times of the pain and horror at what our ancestors have done in the name of God and how this has driven one to different beliefs. Good! The pain of how things are and how they have come to be is exactly the burden we need to carry into the future as we put words to the trouble we are in.

There is a historical and cultural understanding about god, though, that I believe can unite and reconcile these homeless and disillusioned Westerners. It is indigenous, it is local, and it is inclusive. Panentheism is a foundational belief that includes God, mystery, or divine and also allows for more unification between the creator and the “created.” While not exclusive to Christianity, there have been Christians since the early church that considered God to be in all things and all things to be in God. So the universe is contained within an infinite and infusing presence.

In this way, the divine is simultaneous with Life. Love. The Force. The Great Spirit. Problems with the dualism of monotheism can be moved beyond. Within panentheism there is room for all, the ability to hold the grief of what has been done and is being done, and a way to love the world as alive and infused with Life. Problem of evil, or a good God allowing bad things? Not really an issue if God includes all of life, both light and darkness. Other religions or views about God? We are all part of a greater presence, each trying to find our cultural way of understanding and connecting. The relationship between humanity and other earth beings? We are all sustained by Life. None are greater than the others, but participate together with Life and Love to create more life.

Personally, the implications of living in this way and with this union are only beginning to take shape. Living in the belief that all things are in God and God is in all things has been my ongoing contemplation for maybe more than ten years now, but it continues to shape the way that I engage with others, pray, care for the land and those that live on it, eat and drink, attend and participate in church, and care for others in times of heartbreak and death. I have been able to find some reconciliation and harmony with my Christian heritage without feeling like I have to be stuck in a box that is too small and exclusive. I find myself in great wonder much of the time and frankly in awe of mystery at all times. It is okay for me not to know. In the midst of it all… all the joys and sorrows, wonder and heartbreak, there is still God who holds me and all beings in love. Life happens and continues to happen. It is not the enemy, not bad or good per se, but wonderful, yes. And consistently beautiful.

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The arrival of fox and other animal teachers

I have only seen foxes a few times in my life, but most of those times in a rather liminal space where their arrivals made me stop in my tracks. The first time, I was out walking the land at Bethel University one Sunday morning. It was one of those early mornings where the mist was rising off the lake and I had that sense that no one, not one student was out an about especially out here. The path curved around Sem hill, that towering slope degraded by years of sledding down it in canoes and on lunch trays. Sem hill that rose above the massive cottonwood, the survivor of lightening strikes, the home for so many countless wild critters, the watcher of hundreds of years of passers by, and the one who blanketed everything in downy dusting every early summer, later cut down to make way for more buildings. Every morning, I walked this curving path along the lake with maples and oaks fighting against the buckthorn to cover the way ahead. I learned the way of the squirrels at play and the numerous feathered ones, big and small, their calls, their foraging spots, and their colors. This particularly quiet and misty morning, was likely after a rain, and I’m sure my mind was preoccupied with the musings of a early twenty-something young man trying to find my way in the world and a sense of connection to Life as it swirled around me and I breathed it in in that very moment. The path opened out into a clearing on the other side of the hill and as I looked up, I saw him there. A fox, staring back at me, with the leg or tail of some animal hanging out of it’s mouth. I was stunned as I had never seen a fox out there and I froze. When I finally blinked, he trotted off in the way foxes do and I didn’t even consider following him or trying to get another look. It was as it was meant to be, for that moment only. Brief and fleeting.

When we open ourselves to grief, to loss, to heartbreak, and to trouble it seems often we grow new eyes. We see things differently and things we would have passed by on a normal day (or maybe not “normal”), now seem to show up with messages just for us and just for this time. Perhaps this is the wonder of being on the receiving end of Life, the mystical and mystery nature of the universe, those who have come before and those who will come after. The world is not there to give ME my own personal messages… and yet, the world does communicate to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Animals have been significant to me at various times in my life, teachers if you will, or messengers that I am not alone. I would never claim the use or access to a “spirit animal” as this is not my tradition and it minimizes the deep culture of those for whom this IS part of their tradition. It is ought to be fairly clear, though, that animals carry with them certain personalities or energies that offer something to us when they come upon us (or we come upon them). I should have to prove this concept, but if you wonder about this, consider what qualities of sight one might attribute to an eagle versus… hmm, a mole. It has helped me at times, especially when they show up in my dreams, to observe what others have found to be significant about their nature. Sometimes, there is learning to be done there, something about myself or the world that is trying to come through.

