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A Kiddy Bowl & A Grown-Up Spoon: God’s True Blessing

One afternoon, shortly after Easter, I had just gotten my five-year-old granddaughter off the bus and we were relaxing at her kitchen table enjoying a snack. Suddenly, she quite excitedly started telling me about going to a very big, really beautiful, church where she saw the priest bless the Easter food. I responded by saying how wonderful that must have been and just let the moment be full with the memory.

Then, I said casually, “You know how when you came to our house for a meal and we go around the table saying something we’re grateful for and then we thank the animal for its life, for the meat we’re about to eat?”

“Yea.”

“Well, I think of that as a kind of blessing. So, anytime you want to remember how thankful you are for all the good food you have, you can offer a blessing too. Just fold your hands like this and say something like, ‘Thank you God for all this good food I’m about to eat and thank you chicken, (or whatever the animal is), for your life so I can grow big and ­strong.’”

A pause and I could see the wheels turning. “You mean I can bless the food?”

“Of course,” I answered.

And, before I knew it, she jumped up and pointed with strong resolve to the cupboard where her and her younger brother’s dishes were kept.

“Quick, Grandma! Get a bowl and put water in it and get me a spoon – a big grown-up spoon.” Dutifully, I did as I was ordered as I could sense something quite special was swirling around in that sweet heart of hers. It’s why I call her Sweetness. So, I filled the small plastic bowl, one with a suction bottom, half full of water and placed it on the table in front of her along with a large spoon. Meanwhile, she ran to get some Polish pastries she and her dad had made that she said, “didn’t taste so good.”

Then, seating herself before the bowl and spoon, she paused, folded her hands, closed her eyes, and prayed, “Please God bless this food so it will taste good by tomorrow. My daddy and I tried to make it good but it didn’t work.” She then took the spoon and half flung, half dripped, water over the pastries.

“There,” she said, quite satisfied and with unwavering assurance, “I’m sure they’ll taste good by tomorrow.”

“Yikes!” I thought. “Now, what do I do?” Besides, I rationalized, the pastries could taste better by tomorrow, right? Miracles do happen!

Finally, I arrived on something I thought might save her heart-felt blessing. I said, “Well, honey, I don’t know if they’ll taste better by tomorrow but your blessing was very sweet and, you know, I think that just you and your dad making something together, just like when you and your mom do, is probably the biggest blessing.”

Woops! Furled brow!

“No, Grandma! I blessed the food. I know it will taste better tomorrow!”

“Okay, honey. I’m quite sure you’re right.”

“Grandma, let’s play now!” Blessing time was over.

I didn’t see Sweetness until a week later and in the annals of a five-year-old’s memory that’s a lifetime so I never did inquire if the pastries had, indeed, tasted better the next day. Instead, I chose to believe simply that one of those unexplained miracles had surely transpired and to hold what had come to me to be the true blessings of that afternoon…

One of God’s beloved children had learned that, with a heartfelt prayer, she, too, could bless that which she felt was most in need of blessing in her small world, be it on that day it was the Polish pastries. No, it was not in a big beautiful church or in some other special surroundings. It was not offered by a special person sprinkling holy water from a coveted chalice.

It was at a modest kitchen table offered by a five-year-old’s praying hands. All that was needed was a small plastic kiddy bowl half-filled with I’m-sure-it-must-have-been-holy water from the tap and, oh yes, a grown-up spoon. I do believe it was…

God’s true blessing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Flower Told Me So

We are in the midst of a great spiritual awakening. The more eclectic term inter-spiritual is replacing the more religious based inter-faith. The old paradigm of church is evolving. Communities are witnessing the emptying of pews as many are leaving to join the growing ranks of those self-identifying as “spiritual but not religious.” No longer satisfied with the standard liturgies gone rote, I believe many are leaving on a quest for God – their own personal quest – to discover for themselves that intimate experience beyond understanding. The great Dr. George Washington Carver, who was born a slave but lived a master, predicted this over a hundred years ago by simply saying, “The flower told me so.” (See “The Man Who Talks with the Flowers” by Glenn Clark.)

