Your Life is Not About You

St Maximilian Kolbe | Westminster Abbey

I have a sweatshirt with this quote, not so much as to insult everyone else, but as to remind myself of when I am most at peace within my own skin. I am most at peace when I am unconditionally serving others. By service, I do not mean anything grand.

Service comes in many shapes and sizes. When I intentionally am looking out for the greater good of others, without expectation of reciprocal return, my life tends to be happier. It is easy to do this when things are going well. Harder when life’s misfortunes are at my doorstep. However, that is when I need this strength and spirit the most. Caving into any misery or misfortune by falling into the trap of “what about me” and the thousand versions of martyrdom that may accompany my anger, disappointment, and other feelings that accompany when life does not meet my expectations, is only selfish consolation, good for a momentary breath of acknowledging my sense of entitlement.

Most of the time, the situation and consequences are not about me. We often are victims of collateral damage by the actions of others in this world. It may feel personal and direct at the time, but often is just a byproduct of multiple interactions and complex dynamics creating an unfortunate outcome for us personally. It is insulting to our ego that it is not about us at all when these things happen: Health care crisis like COVID, MVCs resulting in life loss (motor vehicle accidents), job loss by organizational restructuring, or like the Ukraine people are experiencing now, War.

Maximillian Kolbe experienced this personally. He was eventually given sainthood for his faith and sacrifice at the hands of Nazi Germany. He was also made the patron saint for people suffering from and living with addiction.

The latter at first was confusing to me. He received this honor as the Nazi persecutors killed him with a lethal drug. However, on deeper dive, his teachings speak often to our attachments being given undue influence. His life was not an easy one, nor his death.

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I am thinking of and praying today for the Saints living and fighting in Ukraine today. Many are giving their all knowing only death awaits. They know today better then we all know that life is not about them. Putin, NATO, and other international influences are not putting the Ukraine people first. Mothers, fathers, and Children are needlessly being killed today.

Maximillian would not flee Ukraine today. Nor would he lift a rifle. He would however bear witness to the evil, serve the suffering, and sacrifice himself for his brother.

I must read more about him. His story reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also killed by the Germans. War brings out the worst in us, but also the bravest souls.

This article, “Be a Man: St. Maximillian’s Rule of Life” capture some teachings we could learn from today.  The Sober Catholic also has a piece on him.

Motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out. | America Magazine

So much is transient: our physical beauty and strength, our mental capacity, our relationships, our ability to care for the people we love. Our capacity to fix problems. It will run out. It is a relief that it will run out. What I gave, I gave. What I accomplished, I accomplished. What I failed, I failed. No doubt I am only at a plateau, and soon enough the mindless panic and distress will set in again.
— Read on www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/09/03/motherhood-birth-rebirth-jesus-241281

The author above was addressing the experience of motherhood – a calling where nothing is left on the table, an utterly emptying of oneself until nothing is left.

As men we may choose this path as well with sports, work, or family. We leave “nothing on the table” for reserve when we are all-in. The elite among us can apply that same vigorous love demonstrated by motherhood to walking a humble, spiritual path.

The latter is quite a contradiction, as it is difficult to at once we be “all-in” with an athletes competitiveness or a warriors mentality while remaining genuinely humble and spiritual, living a holy life one breath at a time. Our downfall can be swift and merciless or beguilingly slow. Grand missteps for all to see or perhaps even more treacherous, small transgressions that we never even notice the road of spiritual descent.

The article nails motherhood and spirituality. The quote above nails the challenge we all have to just be good human beings. It can be tiresome and selfless living a moral and ethical life. Navigating our desires, our instinctual survival skills, and our collective shared needs creates explosive collisions of “individual self-will run riot.” We are called often and frequently to leave nothing on the table. Our mortality gives us only 1 lifetime to live with no promise or certainty of an afterlife or second run. We will, most of us anyway, hit a final apex point before descending towards deaths door.

Whatever you put your mind today…leave nothing on the table! The outcomes and results will be what they will be. Imagine if we applied the archetypical mother loves to everything we did collectively? Certainly our moral and ethical bar for societal expectations would rise dramatically.

The author goes a several steps father for an example by closing with the archetype “Son of God,” Jesus Christ, who emptied himself (Kenosis) – gave his self-will up was receptive to and accepted God’s divine will including a gruesome and painful death.

Who among us is ready for this type of sacrifice?

Morning Dews – #4

rabbiI am need of Rabbi in my study.  Still wandering in the book of Genesis, Abraham denies his wife, Sarah, saying she is his sister, and she does the same, claiming to be his brother.  Abraham concocted this scheme to keep himself self while they journeyed into other kingdoms.  He believed he would be killed so that others could take his beautiful wife.   And so it happened, when they were passing through the land of Gerar, Abimelech took Sarah.

Abimelech, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, is afforded a lesser status as merely a “king” and not one of the Judges of Israel.  He had the same encounters with the Patriarch Issac as he did with the Patriarch Abraham above regarding deceit (representing their wives as their sisters and squabbles over well water).  The Jewish Virtual Library states that critical scholars assign all these narratives to a variant of a single tradition.  Without delving into Abimelech’s life, the themes in the Old Testament, the sources, and a greater depth of the interwoven nature of politics warring tribal disputes, and religious institutions as defined at that time, how could we ever pass any judgment or claim to understand of the bible?

I am dumbfounded that Abraham and Issac would present their wives as their sisters.  I could see denying my wife to save her life, but not to save my own.  Who knows what we would do if presented that awful choice should we be faced with forced migration due to natural disaster or war and encounter a terrible immoral choice.  I say to you, not as a Jewish scholar or Christian mystic, but as an ordinary lay Christian, you face this choice every day.

Patriarch’s Abraham and Isaac denied their wives for their safety.  To do so in their minds gave them an advantage in a disadvantageous situation where they lacked power in the face of greater forces.  They did not rely on faith or on God to protect them.

On an individual level, you probably have not denied that your wife was your sister.  On a simpler scale, however, you perhaps have been deceived by others and acted in a manner or supported things that were unfair or wrong.  Abimelech took another man’s wife, but he was deceived.  He was still wrong.

images (26)Suppose I support legal abortion as a Democrat for all the ethical reasons.   There are many.  I suspect I have been deceived as I have inherited a culture that devalues life with such overwhelming immensity that women are put in situations where they face an impossible choice.  Our culture does not embrace or support the full integrity of all human beings.  For some, having a baby will endanger their own lives or condemn to a life of poverty and struggle.  I do not support abortion.  But I am unwilling to be the judge of a woman who faces societal oppression and injustice where her life is devalued, and she decides that, in my view, is contrary to God’s law.  I will fight for all life to be valued so that fewer women have to face this horrible choice, legally or illegally.  How will I be judged?

Suppose as a Republican, and I support the death penalty, massive deportation, and 33economic policies that support my wealth at the expense of increasing world poverty and misery.  I support these things with righteousness and good intentions.  I must stand up for the rule of law, protect my family and our jobs from illegal immigration, and put our economy above other people’s lives or over other nations.  I am right that all three of these issues present an “existential threat” to my well being and the well being of my friends and families.  I suspect that I have been deceived here as well as I have inherited a culture that devalues the “other” and puts nationalism, wealth, and power ahead of humanity.

