Monday, March 9, 2009

Hard times, open hands

People respond to economic hard times in differing ways.

Some become paralyzed by fear. Some tighten their grip on money and possessions. Some focus all their efforts on gaining more, by honorable or dishonorable means.

But some people look beyond their own fear of loss and see something more urgent: the needs of others. So they give more, not less, when a charity or church or neighbor asks for help.

Among them are the admirable people who made Charlotte's Critical Needs Response Fund such a success. An outpouring of donations -- $2.6 million worth -- made life easier for many local residents this winter.

What makes giving possible in the face of uncertainty? Gratitude for what you have been given. Compassion for those who struggle. Awareness that you bear the responsibility of being God's hands in the world. Trust that whatever happens, you are loved.

What is your experience? Have you seen people become more or less generous during this recession? Have you become more or less aware of the needs of others?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Living now, in the squeeze

Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, has the most stunning scenery I've ever seen in person. Like all beautiful wild places, it lifts the human spirit and shakes us out of complacency.

So I'm not surprised that a Tibetan Buddhist monastery was established there. I didn't visit Gampo Abbey when my son and I traveled to Cape Breton two summers ago, although we stayed just a few miles away. We ran out of time and, more important, gasoline -- and the closest gas station was in the other direction. But since then I have discovered the writings of the monastery's resident teacher, Ani Pema Chodron. Here's a sample that is relevant to our ongoing discussion of the role of faith in times of economic uncertainty:

We are given changes all the time. We can either cling to security, or we can let ourselves feel exposed, as if we had just been born, as if we had just popped out into the brightness of life and were completely naked. Maybe that sounds too uncomfortable or frightening, but on the other hand, it's our chance to realize that this mundane world is all there is, and we could see it with new eyes and at long last wake up from our ancient sleep of preconceptions.

The truth, said an ancient Chinese master, is neither like this nor like that. It is like a dog yearning over a bowl of burning oil. He can't leave it, because it is too desirable, and he can't lick it, because it is too hot. So how do we relate to that squeeze? Somehow, someone finally needs to encourage us to be inquisitive about this unknown territory and about the unanswerable question of what's going to happen next.

The state of nowness is available in that moment of squeeze. In that awkward, ambiguous moment is our own wisdom mind. Right there in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our own wisdom mind.

While I wouldn't say this mundane world is all there is, I am quite certain that facing change as though it is birth does give us new eyes to see the gift of now, the abundant life, even in "the uncertainty of everyday chaos."

How do you react to change and uncertainty? Can it be a place of grace?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The gift of empty hands

In the last post, I asked how your faith has affected how you deal with the current economic troubles. A wonderful response came by e-mail from the Rev. John Hewett, senior minister at First Baptist Church in Monroe. With his permission, I am publishing it here.

I have rediscovered books bought but never read, trails driven by but never walked, relationships remembered but no longer nourished.

I have learned to savor things still available for free: quietness, laughter, rest, touch, smiles, tears.

I've been forced to trust in God rather than the work of my own hands or the safety of my retirement account.

I've rediscovered the joy of prayer without ceasing.

If it's true that God cannot pour God's riches into hands that are already full, the best gift we could gain at this moment is the gift of empty hands.

To which I add a fervent "Amen!"

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abundance in a time of scarcity

I walked through Concord Mills the other day with long strides and deliberate blinders. My goal was exercise, not shopping, and I didn't want to be tempted.

The daily economic news is enough to make even spendthrifts put locks on their wallets.
Everyone I know is cutting back: eating out less, putting off purchases, making do.

Budgetary discipline is good. Less focus on material acquisitions is even better. But spending all your time thinking about what you can't buy or shouldn't buy makes you just as much a slave to money as if you were spending all your time shopping or scheming to become wealthy. Either way, you're not living the free, abundant life that religions tell us we were created to enjoy.

I tend to get less antsy about money than about time. There never seems to be enough time to do all that absolutely must be done. So I live in a state of perpetual scarcity despite each day's reliable gift of 24 hours.

I daydream, as most of us do, about what it would be like to have an inexhaustible supply of both money and time. But the truth is that I would not necessarily be more free. True freedom is owning without grasping, giving without resentment, appreciating without craving more.

Yes, I know: This attitude won't pay the mortgage when you've lost your job and your savings. But most of our fretting comes long before we reach that point. And who knows? If we're used to seeing abundance in every circumstance, we might see it even then, in unexpected ways.

How has your faith affected how you deal with the current economic troubles?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Gay bishop: 'Bless us with tears'

If a bishop spoke at a nationally televised event attended by 400,000, would anyone hear the prayer?

Not as many as you might think.

The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, delivered the invocation before Sunday's We Are One inaugural concert. But HBO started its live coverage after the prayer, and a problem with either the microphone or the speakers kept many in the audience from hearing his words.

I'm not among those who attribute this to a conspiracy to silence the controversial clergyman, whose election as bishop has stirred conflict and possible schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion. But I do think it's a shame, because the prayer is unusual in what it requests from God. How many of us would ask for the "blessings" of tears, anger and discomfort?

Here is what Bishop Robinson prayed:

“O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will bless us with tears – tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women in many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

"Bless this nation with anger – anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

"Bless us with discomfort at the easy, simplistic answers we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

"Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

"Bless us with humility, open to understanding that our own needs as a nation must always be balanced with those of the world.

"Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.

"Bless us with compassion and generosity, remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.

"And God, we give you thanks for your child, Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

"Give him wisdom beyond his years, inspire him with President Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for all people.

"Give him a quiet heart, for our ship of state needs a steady, calm captain.

"Give him stirring words; we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

"Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

"Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

"Give him strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

"And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking far too much of this one. We implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand, that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity, and peace. Amen."

It is true, of course, that prayers need not be televised or amplified to reach the One to whom they are addressed. But I believe this particular prayer is worth reading, pondering and taking to heart. God save us from complacency!

What if you were asked to pray publicly for our incoming president? What would you say to God in earshot of a nation?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Mirth or madness

"Going deep sounds like an important thing to do," a friend told me after reading yesterday's post. "But it also sounds boring. Is it possible to take the spiritual life seriously without being so ... well ... serious?"

I laughed, as she knew I would. We've been friends long enough to have poked fun at most everything, from politicians to disasters to our families to death itself. But it's not the cynical sort of humor that sneers at the thought that anything has value. Instead, it is the kind of joke that helps us to take human fallibility lightly (especially our own).

Or as the always quotable G.K. Chesterton put it:

“Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.”

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tread water or dive deep in '09?

Every Sunday at my church, we confess "things done and left undone." I've left this blog undone for far too long, more out of lack of time than lack of interest.

But one of the gifts of a new year is the motivation to reset priorities -- to make a conscious decision about what duties or passions we'll give the best of ourselves to in the coming months.

It's so easy to slip into the habit of treading water rather than diving deep. To flail about, fighting every wave, complaining that the sea ought to be still and calm. Life rarely is.

Over the years I've found, as perhaps you have as well, that when I give spiritual matters a higher priority in my life -- when, as Thomas R. Kelly wrote, I "live from the Center" -- it makes all the difference. For me, that higher priority will include an intentional increase in prayer, reading and writing, including this blog.

How do you intend to live differently in 2009?