“There is going to be a great spiritual awakening in the world and it’s going to come from laymen, from men who are going about their work and putting God into what they do, from men who believe in prayer, and who want to make God real to mankind.” Dr. Carver went on to describe the qualities necessary to this awakening: Love: “…not a mere sentimental attachment but a force which holds the stars…” Humility: “…resulting in a complete relaxing of all self-imposed emotions…relaxed as the flowers.” Expectancy: “…born of faith…awe…wonder…”

 As an inter-faith minister, I feel myself straddling this growing chasm between that ‘ole time religion,’ anchored in the ancient texts, and the new spiritual awakening beautifully described by Dr. Carver. Why? Because I have found just a taste of that Love beyond understanding and have been left in quiet Humility, filled with some unknown Expectancy palpable with awe, by just what is found in those ancient texts. Oh, I can hardly think of it! Where would I be if I had never chanted the great Gayatri from the Hindu Vedas, Psalm 23 in Hebrew from the Hebrew Bible, the La illa ha illa allah from the Qur’an, or Jesus’ Lord’s Prayer in his own language of Aramaic, to name just a few? Where would I be if I had never sat in that sweet stillness following the chanting of those wonderous prayers to suddenly, unexpectedly, hear the silent voice of God?

So, as I continue to straddle the chasm, I urgently sound an alarm, indeed, a more shrill, mournful cry, “Wait! Do not leave the old behind! Rather, let’s glean from its depths what is there for us today!” Remember the experience of the Holy is eternal, beyond time and space. Listen to the mystics from across world faiths and you’ll hear the same Knowing. Let’s distill the ancient practices, portals to this eternal while, yes, leaving behind the many ways religion has been used to divide and harm rather than unite and serve.

Let’s pause…practice…and listen. Who knows? We, too, just might catch a whiff of the fragrance from that flower Dr. George Washington Carver always wore in the buttonhole of his jacket.

And, if so, we, too, may hear what we might have missed before: the voice of the flower, like the voice of God, silent and eternal.

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And Love Comes Calling

Those of you who know my writing have read many times about what I call the will and surrender dance with God. In this blessed dance, we use our will to engage our daily practice where we may be tuned and made ready, like fine instruments, to be played at the discretion of the Master Conductor – often in ways we may not ever have anticipated. And, always, in the fulfillment of such moments, our hearts can only bow in sweet surrender for we recognize, again and again, that it is not we who are creating the melody but our Blessed Creator breathing through us.

This is not just a nice sounding philosophical concept. It has absolutely been my life’s experience. It’s why many of you have heard me say, “I’m so glad I’m not in charge of my life for I could have never anticipated the many ways the Beloved has chosen to use me. Left to my own devices, my life would have been so much more limited!” So, I’ve learned to trust the Master Conductor, that infinite, unfolding, amazing, awe-filled Mystery. And, this is the most humbling awareness which, without fail, puts a giggle in my heart.

And, of course, as the One we call by many names is most succinctly characterized by an unbound and ecstatic Love, I call such moments when the Master Conductor appears with some new melody, Love comes calling. I’m delighted to share with you that I have been given two new melodies. First, Rev. Deb-Ellen Brown, Class of 2015, just absolutely insisted I send workshop proposals to the Haden Institute’s Summer Dream and Spirituality Conference happening the last week in May in Asheville, NC. Both she and Rev. Susan Cass, Class of 2017, are graduates of their Spiritual Direction Training program. Frankly, I was not particularly hopeful as the director’s initial response was that my proposals were somewhat different from what they normally offered. I had proposed two: “Mantra Prayer,” based on my book, Doorway to the Sacred: Transform Your Life with Mantra Prayer and “The Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic,” based on my book, Living the Prayer of Jesus: A Study of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. At best, I thought they might consider one. Well, I have been informed that they are offering both!!

The second melody was instigated by Rev. Christy Sperrazza, Class of 2011, when she informed me that she had nominated me for a TEDx talk. With over 80 people nominated, I am so honored to tell you that I was one of 10 selected! My talk entitled, The Shaykh and The Preacher: Finding One Another Beyond Religious Difference, will be part of the event held at Pinkerton Academy’s Stockbridge Theatre in Derry, New Hampshire, Saturday, June 2, 2018. I will be drawing from the experience I shared on my blog in February of 2016 in a post called The Shaykh and The Preacher. This piece, expanded to include my talk, has already been accepted for publication in Celene Ibrahim’s, The Islam and Interfaith Leadership, now under contract with Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Both of these assignments feel quite synchronous and in direct response to the intention I’ve been carrying in my heart: to take our Tree of Life interfaith theological perspective out into the world – that, indeed, we are united by one divinity and one key way we discover this is by the personal engagement and experience of spiritual practices offered across faith traditions. It is in this way we truly discover that Many are the ways we pray to One God. It is my deepest prayer that as I serve as I’ve been called that all I share will serve to bring more and more people to know about our Tree of Life Interfaith Temple and Seminary Program. How blessed. How very wonderful.