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In both cases above (right and left), I am likely to accept the binary choices and choose a side.  In both cases, I am inclined to make grave errors in intellectual honesty when I try to advance my righteous thinking and, in some cases, will make grave errors against humanity and my God.  In both cases, I see the opposing views as existential threats to what I hold to be necessary.   As Americans, we are not likely to own feeling existentially threatened.   That requires serious insight and vulnerability that runs contrary to our culture.

download57When we are thinking right and left, we have probably already lost the battle of not being deceived and acting in a manner that supports evil.  We can fall into a reactive position making choices within the well of rigid political and religious paradigms that, on closer examination, crumble under their hypocrisy.  Logicalness and openness to facts go out the window.  Ad Hominem attacks, a fancy word for attack the messenger, is a typical playbook on the political stage today.  The press, scientists, and government servants are under ruthless attacks.   People whose livelihoods and health are at stake are acting on misinformation and real threats to their lives that are no longer so existential.

People deny their faith, their political affiliation, their beliefs all the time when to do otherwise will cause the loss of what they cherish (material goods, status, friendship, employment, or merely uncomfortableness).  Silence is denial as well.

lyiengI see this happen all the time in the workplace as people jockey for favor and position.  The worst in humanity plays out every day:  gossip, slander, lies, manipulation, and sometimes outright evil intent.  These deceits can lead a righteous and well-meaning manager down a path of destroying a person’s career based on false information.  Sometimes it plays out on the national level as well, and a whole nation can do harm globally.    As our current President states, China hurt world health by limiting the magnitude of the pandemic issue.  We, in turn, did the same thing, and to an extent, still are making the same errors.

We have in our midst pathological liars as well without our notice.  They can be humble 0617ba6e0d560b25a7f9ad0fd870064e-truth-and-lies-quotes-lies-and-deceit-quotesand friendly in the community or hold positions of great power in political, business or religious institutions.

Each of us is in our own way, Abimelech and Abraham.  In our hectic and busy lives, we are driven by instinct and competitive values to ward off existential threats to our way of life. Hopefully, we are not driven by false information.

We are prone to error by being deceived or by acting out of fear for our safety and overall well-being, denying minor or major hypocrisies within our hearts and behaviors – by conscious public presentation or even merely silence and consent.      My friend, you are damned.

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That is not so encouraging!  In my morning meditation, Richard Rohr discussed the “Bible as an Alternative History.” He stated the history of the terms “right and left” came from the Estates-General in France.  On the left sat ordinary people and, on the right, sat the nobility and the clergy.  The left represented mostly the poor and the oppressed and the right the status quo.  His point was the left sought to reform, and the right sought to preserve their wealth, status, and power.  Today we have the same dynamic with the buoy of the middle class torn between alliances, desiring the identity of nobility and the clergy without turning their backs on the poor and the oppressed.  It is not a binary choice.

We need prophets for sure to guide us to transcend these binary choices and allegiances.   The Old Testament is rife with Jewish prophets that struggled to transcend religious divisions and sects in favor of the “inner God experience and the outer work for justice and truth.” It gives us a history that we can learn from about the worst and best of humanity and spiritual lessons for interpretation today.  The journey through the old testament is leading someplace both narratively and in real-time history.  It evolved and was passed down to us from generation to generation.

As a Christian, I believe it bought us to Jesus Christ, the last of the prophets in my view.  The New Testament captures his fulfillment of the Old testament and a road map on how to live a blessed and fulfilling life.  Doing that, the same as in the old testament, is rife with conflict with rigid political and religious systems, existential threats to our survival and identity, deceitful actions of others, and selfish motivation.

In the next post – I will turn to Matthew chapters 6-8, which complimented my morning reading and provided for me at least a solution to feeling overwhelmed and damned. I have some thoughts that deserve their own post.  However, I cannot leave you with you are damned!

Within you lies a higher self that can transcend adversity, deceit, pain, and worry.  It can bring out your inner strength and peace even when you fail.  It can allow you to share and love others around you more magnificently than ever before. Also, if you have this already, and you are blessed if you do, it can always be more profound and more vigorous with every breath you take.

Transcending the self is never easy regardless of your spiritual or existential orientation – but it is worth the journey.  How Abraham and Abelimech bought me here I cannot say, but the mystery of life lessons can humble us all.  Find some time to still the world’s business and gently notice your “existential fears,” jot them down, name them, and put them aside for later.  Contemplate whatever you appreciate right now.  have gratitude for what you have and if someone special to you is close by, give them gratitude as well.  When the time is right, pick up one of those existential threats and simply think about three things that you can do that may minimize or help with that worry.   Make a plan to do those three things and enlist help if you can.  Give the rest to God and ask for the strength and peace to be able to handle what comes next.   Try not to tell people your wife is your sister to others or some other avoidance behavior!    You will have an easier path if you defeat avoidance behaviors and avoid supporting fallacies you know to be wrong.

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Morning Dew # 3

In my a.m. reading In the Old Testament, Noah just landed the Arc on dry land, and in the New Testament in Jesus Christ is fulfilling the law of prophets.  In Matthew Chapter 5, he succinctly lays out the steep climb of what it is to be Christian in 48 lines.

noahs ark

Again, I diverge to the most prominent question.  How could Noah of built such an Arc in his time and boarded it for so long with every creature known to humanity?  I direct your attention to the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church as presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul the II, on April 23, 1993.  This document, delivered to one of my favorite Popes on my birthday, will provide you the answer about how to approach the scripture of Noah’s Ark.

My take on the story is that Noah was faced with a very angry God who was much displeased with humanity, and Noah was called to take action to the highest degree – building an Arc as directed by God and face the criticism and laughter of neighbors near and far.  His actions would lead to a covenant with God that would later be fulfilled by Jesus Christ.

My spiritual interpretation is, “what kind of Arc should we be building every day in our lives for when we hit troubled times?  Again, I apologize to the fundamentalist and spiritually insecure (not necessarily the same thing) and advise you not to read my blog.  My experience and prayer life has led me to reject fundamentalism in all its forms and reject rigid “Phariseesims” as pseudo-religion akin to pharmaceutical overdosing – numbing the soul without approaching God.

More fighting words, and yet I do not want a fight.  You be you – if your understanding of God must be pitched in the fundamentalist tent.  My tent is intended for a broader portion of humanity that could not adhere to fundamentalist views if you paid them a year’s salary.  They are inquisitive, open-minded, and curious people with and without a religious background that yearn for a deeper meaning to life in the face of the hollow secularism that faces our society today.

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What they most often are seeking is to quote today’s second Catholic mass reading, is to “conduct themselves with reverence during their time of so sojourning” here on earth.

The answer is laid out in 48 lines in Matthews’s gospel and what is commonly known as the Beatitudes.  Practice them, and you will be well on your way to living a sanctified life and drawing closer proximity to God.

There is an unfortunate catch.  It is a common cliché we often say every day as a motto for success in our secular lives.  We say it and hear it all the time in work and sports – go the extra mile, and you will be successful.

Jesus says to the crowds, “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” And he does not limit this to your friends and family.  This is taken for granted.  He is speaking about people who harm you, gossip about you, steal from you, or otherwise, in short, are considered your enemies.    Matthew 5:38 to 42 is a steep hill.

images (21)Taken literally and followed to the letter, you may just prove you have been called to be a Christian martyr and saint, recognized by many, or simply dying in silence and known by God alone.  Most of us do not have the stomach or the discipline to live the Beatitudes entirely, and especially this idea of “Love your Enemies.” Many of our enemies would use our faith against us and our loved ones if we applied this rule indiscriminately.  Just a few paragraphs before Jesus preached, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  

Sometimes we must stand up for ourselves and the oppressed.  Sometimes to turn the other cheek would not only harm us and others but the one who is doing the slapping.  Yet, we can set the boundary with the offender while intentionally loving the slapper all the same.

