Category Archives: spirituality

I ain’t no saint

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I ain’t no saint, that’s for sure.
You won’t find a halo around my head.
There used to be a time when I thought I could be some kind of spiritual “poster boy.” I was clued in to some revelation of spirituality that no one else had and therefore this offered me some sort of merit or elevated status. It was in my own mind, but of course impacted the way I saw others, especially my friends. How terribly unfortunate, and something which I will always be sorry for.

In reality, I’m just a mess. And I think it’s better that way. I had a patient the other day ask me if I could call a priest in so she could give confession. “It has been a long time, so I have a lot of things to confess,” she said. “Do you think that it would be too much to do that in the hospital?”

“I think it would be fine,” I said. “I’m not Catholic, though… so I just confess my stuff to everybody all the time!” She laughed and said she could never do such a thing. Of course, I don’t do this, but I knew the good protestant response would have been that I can go straight to God with my confession. But I don’t want to be a “good” protestant anyway.

People put halos on folks all the time. I know, as I am technically “clergy,” how it is. People apologize for swearing around me and my response is usually, “Don’t worry about it. I hear worse language in my own house daily.” I think as a chaplain, I’m able to dodge those projections a lot more easily than some. And it may be me, too. I do tend to be a bit of a “dodger.” I was encouraging one of the doctor’s yesterday for being able speak to a Muslim patient in her native tongue and I noted that the only other language I can speak in is hipster.

Let’s stop pretending, shall we? Our culture glorifies supermen and superwomen, people without limit and capable of doing extra-ordinary things. The truth is, most of us have pretty significant limps. It’s pretty hard to hide a limp, and for those that try when it is glaringly obvious, it just looks pretty ridiculous. We can limp together and laugh about the fact that some things are just really damn hard. Perfection is a myth. Progress is overrated. In our family, we call disabilities, “special abilities.” I’d rather this than have what we claim for ourselves as a “special ability” be glaringly an obvious dis-ability.

We do have saints in our traditions. We have ancestors, prophets, teachers, and elders. Some of them seem more perfect than others, but I’m pretty sure each of them has their quirks and their limits. They get elevated because they show us that we can be normal, ordinary human beings and still be blessed by Life. What more can we ask for? Probably the most extra-ordinary thing I do regularly is get up at 4:30 every morning. That might be discipline or plain foolishness. Probably a bit of both.

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Dissolution of self

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Art by Gaia Orion

I lay in bed, my hands on my head, feeling as though the thing that I had spent so long crafting, so much energy understanding, so much heartbreak wrestling was slipping away.

Self. What a popular thing these days… Know thyself. Differentiate your self. Autonomous self. Self gratification. Self glorification. As one of my teachers has said, “Psychology is monotheism with out a God. It replaces God with the Self.” As the title of James Hillman’s 1992 book states, “We’ve had 100 years of psychotherapy and the world has gotten worse.”

I write the things that come to me. I put into words considerations that come through me. How do we find ourselves in the right place at the right time? or have the words to say when we planned nothing in advance? How can we take credit for the food we eat and especially the food that grows from the land we occupy? Soil that has been there much longer than we have, often persevering despite our best efforts to control, eradicate, and propagate so that it has the appearance of neat and tidy, refined and orderly. In fact, the earth is a delightful chaos and order unique to herself, giving almost endlessly to her children, all of this infused so thoroughly with Life. Attempting to control life, kills it. How is it me that “makes” things happen? “Manifesting my reality” is so deeply dissatisfying.

As I lay in bed, in the thin space before sleeping, the only thing I could think was, “Where is my Self if I am on the receiving end of everything?” If I live in gratitude and indebtedness to Life as it comes to me, always and everywhere, Self seems so utterly overrated. What’s the use of a Self? I am not a self-made man. I am not autonomous or inevitable. In that moment I felt the dissolution of my self. “Dissolution”… the breaking apart or loosening or untying. Turning from a solid into a fluid state.

Dissolution. Dissolve. Use whatever word you want, but essentially the solid loses its form and becomes virtually indistinguishable from the environment around it. A stone in the sea maintains its form, sinks to the bottom, separate from the world around it. How similar this is to how so many go through life, not aware that Life goes through us! To dissolve in the ocean is to lose form and become one with the ocean. This is what the mystics call union. What more is there after this? What else could be more desirable? Perhaps everything.

Refuse to Look Lightly Upon the World

Refuse to look lightly upon the world. Bear the weight of each day, every moment, every word and every action, like it is your last and final undoing. Let this burden weigh you down, push you under, slow your feet to a crawl. Some days you will feel as though you are sinking in quicksand slowly creeping its way up to your chin, heavy on the chest, only a matter of time when breath escapes you. Other days, running in water or wading through snow will feel only slightly more difficult. And some some days, you’ll crawl, climb, maybe even dance with a burden light and malleable. Bear it, none the less, and do not forget that you are not alone.

Refuse to look lightly on the world. Do not underestimate the impact you have on your place, your land, your people. Every greeting, every smile, every tear, every sigh, every goodbye. Each has the power to change the present moment and the shaping of things to come. Maybe even the past. You are your ancestor’s ancestor. They dreamed of you when they measured their own impact on what may come. They lived with you in mind. Who will you be an ancestor to? What kind of person will you be as you anticipate those who will awake one morning and wonder if you considered them while you were alive? Measure the impact of your life, knowing that there are those who have done the same before you and those who will come after you. By all means, you are not alone.

Refuse to look lightly on the world. Do look after yourself. Rest, rock out, sing on your commute, party even. Allow your mind, your heart, your body some space sometimes. Even often, if that is what you need. To live and feel and engage deeply requires great escape as well. But always know you must come back because there are those waiting for you wondering when you will show up again. Maybe your children, your spouse, your animal companions. Maybe even the birds wait for water and seed. Do not leave your life unattended. You will have help.

Refuse to look lightly on the world. Recognize the insignificance of your tiny little body in the grand scheme of things. The earth does not need you to continue to turn. Maybe even the earth might do better without your consumption, your use, and your living on the take. Life goes on and will continue to go on long after you breathe your last. So what will you do while you are here? And what will you do after you die? Will you steal the gift of your body from the earth that has sustained you all this time? It doesn’t have to be this way. Live as though you are not alone.

Refuse to look lightly on the world. Pay attention. Technology is not the answer and it will not save you. Most assuredly not your children, your grandchildren, and those who come after you.  Love, life, and gratitude are what matter in your days. You are not alone and you never have been. Your very breath has always been a gift to you, given by trees you have not cut down, grass you have not mowed over, algae you have not scorched with your chemicals. Your body is entirely gifted to you by the food you eat and the water you drink, whether it came to you in a box from a factory or from the work of your own hands. Do well with what you have been given. Treat things kindly and speak praise into the world, from the sun rising to the waves crashing to the soil you walk on to the wind whispering. Your voice and your words may not be with you forever and they have the power that is uniquely yours as a human being to make things real and to set things in motion. Refuse to look lightly on the world because in no way does the world look lightly on you.

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.

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.