Blessed community, as we go forward, I pray that, together, we may tune, listen and wait. For in the most perfect time and way, the Master Conductor will surely appear and, graciously, we will find ourselves, again and again…

Dancing with God.   

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Making Holy

One of my favorite things about the holidays, right along side those Salvation Army bells ringing my heart awake again and again, is to rise before the sun and go down and sit in the glow of the Christmas lights for my spiritual practice. There, I always include Andrea Bocelli, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singing The Lord’s Prayer. And, each time I listen, I am absolutely certain I have been transported to heaven. There is no doubt! This morning, New Year’s Day, I woke especially early as I knew it would be the last morning for this my most special time with God – at least in the glow of those silver, red, green and gold starlight, star bright, lights.

Each line of The Lord’s Prayer, particularly when I say it in the language of Jesus, Aramaic, makes my heart quiver with some melody always new to me and I am left still, quietly suspended in some state of unnamed wonder. This morning, the second line has particularly captured my heart: Nethqadash shmakh, Hallowed be thy name. It feels appropriate for the New Year as Nethqadash means to make “holy” and, in particular, signals the need for a kind of clearing, a setting apart, of our most consecrated self for the purpose of preparing for a specific purpose.

To walk in the full awareness of our inner holiness brings the deepest humility. Unable to name, contain or fully explain that which created us, breathed us into life and sustains our every heartbeat, leaves nothing but silent gratitude in its wake. And, as Jesus told us that the kingdom of God is within (Luke 17:21 King James Bible), suddenly, we realize that we, being made in the image of God, are hallowed, that we too have a hallowed name, a unique vibration that point us in the direction of our true purpose just waiting and ready to serve the greatest good.

Hallowed in a time when it appears we have entered into the valley of the shadow of death. Hallowed when it appears truth and justice have become arbitrary and faith, hope and love mere sentiments. Hallowed when hatred has become sanctified as normal. Hallowed when intimidation and discrimination have become the status quo. Hallowed when the new Commandment given by Jesus in John 13:34, “Love one another as I have loved you,” has taken a back seat to personal and national aggrandizement. Hallowed when it appears we are no longer able to see, beyond color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, our brother, our sister standing there right before us.

Hallowed! This is our great charge! To walk humbly through this valley with our God; to raise the sword of justice and offer hope to all who suffer; to speak love when we hear hatred; to allow no one on our watch to be marginalized; to humbly and vigorously seek the true nature of love for others as our self; to practice adjusting our vision to see, regardless of circumstance, our brother, our sister right there in front of us, on the street or around the world.

Maybe then, just maybe, we may come to know the true meaning of Nethqadash shmakh…

To know, more fully, the great blessing of walking, humbly and courageously, right through this valley of the shadow of death…

making Holy…

Happy New Year Everyone!

 

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And the Bells They’re Ringing…

The holidays are not an easy time for many. Infused with emotions, they can make despair even more poignant and any expression of love feel cold and superficial. And, so it was for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863. His country was embroiled in a war he hated. His son had returned home with severe wounds. His beloved wife had died after a freak accident in their home two years before and he was sorely missing her. In his sadness he had written, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays. I can make no record of these days. Better to leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

But, on this Christmas Day, with the Civil War still raging, he wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells” which would become the beloved Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” In the first part of the poem, he unabashedly records his despair:

I heard the bells on Christmas day.

Their old familiar carols play.

And wild and sweet their songs repeat

of peace on earth good will to men.

 

And in despair I bowed my head.

“There is no peace on earth,” I said.

For hate is strong and mocks the song

of peace on earth good will to men.

Have there not been Christmases when we have felt the same? Have there not been times when those bells we heard rang empty, not true? But, toward the end of the poem, something happens for Longfellow. Let’s listen:

Then rang the bells more loud and deep.

God is not dead nor does He sleep.

The wrong shall fail. The right prevail.

Peace on earth good will to men.

 

Then ringing singing on His way.

The world revolves from night to day.

A voice, a chime, a chance of life

of peace on earth good will to men.