In our interconnected world, we are often reduced to a sense of helplessness at the hands of more powerful forces than are what available in our trove of defenses.  Sometimes we may even fail to act with the full measure of our God-given abilities as well to uphold the morality that we believe is right and just.

Join me on any experimental exercise.  List your top ten recurring thoughts that you create angst or unpleasant associations.  For most of us, we have recurring fears and emotions that are powerful and consume our energy, perhaps not at the level of obsessive-compulsiveness, but yes, enough to dampen our mood and enthusiasm.  Our thoughts, especially when they are negative, should be good servants, not our master.  If you have a list, now jot down the emotions that accompany these thoughts.  Most often, they will be potent emotions and sometimes very threatening or even overwhelming.  These are the things that create displeasure and dissatisfaction in our life.

What do they have to do with the Beatitudes or Noah’s Arc?  If these thoughts and emotions are “outsized,” they will leave us little strength for living to our full capabilities to live, drawing ourselves closer to people and closer to God.  They are barriers to living your best life.

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I cannot read your thoughts.  If yours is anything like mine, I had fears for loved one’s health and happiness, health concerns, financial worries, employment concerns, and a certain amount of pride (flip side fear of loss of status).   Or perhaps past mistakes or future anxieties about tomorrow?

Many of these things can be negatively affected by my own actions as well as influenced by relationships with others that are outside my control.  A bulk of them, when scrutinized closely and sitting quietly with the emotion and with prayerful intention, simply seep away in the retreat of God’s presence.  What is left is manageable with compassion, caring, love, and action – for ourselves and for others.

The archetype Noah building his Arc is preparing for when the storm comes.  The Beatitudes as well prepare us for living God’s intentions today here on earth and for weathering storms and being genuinely ready when our sojourn on earth ends.

What remains after we have done our part of building our Ark as designed by our calling and conducting ourselves with reverence in all that we do, is to forth our trust and faith in a compassionate and loving God for all the troubles and challenges that seem to be greater than us.

I challenged you to the exercise above again.  Contemplate your troubles and your emotive scroolsexperiences in all their rawness, and then bring them to God.  My a.m. mediation focused on “Spiritual things must be tasted more than understood.”  The bible and scripture are only dead letters if not read with the intention of not just understanding, but translating centuries-old writings to our current culture and our individual experiences.

My challenges in life have included the trauma’s of years past, the misgivings of my own errors, and the angst of measuring up against my own expectations and those of others and my God.  I often missed the mark or mismeasured!

While God is present in every moment, from the most glorious to the mundane, I have found him to be most present when I have fallen hard on the harsh realities of life.  When our journey brings us through dark and lonely times.

Across the world, people are praying 24/7 in adoration chapels such as Tyburn Convent below.  Sitting in silence is the most challenging prayer for me, personally.  I have a tendency to want to be in charge.   This has always been an illusion as the old quote goes, Man makes plans, and God laughs.

The spiritual silence of an Adoration chapel is maybe too unnerving or too Catholic for you.  Here are 25 natural animal live cams that may provide you with some quiet reflection time and natural beauty of the world:  https://parade.com/1015445/rachelweingarten/best-animal-live-cams/

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Without the pause in life, serious self-examination and spiritual growth are impossible.

Whatever your higher power’s name is, find time to be with the greatest source of grounding and power that has alluded definition since man first gazed at the sky. If you do not have a higher power, consider interviewing people who beam with grace, peace, and compassion.  

My morning readings bought me up and down the mountains of spiritual scripture and self-examination.  My list of ten was easy to list, and sorrowfully many of my worries were very shallow and mundane.  Capturing them and naming their nature and the emotive experience they have on me put light on where I can have lest investment in trivial things and more trust in the God of my understanding.

This entry was meant to be brief when I started writing with the single strand of “Go the Extra Mile.”  Instead, the old and the new testament provided a lesson to prepare by building a spiritual lifestyle, to reflect on my worries and my actions, and to share spiritual contemplation and the roadmap of the Beatitudes.

If you are in the midst of a coronavirus struggle, an active addiction, job loss, or personal struggles of the common variety, I hope you find the time to sit down and name them, experience them in their rawness, and then give it to God.  Then get up and go the extra mile with trust that you will be able to handle whatever divine providence holds for you, maybe good, maybe bad.

P.S.  sometimes, troubles and trauma or addiction require more than prayer or meditation.  Take some time and name the troubles and their impact on you – and then you can decide if professional help is needed.  No reason you cannot do both.  Of course, sharing your troubles with people you trust or a fellowship of people who can relate can be greatly beneficial as well.  A problem shared is a problem halved?

Roadmap for a better life:  

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Morning Dews # 1

As yet, the day is untouched by humans and probably the better for it.  The COVID pandemic is cleaning the environment at rates never seen since the industrial revolution introduced massive pollution to our eco-system.  The morning dew is on the grass, and everything is peaceful as we prepare to see the sunrise.

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I am naturally a P.M. writer.  Today, however, I have been called to share the start of my day with my Morning Dues to God before humanity gets my attention.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning.  Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”  Matt 2: 6  

Today we view the news in terms of peaks and valleys of human death tolls.   Little time is spent on bereavement or sitting with the loss and suffering.   The press and the public are focused on who is to blame for its magnitude (with some justifications) and how when can we escape Co-Vids hold on us and the negative impact on our social and economic situations if we are fortunate to not be in inflicted with fever, nausea, breathing difficulty, or death within our household.  I take from this early morning reading it is not right for us to seek relief for ourselves without sitting with the pain and grief of others – and to compassionately share the burden of loss in whatever form it takes.  For many, it will not be okay.

prayer

My morning meditation today spoke about a welcoming prayer.  Its introduction appeared to be inviting.  Then it asked me to remember a hurt that I experienced from someone that cut to my bone and sit with that pain – and feel it in my core.  Once we are in that place, we will know suffering and not want it for anyone else.     Importantly the meditation takes us beyond the perpetrator, beyond good and evil, beyond resentment and revenge – to just sitting with the pain.  Not the type of prayer I expected when I read “welcoming prayer.”  That is how it is sometimes with God – I am not prepared for or ready for what is coming.

Today I know what is in store for me and whether it will be good or bad.  I do not know if my experiences will lead to a better tomorrow, maybe yes and maybe no (ancient proverb).  I do know that with my faith placed firmly in God’s hands, I can sit with confidence with the emotions of the day and be wholly present for others to serve God’s will.

Random thoughts:     

George Smiley’s wife, after the death of a close friend, said to George, will you just stop and grieve for once!  George, years later in the face of another death, answers her in his own head:  I have no problem grieving and loving the dead; it is the living I have a problem with loving.  (John Le Carre’s Smiling People)

God gave Adam every type of animal known to mankind for companionship after he had given him the Garden of Eden, which was entirely sufficient for life.  Were we meant to be vegan?  It would undoubtedly help the planet’s eco-system (Genesis Chapter 2).  This was not enough for Adam. God, in His wisdom and anger at Adam’s lack of gratitude and greed, put him to sleep and gave Adam something he had not expected.  He gave him Women (Eve), and Adam was much pleased.  God walked away, laughing, thinking Adam does not recognize what he has asked for and received.   

adam and eve

 

Wealth, Debt, Giving and You

“Give enough that it feels risky — if you feel comfortable, you’re probably not stretching enough. If you feel destabilized, it might be too much.”

Let’s get uncomfortable together.  How much pride and security do we get from the size of our paychecks, savings, and the things we own? It would be easy for me here to attack the one percent that have an outsized influence on global poverty and income inequality.  I cannot affix blame on them uniquely as we support an economic system that legally sanctions and supports income inequality.  Let me dial this back closer too home.