There was another time just over a year ago… I was in the dark, my heart drowning in the grief and shock of an imagined future exploding before my eyes. We were still in those early days of learning of Brendan’s diagnosis of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, the days before the collective heartbreak of releasing the news. Those were the days that blurred together through my spontaneous tears and the consuming effort required just to put one foot in front of the other. I don’t remember who I talked to during that time nor what I read or what shows and movies I watched to get some momentary escape from the devastation. I was riding my bike to work those days, listening to worship music on Pandora, which sometimes is the only thing that keeps me holding on. Paradox of pure misery coming up against songs of hope, a God that is good, and the promise of not being alone. I didn’t want to ride my bike those days, but it was one of those saving “good for me” activities.

One mid-afternoon after my time in the hospital halls was complete, I distractedly made my way to my bike, unlocked it, clipped in and took off. I had Pandora going that day, which likely meant I was feeling particularly stricken, and the randomly chosen tunes began with a song I now know is called I Can Feel You. The lyrics were particularly what I needed to hear in that moment:

The wind and waves surround me
And I’m tossed, feel like I’m drowning
I am tired, I am weak, I need You here with me
‘Cause I can feel the rising tide
But I don’t have the strength to fight
I feel clouded and confused, I need You here with me

In the chaos of the storm,
I have drifted far, far away
But I call out Your name
Cause You are just a breath, a breath away

Then through the shadows Your light appears
I’ve known You’re with me, but now it is clear…

At about this point in the song, I had left the hospital parking lot and crossed the bridge to the prairie area I would shortcut through. There, seemingly materializing out of a lumber pile was a fox, brighter than any I had seen before. Looking almost red, his tail fanned out behind it as he once again trotted away into the underbrush. At 3:15, in the afternoon his appearance immediately struck me as a uncommon and as I skidded to a halt, taking off my headphones and jumping off my bike, he watched me, his head peering up from behind an earth mound covered in blowing prairie grass. He ducked down then and was gone. I walked through the grass, ducking through the low trees, hoping for another glimpse but again he was only there for that moment.

The third time fox arrived in my liminal space was in the middle of the night outside our cabin in Canada when I was attending the third Orphan Wisdom School. No one else heard him that night, but there is no mistaking the fox when he is calling in the night. I had never heard one before, and I didn’t see him. But he was there, and his screams launched me out of bed with my heart pounding.

Most days, I welcome my furred and feathered visitors as they are, knowing they are not there for me per se. They are doing their thing and I am doing mine, and hopefully I am as alert to them as they are to me. Our meeting is a gift for that moment, a welcome hello, and a most profound reminder to me that we are in this together, each of us dependent on this land for our life, doing what we do to survive. I don’t read into these brief passings too much, as waking encounters are different than what it might mean when my subconscious conjures them up in my dreams. But it is worth noting that on that day sunny afternoon in 2017, as the music playing was just what I needed to hear, the fox crossed my path, or I interrupted his (at a time of day when he would have normally been hunkered down in his hole), and I was left particularly dumbfounded. By what, I wasn’t sure. The next day, Kat sent me a link about what Fox might mean:

Those who are escorted by the soft footsteps of Fox are found to be dedicated, involved, initiative, genius and foresighted workers. In love and relationships they are supportive and attentive to their partner’s feelings. There are many types of foxes that can be found across most of the world. The common fox we are familiar with is also known as Red Fox, due to the color of its fur coat. This dominant energy of the color red connects us to the Base Chakra, vitality, survival and blood-relations. Perhaps this is the reason why American natives perceive Fox as the healer and protector of the family. The safe-guarding of our dear ones necessitates the ability to conceal. In nature, puppies usually bear more strongly camouflaged colors than their parents. Keeping the safety of the family requires alertness and intuition from the adults. LINK

 

Family, protector, attentiveness, survival, dedication. Pieces coming together to make meaning. I wait, arms open, in gratitude for what this land and LIFE offers to sustain me.

Emotional burden not burnout

Down time, some quiet, a couple moments of peace between one emotional, heavy day in patient rooms and family waiting rooms and another heavy, emotional grief group tonight… I spoke with a young man today as we reflected on finding our path and doing what we feel most passionate about. I told him about my work, something he seemed genuinely interested in after he completes his two years in college missions work for the Catholic church. “You should do it,” I said. “It’s such good work and so rewarding… as long as you don’t mind being heart-broken every day!” We laughed, or maybe I did so I wouldn’t start crying. He noted that it must be a lot of emotional burnout.

Emotional burnout? No… Emotional burden. That’s what I would say about what it is like to do the work I do. And I feel that carrying this with people is an honor and a privilege. Getting close to them and what they are going through, even for a few moments, changes me as much as it might change them. It is good work. And it kicks my ass sometimes.

I can’t even begin to describe how much sticks with me. In two weeks… no let’s make it one. Drug overdose, suicide by hanging, death after death, cancer, depression, abuse, three hospitals in one month… it all makes me want to weep. I started up with a new round of grief group which is a whole other level for me, being with men and women for six weeks (more if I was with them in the hospital) as they process really complicated grief sometimes that they have been hanging onto for two or more years.