Somehow those bells rang more loud and deep and he remembered that God is not dead. No, indeed, for to know God is to know life! And, God does not sleep. Indeed not, for in each moment He is guiding, honing, sounding, walking, shaping us in, around, and through our very breath. And, suddenly, a remembrance, and a peace not-known-before bathes away despair leaving only the sound of those bells echoing through the chambers of his heart. And, Jesus’ words in John 4: 27 now rang true, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you: not as the world gives, I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

And, suddenly, we too hear the bells…as Casting Crowns’ version of this carol sings…

And the bells they’re ringing…Peace on Earth

Like a choir they’re singing…Peace on Earth

And in our hearts we’ll hear them…Peace on Earth

Good will to men

 

Do you hear the bells they’re ringing?

Peace on Earth

Like the angels singing

Peace on Earth

Open up your heart and hear them

Peace on Earth…Good will to men

In our Christmas worship, we gathered and sang out with full voice and unleashed emotion Peace on Earth…for we heard the bells a’ ringing…Peace on Earth…and we sang like angels singing…Peace on Earth…! And, as I looked out I knew there were some of us who were facing deeply challenging times and still…we stood and held together and with open hearts we sang out…Peace on Earth…!

 And, in that moment, I knew there was nothing we could not do – together…

So now, with those bells still a’ ringing, echoing through the chambers of our collective heart, I pray we too will hear those bells on Christmas Day…and every day…

Ringing out…Peace on Earth…Good will to men…

 A Blessed Merry Christmas Everyone!

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Don’t Tell Heaven…

Shhhhhhh…don’t tell heaven it’s not heaven. Let this be our special secret for I am absolutely certain I’ve found the real heaven right here on earth. You see, I’ve seen stars glistening over the rippled waters as many shades of blue play and fade into green and earthen brown on rocky shores. I’ve met the Spirit of the turtle that guards the dipping pond where I have submerged to reemerge again and again. I’ve felt the shelter of the deep blue dome of sky with its airy clouds as the Spirit of the wind whispered a slight chill of the change to come. No, this is not the land of milk and honey. It is a land as lush and pristine as it is untamed and raw. I’ve learned to walk with sure footing and clear eyes through this heaven’s gate for its landing is, at once, soft and thorny.

The Soul of this place thrives on its own terms – wild and free. It awakens within me some deep slumber scabbed over by multi-tasking, over scheduling and the bombardment of a world in escalating chaos. In just a few days, I am remined of how few clothes I need, how a most sacred object is my hair tie and how a blessing to the fish to thank it for its life is the true nourishment.

Within this heaven’s gate, I am stripped down, made simple and, on a bed of pine straw, sacrificed to the Spirit of the wild. And just as the wood gives its life to the fire so do I releasing into the scent of smoke all I carry not essential to the beauty and goodness of life.

Yes, don’t tell heaven it’s not heaven. But, tell all who may hear that heaven is near, alive and beckoning, all around us. Leave the familiar sidewalks. Escape the known way. Follow the silent call of the trail, once defined by footprints, now hiding beneath wispy ferns, dried limbs, soft mosses, dugout pits, wayward grasses, deserted stumps and delicate wild flowers.

Follow. It will take you deep into places unknown where heaven’s gate will open wide to welcome you…hone you…and, just perhaps, at long last, birth you…

wild and free.

Pictures below: The first, the road to the site off the main dirt road. The second, the path in at the end of the road. Third, the lake side of the site. Fourth, the pond side and, lastly, the turtle who oversees its depths. Enjoy!

Road to Site

Path to Site

Lake Side of Site

Pond Side of Site

Turtle

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The Mormons & Me

In my last blog, Or’ the land of the free and the home of the brave, I proposed one possible scenario, outcome, to the predicament we find ourselves in today. It does not have to be that way – if we choose to join our collective energies to create a reality pulsing with the consciousness of what I call true seeing and right action. Many of our great spiritual leaders have modeled this dual paradigm: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother ‘Saint’ Teresa. Each showed us how to carry the consciousness of light straight into the darkness of hatred and discrimination, political oppression and untold suffering.

Each saw and named what was occurring and then acted with intention to bring about an outcome capable of serving a greater good. Right action is the tide that raises all boats above old adages of winning and losing, good people and bad people. With clear intention, right action understands that there are no real winners until we all win and there is both good and bad in all of us. In sum, true seeing sees beyond the superficial dramas of daily life to reveal what’s common at the heart of all and right action seeks to highlight what is seen. Together, they become the ultimate expression of love.