I am by my own spiritual measure, failing in the area of desiring more wealth and security.  I aspire to productive principles of economy that are supported biblically to apply my trade honestly, work hard, and not be slothful.   These are admirable and desirable traits that not only serve me and my family but serve society.  This is not my sin or point of spiritual failure.

My lack of perfection is driven by my desire for financial security, my pride in what little wealth I may have, and my stinginess driven by fear of economic collapse.  Again, to a degree, none of this is necessarily sinful as prudence and avoiding gluttony or wasteful behaviors is admirable as well.

financial-stresses

It takes a negative turn though when my own financial security becomes more important than, well, what it should be!  How much is enough?  How much do I trust in God’s grace, God’s guidance, and God’s providence when it comes to money and material goods?

I fear economic failure.  I am in my 50’s and have been provided for all throughout my life despite living below the poverty line in my youth – I was never left wanting.  I have always had viable employment and never had any break in employment history – not even a week. And yet I am fearful of letting my family down or at not having provided my family enough.  This fear is driven by the history of my own youth, insecurity, love, pride, and selfishness.  The latter is not wanting to lose what I have or being covetous of what I do not have relative to others. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, I have made my peace with material wealth and desire – but I am still not immune from fear and worry.  The latter can influence my politics, my career choices, my charitable dollars, and my behavior for good or bad.

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There is an exclusionary group that I cannot join called Resource Generation[i].  I am too old and too poor to join!  I do not have the problems they have to face today.  They are Millennials born to wealth that are uncomfortable with class privilege and committed to giving back wealth.  The Washington Post[ii] reviewed this non-profit group that’s helping young rich people give away their money today.  This article takes a cleaver to philanthropy and may challenge you to consider your affection for wealth.  A line that caught my eye from Resource Generation guidance on giving:

“Give enough that it feels risky — if you feel comfortable, you’re probably not stretching enough. If you feel destabilized, it might be too much.”

If any of you have ever gambled with any seriousness you may recognize this philosophy.   Professional gamblers that are successful play at stakes where they can temper a losing streak without going bust but not too low a stake that they cannot make enough profits to value their time and skill.

Problem gamblers will edge towards and past the point of betting that can “destabilize” their economic life.  Both the professional gambler and the problem gambler use both prudence (hard numbers) and feelings (situational awareness and enjoying gambling).  However, the problem gambler will put more emphasis on feelings and sensation than on hard numbers and prudence.   If you feel your gambling is destabilizing your life consider calling the National Gambling hotline[iii] for education and support.

Should not our charitable dollar principle follow the same path?  I don’t think I have ever walked into a church ready to lose 300 dollars as I have walking into some casinos or horse racing venues.  Come to think of it, should I ever be wagering an entertainment dollar on a poker hand or a horse when that same dollar can be directed at a better cause than my own gambling sensation or my desire to increase my wealth (the latter is unlikely!).

How much is too much?  I mentioned one-percenter earlier.  In the United States, you need an individual income of about 328,000 dollars or a family income of 475000 dollars to be in the top one percent.  However, must of us live in the top one percent globally, at least income-wise according to investopedia[iv], which by the way can sell you a course on how to invest to reach the worldwide 1%!

  • An income of $32,400 per year would allow someone to be among the top 1% of income earners in the world.
  • To reach the top 1% worldwide in terms of wealth—not just income but all you own—you’d have to possess $770,000 in net worth.
  • The bar to enter the top 1% wouldn’t be this low were it not for the extreme poverty that so much of the globe endures.

Considering wealth and society is a moral and ethical responsibility for every society regardless of spirituality even without spiritual or religious affiliation attached.

My nation (United States) boasts a strong moral high ground of which 70% of our nation proclaims a Christian orientation with another 6% having affiliation with other religious traditions.  That is 3 in 4 Americans hold religiously oriented values.

Christianity, Wealth, and America

President Jefferson[v] made his own bible by cutting out and pasting the words of Jesus Christ.  I raise this as the Red Letters in the bible apply to all Christian denominations.  There is no doubt that Christianity plays a major role in United States elections and policy formation.  We all see politicians including the current Commander in Chief seeking the Christian base.  Do our politicians, our policies, our economic system, and our Christian base support Christ’s teachings?

Today a group in Philadelphia called the Red Letter Christians[vi]  focuses on Jesus Christ’s message and what it implies.  Here is an excerpt from one of their articles on wealth by Shane Claiborne:

“In the radical economics of the early Christian church, it was said that God doesn’t look at how much you give, but how much you have left. They went so far as to say that if a Christian keeps more than they need while their neighbor has less than they need, the Christian is a thief.  If we have two coats, we’ve stolen one.  Or, as the apostle James put it in the New Testament, “True religion is caring for the widow and the orphan and keeping ourselves from being corrupted by the world.”

I don’t expect you to listen to Shane.  The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) reviewed Mark’s Gospel passage and the Beatitudes (Blessed are the Poor)[vii].

“Mark tells us [that] just as Jesus was setting out on a journey again, a man ran up to him, knelt before him, and asked, “Good master, what must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answered, “Why do you call me good? Nobody’s good, but God alone. But you know the commandments: Do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not cheat; honor your father and mother,” and the man replied, “I have obeyed all these commandments since my childhood.”

Then Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, “For you, one thing is lacking: Go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.” On hearing these words, [the man’s] face fell, and he went away sorrowful, for he was a man of great wealth.”

The NCR article explains this passage and Blessed are the Poor passage in depth.  The article in my judgment seems to support we need not give away everything to be holy, but we do need to change our outlook on wealth and on the poor if we are to hold ourselves up to be Christian.  Could we be more like Zacchaeus:    

“When Zacchaeus the tax collector encountered Jesus, he immediately repented, pledging to give half his money to the poor. And, if he had defrauded anyone, he would pay him back fourfold. (See Luke 19:1-10.)  Another author noted that Jesus rejoiced in this act, recognizing the reality of Zacchaeus’s conversion. He did not say, “That’s not good enough! You need to give away all your wealth!”

As an aside here, the recovery communities like Alcoholics Anonymous practice amends both materially and spiritually while recognizing limitations as well.  They practice spiritual pursuit, not spiritual perfection.  Financial matters are a serious component of recovery and spiritual happiness.   The same applies to Gamblers Anonymous and other self-help groups.  You do not need to be in recovery or have an active addiction though to be chained by financial gluttony and materialistic driven gluttony.  You can still borrow from the recovery communities, practice spiritual pursuit, not spiritual perfection.

The questions still for me is heavy.  How much of my excess earnings should go to my emergency fund, to my savings, to my children, to my debt reduction versus to my church, to the homeless, to poverty, to social justice causes, or other common good causes?

As long as I have any debt, and I have sufficient obligation, I am not comfortable with giving enough that feels risky even if it will not destabilize my economy!  My debt does not stop me from giving to my church or causes, but it does limit my giving.  What is your risk tolerance?

debtLet’s talk about debt.  Our nation is a debtor nation.  Under our current Commander in Chief, our deficit ballooned to nearly $1 trillion in 2019.  Our individual debt is bad as well.  See where you standard relative to your peers at debt.org (link below).  Do you know what your DTI is today?  The median household income hit $61,372 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s almost $20,000 more than it was in 2000. But the typical American household now carries an average debt of $137,063. That is not spoken about at parties.  Americans do not honestly discuss financial struggles.  They do vote out of fear though on messages of economic hope.