So I grieve. Martin Prechtel writes, “It’s definitely safer to not actively grieve in the modern situation. But the modern world is definitely not as sane as it thinks it is to have lost the arts of grief and praise. There has to be a way.” I, personally, got us a puppy, what Prechtel calls, a “grief orphan,” because animals can absorb grief in a way that people often can’t. I don’t have such good ways of grieving on a daily day basis. Probably because I don’t have such a good habit for praising, something Prechtel notes goes hand in hand with grief. The world itself needs us to grief as much as it needs us to praise. We grieve life we have loved and we praise life we are gifted with. Read The Smell of Rain on Dust. It’s a start.

So all of this does really become an emotional burden. I was asked once how I am doing with all this. My response was to start shuffling my feet with my head down as I said, “Like this.” But emotional burdens are not bad. They are not something to be avoided as much as they are to be welcomed as ways to draw ourselves deeper into life as the world experiences it, in all her mystery. Emotional burdens make us wider, more able to embrace those who hurt, both human and more-than-human. I know I want to see life as it happens, not pretend it is different than as it is. This is the mystic way. There is room for grief as much as there is room for the kind of praise that makes me want to whistle to the chickadee as he sings his spring song, “TEE HEE.” I walked to my car last week as a crow cawed. “HELLOOOO CROOOWW!” I said… and he kept right on making his racket, with that wild bobbing head thing that crows do when they make a lot of racket. But he flew along with me, greeting me after a long day.

Praise eases the burden. Using my language, the true power of the human being. Recognizing life in its many forms as it happens, even through death. Glory to the world and to the Life-Force that flows through it all.

How we are meant to see

My eyes need softening, my gaze the balm of what they were made to behold. We were not made to stare into that blue light of our screens. The computer, the television, the phone. None of these are part of our natural way of being. It is truest for us to see in the light of the sun and the moon, fire maybe too. It is good for us to take in the hues, the full spectrum of the natural world, the constant movement, rustling, shifting, drifting, and setting of nature around us.

I know this is true because I feel part of my consciousness cloud over after long periods of time in front of a screen. I wonder how many feel this and ignore it or consider it normal. I feel my eyes burning. I feel the longing to gaze upon the natural-scape. It is there that I learn to soften my gaze. It is there that I learn how to see another human being with compassion, empathy, and love on my face. If not for a softer gaze grown and birthed from time spent seeing what my body was meant to see, I would stare at others as simply sources of information, getting only a part of my attentions, easily losing interest, there to either satisfy my personal needs or nothing at all.

Give me trees, give me grass, give me a blue sky or rain drops, let the wind bring tears to my eyes. Let me find the bird in the branches, the deer among the trunks, the fish raising the surface of the water slightly as it swims by, the snaking of the centipede under the rotten log. These will train me to see as I was meant to see. These will unify my soul with windows to it and connect my body to how it was meant to be.

How does one process one’s grief?

My wife asked me the other day, “How does a person process grief?” You’d think that as a chaplain, walking beside and with those who are grieving, I would have had an answer in that moment. Maybe because it was the last, lingering thought before sleeping and I was further along than she, or maybe because there is just no easy answer to a question like this… it goes to say, I didn’t have anything satisfying to give in return.

Maybe the question didn’t sit with me. How do I process grief? Is this different than asking, how do I grieve? I really don’t think it is a matter of processing grief as much as just grieving. Processing is talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it, sharing it, and moving through it. With processing, though, it is always something outside, something that is different than us.

I grieve every day. I grieve when I am with someone who has lost a loved one. I grieve when I hear someone say, “They didn’t tell me chemo was going to be this way. I should have had the operation.” I grieve when I see the wretched state of political debates, of violence, of abuse of our planet. I grieve so much and often that there is a weight I carry that never goes away. I pray for peace and mercy for our Earth and for the humans and the non-humans who live on it. God have mercy.

And yet, I never wish that I could remain naive of all this. I never wish for this weight to go away. It’s like saying, “Breathing is just too much work. I’d rather not do it for an hour or two.” When we learn how to grieve (not learn how to process grief) we grieve even when we are not conscious we are grieving. We become a person who grieves. There is a compassion and a union that happens there. It is a development of the person, something we have to learn and allow ourselves to grow into. Perhaps we begin by remembering that grief is not a bad thing, and it is not a good thing either, it is just a thing. It is a hard thing, yes, but so is waking up when we have been asleep for too long. It is painful, but so is exercising when our muscles atrophy. Perhaps our grief ability has been atrophied by a world that continues to tell us that grief is a bad thing that must be moved through, processed, and healed from. There is no healing from grief.