And, as we seek to follow in the footsteps of the great ones, it behooves us to be ever vigilant of our inner motivations. Let’s shun self-righteousness and befriend humility. Let’s cultivate equanimity so as to avoid cowering in fear, turning silent with depression or spewing rage in reactive anger or, conversely, escaping into spiritual platitudes such as, “Just stay in the light.” No, true seeing requires right action. So, let’s rise fearless and strong with the sword and shield bestowed all true spiritual warriors called to defend the good.

However, all this talk just remains theoretical babble until we actually start to walk the talk in daily life. Below is one small incident that occurred a couple of summers ago that still informs me today. May it stir something in you as well…

I was gently swaying in my hammock tracing those elusive clouds floating in that deep blue sky when I heard voices. “Excuse me, Ma’am.” I looked up to see Mormon missionaries coming onto my patio.  Now, normally, I avoid all forms of proselytizing and politely turn visitors away as quickly as possible. But, on this particular day, I was feeling quite spacious and open and found myself inviting them to sit at my patio table.

As the conversation began, they casually asked what I did.

“I’m an interfaith minister,” I said. “I’m blessed to serve the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst.”

Silence. And then, the look we interfaith ministers often get when announcing our calling.

“I’m not sure what that is,” one of my visitors said. “Are you Christian?”

“I believe deeply in Jesus and in the Bible but I also believe God is expressed through all religions. You see, I’ve spent many years immersed in the spiritual practices from many faith traditions and everywhere I’ve landed I’ve found God – or, should I say, God has found me. So, in the end, I became an interfaith minister because I just couldn’t choose one faith over the others. I guess you could say that I belong to God, not to any particular religion.”

Then, hesitantly, “You believe in Jesus and the Bible but have you been saved?”

“Oh, my God, yes! A million times every day!”

Another pause. I sensed this was not a scenario covered in their missionary training. I decided to use the lull to ask something I’d always wanted to know. “I can imagine it must take such courage and conviction to take your faith door to door. Could you tell me more about that? I’d love to know what brought you to God and to sharing your faith in this way.”

Gladly, they each shared their stories and it felt truly wonderful to listen. What seemed like only a few minutes, in retrospect, soon turned into a leisurely visit in the summer’s shade. Along the way, we discovered both of our churches had been involved in quilt making for the needy and we even reflected upon the possibility of joining together in some kind of similar project.

As they left down the driveway, I was no closer to becoming a Mormon than they were to becoming interfaith but we were able to part sincerely wishing one another well. It felt to me like we had started something and I found myself truly hoping I would run into them again.

We are experiencing a deep religious, cultural and political divide in our country that has put our treasured democracy on life support. You could say that, in real time, my brief encounter with the Mormon missionaries represents a kind of microcosm of what is playing out on a national scale today with one critical difference: both my Mormon friends and I were willing to sit together, to share and to listen. While, of course, the goal of missionary work is conversion and, perhaps, they may have felt like they or I had somehow missed the mark, we were still able to part amicably. For me, it was not important to contemplate our religious differences or any desired outcomes to our conversation. I had sensed something beyond beliefs. It felt like we had connected not through a common religion but, rather, through our deep common love for God and that, for me, was quite enough.

And, perhaps, this is where we begin to play our part in restoring our democracy to full functioning so all of us can once again breathe free. I believe it is our charge to create conditions, one patio at a time, where every day people can share their stories of faith, challenge, perseverance and enduring love – stories that help us to both better understand one another and, as Providence may allow, take us all beyond understanding. We do not need to all believe the same way or share the same political ideology. We do need to be able to look at one another and find glimpses of ourselves.

With such true seeing, those of differing beliefs from our own as well as the immigrant, the person of color, the Muslim, all the faces of “the other,” particularly marginalized by our current administration, may slowly come into focus. And, just maybe, as a result, we may come to, more often, recognize ourselves. This is the very balm needed to take our failing democracy off life support and put her on the road to full recovery. For the truth is we can only find unity by embracing our diversity. Democracy requires it to thrive. Without it, she dies.

But, remember true seeing calls for right action. So, join me on the patio and let’s invite those we ourselves may perceive to be “the other.” Many may not respond but some may. Let’s begin the process of simple connection so the critical foundation may be laid upon which to broach the deeper, more divisive, issues. And, let’s never forget that unity, not uniformity, is the goal.

Our common humanity yearns for it.

Our democracy requires it.

And, the One known by many names calls for it.

Let’s rise up and say, “Yes!”

 

 

 

 

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