While most Americans have idealistic views on fairness and equality, at the end of the day most are struggling to make ends meet behind the white picket fences and cars with kids college stickers affixed.  Throw in a layoff or medical scare and many families are thrust into financial crisis.   Present a platform that raises taxes and speaks to other people’s needs and their vote might not be Christian-centric.

Am I willing to vote for politicians or support policies that will hurt me financially but help the common good locally or internationally?  I have voted this way, and it is never a clean slate as no candidate meets the Jesus Christ standard, but sometimes I do have reservations.

Selfishly – why should up and coming kids get free college education when others still have college loans?  Will raising minimum wage deflate my earnings by dollar inflation, making my purchasing powerless?  Seen from a selfish perspective, there are many local and international policies that I would not support – but from a humanitarian and spiritual perspective, I should be advocating for actively.  Are any of our leaders today champions for the common man or for the oppressed?  Do people even recognize these figures today?

mandela-thoreau-mlkThe current second choice for the Democrat nomination is a Jewish candidate whose policies mirror the Beatitudes of caring for the poor and addressing economic inequality.  The Christian base is apt to call him socialist and radical as Jesus was labeled in his time.  The front runner Christian Democrat has more centrist policies shying away from “risk” and “stretching” policies to change toward a more humane nation but nationally and internationally.  The Commander in Chief’s economic policies are in direct opposition to the Beatitudes as are many of his other policies. Three choices, all fallible, none nowhere near perfection.   The debate also includes how much can our nation give and stretch without jeopardizing our “destabilization” risk to our country? Americans are worried and are driven by fear economics.

Let me give you a little secret if you have read this far – you deserve it.   Every time in life I have weighed giving money that was risky for me (not in my budget or a loan that I would probably never get back) and still gave it I was always repaid in ways I would never have foreseen but financially and spiritually.

If I give only what is comfortable is it really giving or only feeding my own sense of moral righteousness?  What portion of my check should go to taxes that make America a greater place for everybody?  How should America support and lead the world on issues of world poverty and income inequality?  These are Christ-centric questions.  It is easy to answer the ten commandments and thou shalt not kill.      After that – things get interesting.

You and I are the 1 percent by world wealth standards or by proxy as we support income inequality worldwide.  Standing up to this will and is risky and a stretch.  In the meantime, we have the opportunity to give our time and money to good causes.  Before you do that though, balance your own books as well! In the end everything is connected.

cleverness

[i] https://resourcegeneration.org/

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2020/03/02/their-families-built-fortunes-these-millennials-are-trying-figure-out-how-undo-their-class-privilege/

[iii] https://www.ncpgambling.org/help-treatment/national-helpline-1-800-522-4700/

[iv] https://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/050615/are-you-top-one-percent-world.asp

[v] https://uuhouston.org/files/The_Jefferson_Bible.pdf

[vi] https://www.redletterchristians.org/mission-values/

[vii] https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/peace-pulpit/blessed-are-poor-what-does-mean

VIII https://www.debt.org/faqs/americans-in-debt/demographics/

 

 

The Responsible Self by Richard Niebuhr

On an unwieldy pedestrian day in Egremont, Massachusetts, I picked up a book by H. Richard Niebuhr entitled “The Responsible Self, An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy.  Everyone recognizes Niebuhr as the reported author of the “Serenity Prayer” that is now infamously associated with Alcoholics Anonymous.   The book was old, dirt cheap, and inscribed “Clinton Lee Barlow, Harford Seminary Foundation, Spring, 1968.”  Cannot seem to find out if the book ever led Clinton into public life or inspired him into Christian service beyond quire diligently reading this book – not a page without a phrase underlined as being critically important.

I tend to agree with Clinton, except we underlined different passages as critically important.  Either one of us lacks the eye for important details, or Niebuhr is quite brilliant.  Well at least damn smarter than me.  As it turns out, Helmut Richard Niebuhr did not write the Serenity Prayer.  His brother, Rhinehold Niebuhr was the culprit.  I say culprit as neither one of them are Catholics.  These damn Protestants are an industrious bunch:

richardHelmut Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) (Photo Left) is considered one of the most important Christian theological ethicists in 20th-century America, best known for his 1951 book Christ and Culture and his posthumously published book The Responsible Self. The younger brother of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr (Photo right below) taught for several decades at the Yale Divinity School. Both brothers were, in their day, important figures in the neo-orthodox theological school within American Protestantism. His theology (together with 220px-Reinhold_niebuhrthat of his colleague at Yale, Hans Wilhelm Frei) has been one of the main sources of postliberal theology, sometimes called the “Yale school.”  (Wikipedia)

So where did Richard take me and perhaps Clinton posthumously with this book?  Aside from requiring me to break out the dictionary for some of his word choices, Richard drove right through the debris of theological and philosophical hubris into the heart of living Christian morality by stripping away layer by layer our autonomic selves and revealing our ultimate decision to accept responsibility for self through radical contemplation about your being (to know oneself, one’s situation, one’s social, religious and political environment), radical pray (truly open to God, open to readings, open to silence, open to self-examination and revelation), and radical action.

The True Self:

He has reminded me that we can argue or agree with another while we both are blinded to our true selves as we are enmeshed in both our historical past, the present moment, and fear of the future.  “In the world, we must take into account that beyond all loyalty to law and beyond all idealism there is operative in the minds of the defensive group a deep fear of coming destruction.  The future holds for it no promise, if not into the grave then ad inferos.”  That defensive group is our ego, our social groups, our religious organization, our political parties, and our nationalism.  We live in a false reality that all of these identities and sources of the rational (sometimes irrational) ordering of our lives are permanent.

They are all temporal and mutable from moment to moment.  While we must live and contend with these constructs we must respond and be ruled by a higher authority, an “Impartial Spectator” or “Generalized Other” that is above our subjective temporal values.  In Christianity, this is the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit).  Even in our prayer, though, or in our religious organizations, we can go adrift and create an ego-centric religiosity that serves the self or the groups to which we belong.  We must radically be aware of who we are:

“I have too many selves to know the one.

In too complex a schooling was I bred,

Child of too many cities have gone

Down all bright cross-roads of the world’s desire,

And at too many alters bowed my head

To light too many fires.”[i]

With too many fires going, too many desires, and human endeavors, how could I possibly be sure I am acting with holy intention rather than self-willed and shrewdly packaged actions dressed up as God’s will?   When we know ourselves well we will truly be able to see how far off we are from God’s intentions and path.

The Political and Religious Constructs:

Richard has reminded me I live in a secular society where achieving the right thing by God’s measure is impossible yet demanded.  I can easily slip into desiring the respect and approval of authority, of social groups, of my own defined standard of what is good, rather than a true and genuine accounting against the standard of Jesus Christ.

Do we rebel today against an unjust government or religious institution?  “To what law shall I consent, against what law rebel?”  Do we stand up to unjust workplace practices?  Do we do so because it is morally right or for our sense of self-righteousness?

Universal Morality:

“To feel fear, confidence, appetite, anger, and pity at the right times, with reference to the right object, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what in intermediate and best.”  Aristotle (Stoic ethics) Aristotle was aware of our challenges, and even without Christianity as our pallbearer, some strive to do the right thing the right way.

Tangentially, Richard notes some succeed apparently without conscious contact and reverence for a divine entity.  There is a deeper dive here that exceeds this post.  Richard makes a note, though that as Christians, we should take mindful note that people without first-hand knowledge of God’s presence or Jesus Christ can and do live morally upright lives and suffer just as well as we Christians do as well.

What theological writing would not “grace” suffering:  “Suffering is the exhibition of the presence in our existence of that which is not under our control.”  Suffering is a grace that most of us do not have a high tolerance for or acceptance of its presence in our lives.

Daily life and Moments:

Into this abyss comes the train wreck of human egos colliding daily individually and in aggregate.  From the moment we wake up we are bombarded with countless decisions, small and large, some of which require us to act or perhaps even not act when we want too.  Our conscious and unconscious mind works out each minuscule choice with complexity and speed far surpassing the mechanics of our greatest timepieces.  Our 510px-Pocketwatch_cutaway_drawingenvironments and personal histories are bombarding us with stimuli and contradicting competing every second.  In the back of this, our basic instinctual drives are demanding our survival be maintained while our spiritual drive is advocating selflessness beyond our human imagination.

Still, we must strive to handle the competing demands and wrestle with ourselves and others when necessary.  Christianity provides us the symbol of Jesus Christ to answer all questions and guide all actions.   Richard’s writings connect the schema of Christ-life to the Shema of our everyday thoughts and actions.  Ultimately Richard demonstrates how Jesus Christ opens up the door of faith in God for each of us rather than suspicion of loss of self or mistrust of a higher power.  The interconnectedness of the responsible self, social morality, and trust in God above all else.

Bringing it full circle, we still need to define the questions and not be on auto-pilot.

“What is my goal, my ideal, or telos[ii] in any situation.”

The good, the right and the fitting?

  • Teleological view: Seeks always the “highest good” which subordinates the right
  • Deontological approach: Focused on the right no matter what happens
  • Ethics of Responsibility: The fitting action – that one fits into a total interaction as response and anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right.

Determiner of our Destiny:

When we are discussing philosophy or theology it is perhaps fine to use polemic and varying models of ethical evaluation.  However, when it comes to everyday activities that will have an impact and consequences for ourselves as well as others, should we not have a coherent ethical framework and conscious awareness of all the variables that influence our decisions?   Should these decisions not be weighed against our highest values and morality?

Richard depicts this as being Jesus Christ, present in and us, and available to us through scripture and prayer.  Jesus Christ is symbolically speaking “a form which they employ as an a priori, an image, a scheme or pattern in the mind which gives form and meaning to The crosstheir experience.”   Finding the “fitting action” in all circumstances as guided by the symbolism and meaning of Jesus Christ on the cross is an impossible task.

In our frame of reference, the use of “symbolically speaking” connotates an unreality.  Richard explains his use of this phrase here as we communicate through vast systems of symbolization, and our attempts at defining and capturing God’s essence and definition are at best poor symbolic representations.  The work truly cautions us to be humble and contemplative.   The responsible self could not be otherwise if we were conscious of the mitigating moral-ethical challenges we face every day and our divine calling for universal morality that negates the term “the other.”

Richard’s book reaffirms for me a certain comfort when I am uncomfortable or suffering.  His book realigns and balances my ego-driven drive against the measure of the Impartial Spectator’s guidance.

Perhaps his brothers Serenity Prayer captures it well enough after all, but the deep dive into defining the responsible self was needed for this Christian, as evidenced by the book simply being in my possession.

serenity

 

[i] Eunice Tietjens, A Plant of Complexity

[ii] Telos:  an ultimate object or aim.  In the hedonistic life, people lose some moral purpose, a telos which provides the moral justification for society.

 

The F Word Challenge

Scientists study if the ancient wisdom of Forgiveness can improve sleep. Not the “F” word you were expecting?  Forget about that word – this F word is more important for your health.

forgiveness1Modern-day fellowship programs recognize Forgiveness for it’s restorative power and pathway to peace. Therapy models wrestle with its place in the overall schema of past harms done and the client’s empowerment journey. Perhaps some harms done exceded the luxury of Forgiveness? Christianity certainly embraces this practice: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  The ultimate redeemer forgave his persecutors while on the cross.  

I challenge you to consider forgiving yourself for any misgivings and regrets in some symbolic and meaningful way. Of course, do what you can to mend any broken fences, but then bring the rest to a close with a commitment to avoid the same errors in the future. 

As for the forgiveness of others – when is it okay to let go of the toxicity? Can you do it safely without harm or without undue malice? Perhaps it is done only in your prayers, sincerely and compassionately?

At the very least you can get a better night’s sleep.  Remember I mentioned scientists?  The Washington Post Wellness section reports scientists demonstrated forgiving others as well as yourself can be beneficial for your sleep:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/10/21/having-trouble-sleeping-try-forgiving-someone/

There is even an “International Forgiveness Institute” with a purported 20 step forgiveness model! (https://internationalforgiveness.com/about-us.htm).

I don’t think you need 20 steps!  Many will tell you they can show you a way to practice forgiveness and maintain peaceful living in only 12 steps with plenty of good sleep.  There are so many resources and references to the art of forgiveness.  It is not something to do lightly nor to fear – if handled with the care that you deserve.  

forgiveness

If not an enlarged future – perhaps just a good night’s sleep!

download (1)

Take the Challenge!

Albatross

download

What do we owe our maker?  And even if we were in the position to pay – how would we pay God who needs nothing and is everything?  We simply cannot begin to make any repatriation that has any impactful influence on an infinite being.

Still, must of us strive to live a principled life informed by spiritual, religious, and social mores that intrinsically have, in my opinion, an urgency to reflect the imprint of God that exists within our souls.   The more distorted the projection we receive –  the more difficulties we encounter living a holy life – the more susceptible we are to the most significant human suffering of the existential phenomenon – the alienation of the true self from one’s creator.

How do we keep the projection of our purpose clear?  Where do we find the balance between personal prayer, religiosity (the standard-bearer of scripture and the sacramental life), and action in daily life?

There is no balance that we can dictate by our own desire or self-directed vision of how best our time is to be spent on doing God’s work.   Monastic life, reading scripture, dissecting the lives of the Saints, and other holiness seekers provide us some reference points.

My absence from posting is not indicative of the lack of meaningful spiritual substance being a reality in my life or (hopefully) sloth on my part.  Admittedly it takes time to let ideas into form, test form against spiritual discernment, and then unleash a post capturing the theological and the spiritual experience that has consumed my heart and mind.

This entry was started some time ago and was swallowed up into the abyss of personal business with my assigned vocations in life – family, fellowship, work, and the sometimes arduous task of just managing my own routines.  Are our actions not the vehicle of our spiritual intentions?  Spirituality and the presence of God are not absent in these activities, and is I pray the core driver of my decisions.

 

sea_albatrossYet, the absence of significant time with contemplative reading and thought drains me and eventually distorts my actions and activities into stressful chores and burdens rather than gifts of my calling and existence.  Failures, anxieties, regrets, and even successes become my Albatros around my neck – stalking me from a distance in the foggy clouds of uncertainty.

As I become immersed in temporal human priorities, I become engulfed in “deep sadness and despair.”   There is too much misery and despair for my feeble hands to help, for my limited words to reach, for my voice to soothe or reassure.  Alas, that is not even addressing my own selfish desires for comfort, prestige, power, security, pride, laughter, peace, and spiritual consolation – to keep these graces I now believe I have or secretly think I am owed them shortly.

I could read, pray, and write the rest of my days in solitude and total devotion, and I would still be seriously inadequate with the mission of seeking to live a sanctified and holy life.  I could throw away my books, my papers, my pens, and my prayer life and turn purely to helping others without regard for myself day in and day out, and again, I would be found wanting against the highest measure to truly live a sanctified life.

The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner attempts to express a harrowing voyage and provides us with the symbol of the Albatross around our necks.  Some define it as original sin -others as our shortcomings today.  Are they any different or just a continuity of the culmination of human evolution being present and codified in where we are now – with all the good and evil saddled on our shared collective consciousness?

I can go awhile doing man’s work, but without prayer and contemplation, I can feel the ship veering into uncharted waters and the fog rolling in no matter how hard I try to manage the seas and the winds, the sailors and the ship.

Where is the balance of my cooperation with God’s intentions and my human endeavors that require my attention?    Yes, they are one and the same in real unity of the whole – but how many of us can live that unity in every thought, every action, every moment of our lives? No one can achieve this ideal.

With this type of discipline and courage, we would have no fears or regrets.   We also might find our lives short-lived or at the very least, very lonely in this secular world.  Martyrs of this world, both past and present, where did you find your wisdom and courage?  Was it by accident, coincidence, foolishness, or divine inspiration?  Are we the masters of our own fate, captain of our souls?

Finding the time to still our lives and be present with God may show us our shortcomings and our courageousness.    It may also require sitting with pain and sorrow greater than we can imagine.  Without this time, I will find the pain and sorrow through other means on my own through influences provided by other less worthy guides.

I am tired.  Pray for me.  I have no “ask” or specific prayer to request – only that God’s will find us and provide us the strength, wisdom, and will to play our part.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.
 

Is God Dead? – Part Three

Angry with God today?

Is anger understating your feelings towards God? Or if not today have you ever been enraged, hateful, irate, indignant, or resentful? Perhaps you have been accusatorial of God’s benign presence in the midst of suffering or even assign him direct responsibility for evil or pain that has afflicted you?resentment

Denying God today?

Or you are by now beyond God, you have no anger or hatred with God, for you have come to deny the existence of any deity at all.  If you have reached this point, then yes, God is Dead to you.  You are not alone in your position:

“”According to the latest international survey data, as reported by Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera in the recently published Oxford Handbook of Atheism, there are approximately 450-500 million non-believers in God worldwide, which amounts to about 7% of the global adult population. And according to the Pew Research Center, if we broaden the category to include all non-religious people in general — those unaffiliated adults who do not identify with any religion — we’re talking 1.1 billion people, which equals about 16.5% of the global adult population. As such, “non-religious” is actually the third largest “religion” in the world, coming only behind Christianity (in first place) and Islam (in second). Thus, there are more secular men and women on planet earth — many of whom are atheists and agnostics — than there are Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, Sikhs, Jains, or Jews.”

The Decision to abandon Faith

If you are among the people who have never had a dark night of questioning God’s existence, count yourself as truly blessed.  Your experience is not the norm.   Understanding this will prepare you for helping those unfortunates who do not hold your gift of grace and cross your path in a state of disbelief.

For the rest of us mortals who have had experiences with great anger or outright disbelief, I believe the root of our malevolent state of being to be the conundrum of pervasive suffering and evil.  And it sometimes leads to people quietly leaving the faith or leaving with thunder and wrath.  What to we really offer people who suffer the unjust misery and suffering?  Do we condemn their lack of faith?  Their lack of trust in God?  What decisions they have made or actions they failed to take to avoid such suffering and misery?

What have we done? 

When you have experienced suffering, visible for all to see or hidden from public view, who did you turn to for help?  Did you turn to God and find silence?   Perhaps you turned to friends in times of great strife?  Did your friends offer you platitudes or condolences? How many times have you heard or even offered yourself these traditional phrases:

  • “I will pray for you and your family”
  • “I am so sorry for your loss”
  • “He was so young. God must have called him home”
  • “You will get over this in time, God is at your side, have faith”
  • “God heals all, you have to have faith”
  • “No one truly knows God’s plans”

Hit with deep personal pain or witnessing unexplainable tragedy – these responses from people of faith are simply insufficient unless accompanied by other more tangible actions.  Often they are not accompanied by more than a passing smile and perhaps a sympathy card.  These responses, despite being well-meaning and genuine, come off as shallow and incongruous with the situation. This is not enough.

The mass shootings in the United States highlight the issue.  People don’t want prayers – they want action.  Family members with a loved one in the throws of addiction don’t want prayers, they want help and recovery for their loved one.  People who have lost a child to evil don’t want condolences, they want their child back.

If not you personally, the global suffering we witness every day is so overwhelming that we become numb to human tragedy. We are so often powerless to effect change in the constant stream of misery that we witness everyday – if not suffered personally.

Are we not secretly at times separated from the suffering person and cognitively distancing ourselves mentally for our own sanity – hoping we cannot or will not suffer the same fate?  If not would we not be in a perpetual state of immense grieving and uncontrollable sobbing?

Our approach to coping with suffering, evil, and even death itself is the greatest “cleaver” of faith that our society faces today.  We have attempted to white wash life in an illusion of control of our destinies.  We have come to expect a life where we are entitled to certain possessions, status, health, and other temporal acquisitions if only we work for it and others are not irrationally cooperating!

We are unprepared for the crushing blows of major disappointments, grave injustices, personal failure, violence, and other soul shattering experiences.   And when they strike us our spiritual foundation is often found wanting and unable to sustain us through the storm – we blame God or deny him.  Or we blame others and deny them.

We mistakenly believe if we do everything right, if our government does its job, if our doctors are practicing good medicine, if all the “others” would only do their part – we would be safe from tragedy.   And yet we see everyday innocent people swept up in tragedy.  How do we maintain the illusion of suffering that it only comes to “others” until it comes for us?

We should be yelling from the roof tops and in the streets about the injustices we see daily.  We should be consoling the poor and the suffering not with platitudes and prayers but with blood, sweat, and tears.  We can pray too – but let that be quietly and in private for our strength and perseverance in the midst of immense suffering.  We cannot be blind to suffering.  We cannot be numb to evil actions.  We cannot ignore our neighbors near or far.  We should be listening and hearing voices of disbelief and anger towards God and embracing these voices with understanding and love.   We can only do that genuinely if we do so prepared and with spiritual grounding – spiritual love that transcends the human experience.

Spiritual Foundation?

This denial of suffering (and our mortality) coupled with a weak a spiritual foundation leaves us vulnerable alienation from fellow man and God.  We are unprepared for genuine response to the suffering of others or for when it visits us uninvited.

God is not dead when suffering strikes us – our spiritual immaturity has left us unable to reach out to God or hear his whispers.  We are dependent on temporal things and human affections before God.  When these human possession are threatened we become unmoored.  We are unable to cope with the slightest inconveniences, never mind great misery and suffering.

Analyze your own Suffering? 

I know a little about suffering – though not enough to claim martyrdom. My family was engulfed by alcoholism. My parents, whose hearts and souls were contradictorily of pure intention and love, were compromised by their disease progression, domestic violence, the onset of poverty, and eventually premature death for my father. Myself, and my six older siblings took in more than our share of hidden and not so hidden emotional and spiritual bruises. Two of us would go to our deaths in a state of great suffering.  Our suffering was both visible and invisible.  We were Catholic and all attended Catholic School.  The church, nor our community, had answers for the particular flavor of suffering that afflicted my family.  My accounts of shame, pride, fear, failure, success, and struggle to cope with the meaning of life and the presence of God exceeds this post.  I however knew God from an early age and my relationship with God and the Catholic Church was complicated from the beginning.

Suffice it to say I had good reason to doubt in a merciful and loving God.  And yet after several rounds of a contentious relationship with God – I am in the camp of God is alive and well and it is our souls that are asleep and dead to God.   My suffering bought me to places that I would rather not go.  At the same time, it liberated me from certain preconceived notions about myself and about humanity.  My suffering, and witnessing suffering in others, has bought me closer to God and closer to mankind.  That is  where I am today.  How did I get here back with the God that I once declared he was dead?

Rediscovering God? 

gratitudeFirst, let me give you the cliché answer that Catholics will tell you – by God’s grace.  I say this as I by myself have created nothing.  Any revelation or spiritual consolation that sustains me is not of my own making.    There have been countless books, several priest consults, spiritual books, spiritual retreats, and many hours of contemplation that have restored my faith.  Beyond that there were everyday people that beamed with God’s grace that had something I once thought was naivety but later I came to understand was hard earned wisdom.  And there were periods of turning my back on God, of self-destruction and self-absorption that in my case, were necessary to help me expand my horizons.

Transforming Suffering?

Rediscovering God has not eliminated suffering for me.  Rediscovering God has transformed suffering into something meaningful beyond comprehension.   I almost feel like my cross to carry is insignificant relative to others (and it is) and yet feel like it is too much for me.  The truth is I am not able to manage pain and suffering with any dignity unless I do so through God.  Some greater than me in spirit pray for God to give them more suffering if it is his will.  I can barely manage “God’s will, not mine, be done” before my mind’s eye is fixed on my next human affection (or affliction!).

I have been discussing suffering that is undeserved (in my view) and unjust.  Unexplainable suffering.  There is another kind of suffering.  Some people are angry as they have come to recognize their lives are built on fraudulent temporal things like power, greed, selfishness, lust, and other human desires that at the end of the day leave them empty and miserable.  There is simply not enough human pleasure to satiate the human spirit or feed our narcissistic self-importance when we are living contrary to the laws of God.

Transforming Love?

Rediscovering God transforms love as well as suffering.  I mentioned people who are suffering require “tangible actions.”  Expression of selfless love to a person who is suffering can take many forms.   It is given without expectation, carefully, and thoughtfully.  It is devoid of any expectation of returns.  It just is living to do the next right thing.  It knows no boundaries.   Receiving love as well is an art of willful gratitude and openness without ownership.  We cannot possess it and freeze it in time.  It is also limitless and infinite if we respect its true God given essence.

Integrating Love and Suffering:

God is present no matter the temporal reality that we are experiencing at any moment.  Our cooperation in the moment with acceptance of what is, intentional spiritual consciousness of how we are called to act in any given moment, persistence and patience while in the throws of darkness, and immense gratitude when experiencing love and joy, are all fluid and one with God’s will.  If only I was always on this spiritual high.  If we all lived this way no suffering would shake our faith.

Wait a minute – you don’t know what I have been through?  

I have known death of loved ones.  I have known personal failure.  I have known sickness and poor health.  I have witnessed many people suffering.  And yes I have no idea what you the reader have been through.

I know of your suffering as I know intimately of global suffering all over the world.  In my prayers I can be bought to tears by our inhumanity to each other.  In contemplation I can become overwhelmed with emptiness and lack of understanding. In moments of   confusion and helplessness, I like Job, want answers now.

I believe that a thoughtful and open minded journey exploring one’s faith, one’s suffering, and one’s life long loves or joys can restore and strengthen lost faith.  I also believe finding genuine faith that is well discerned will improve us and the people around us.

This three part series on “Is God Dead” was ignited by a new reading of the Book of Job.  I have learned that you and I should challenge our faith, ourselves, and those around us when faith is in question or when we or a neighbor is suffering.  It is a call to universal arms that we fight suffering, love one another, and embrace spirituality.  Mine just happens to be Christianity in form.

God by another name?

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The name on the shingle of the church is secondary to the actions of people inside the temple. What we do with love and suffering outside the temple is also testament to the fidelity of the shingle holder’s ability to carry the word of God. Those without a shingle (without a church) are not off the hook either. The 1.1 billion people have a shared social contract with us based on moral evolution as a species that shares many of the values shared by our religious institutions.  That being said, I would be remiss and lacking an authentic voice if I did not say find a catholic spiritual advisor, preferably a Jesuit, to explore the faith and your objections to Christianity today, gently and with love.

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 Secular benefit?

There is evidence out there that faith is good for your general well-being and happiness.  Review the science if you are skeptical.  Many “well-being” models of therapy employ techniques that are borrowed from religions with rich spiritual practices and traditions.  Mindfulness, Yoga, Tai Chi and many forms of meditation can trace portions of their practices to religion.  They can be helpful in and of themselves – but let me say they are also temporal and missing the main ingredient, genuine spirituality and connection to a higher universal meaning.  Some orthodox religious believers see these practices as dangerous and even heretical in nature.  I do not prescribe to this assertion but can see their point that practices aimed solely at self-soothing, avoiding pain and discomfort, and seeking personal peace can be misapplication of effort and ultimately spiritually limiting.

How can I return to God?  

I firmly believe you cannot “crowd source” faith.  It is helpful to have company of faithful people – but ultimately faith is an individual responsibility.  Without individual responsibility religious institutions and your faith run the risk of becoming human created cults operating on superficial clichés of dead letters quoted in ancient text.   The institutions and their believers can become enveloped in the very evils that faith preaches against.  My church as well as every religious institution has to reconcile this threat everyday.  No one individual or set of individuals owns the faith of any great religion.  Study history and you will find grave errors by every religious institution  known to mankind executed in God’s name.

This by the way is what I take Nietzsche meant when he said “God is Dead.”  Individuals ceded personal responsibility for their faith to rigid religious institutions and became docile in their beliefs.  Ironically his philosophy was used by Nazi Germany to let a charismatic leader lead a docile people into being partners in one of the greatest evils of all time.

Simply stated:

Love your neighbor as yourself and help alleviate suffering whenever you see it. Simple. As for God’s role and responsibility, pre and post Christ, I believe it is still up to us to live up to his expectations, not the other way around.

The Longer Path:

I was struggling to bring this three part series to a close.  I was keenly aware that the pain and suffering that people are experiencing cannot be relieved by my writing alone.  I am deeply saddened by our collective isolation and alienation from God.  I am aware that as long as I am mortal my search for proximity to God and spiritual transcendence will never be fulfilled.

Suffering remains a part of our experience – both in human misery and in spiritual distance from our creator.

I went to retire last night and was provided closure to this post by para phrasing Pope Francis:

“….we must love God and our neighbor – and this is not comfortable. It is demanding, and requires us to strive, which means having a decisive and persevering will to live according to the Gospel.”

“the Lord will not recognize us on account of our titles, but only on account of a humble life, a good life, a life of faith that results in works.”

“Spending our lives for the good of our brothers and sisters for Christians means that we are called to restore a true communion with Jesus, praying, going to Church, approaching the Sacraments and nourishing ourselves on His Word. This maintains us in faith, nourishes our hope, revives charity.”

“In this way with the grace of God, we can and must spend our life for the good of our brothers and sisters, struggling against every form of evil and of injustice.”

I mentioned earlier comforting those who suffer with tangible actions.  The sufferer may also be ourselves.  Faith is not a passive activity.  It is not waiting at a bus stop for the God bus to arrive.  It is inside us and all around us to be lived and participated in every moment.

Strive to understand suffering and faith today

Make a e decisive and persevering will  to live a holy life today 

Restore a true communion with God (through exploration of your faith)

Join the struggle against every form of evil and of injustice

Find time for spiritual contemplation daily to make sure you take full ownership of your faith and your works and that they are truly aligned with your greater purpose here on earth, consciously and actively  

May this post find you in a good spiritual place ready to embrace love and suffering with resolve and appropriate intentional living.  Thank you for visiting my site today.

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