Saturday, September 19, 2009

Something Holy

There's something holy in the way that the green in the leaves waves goodbye at the end of the summer. It's like the Wizard's Omaha State Fair balloon leaving Oz, with all the munchkins looking up and waving farewell, shouting "Goodbye! Goodbye!" with their tiny little voices. In our case, though, we know that we will see the green leaves again next spring. There's a sweetness in our goodbyes too, because their departure hastens the arrival of their gold and burnt-red cousins, which will dance above our heads in countless degrees of glory for the next several weeks.

There's something holy in the half-moon shaped date cookies that Grandma brings to each and every family Christmas. They are an anticipated part of that magical day, along with the knitted slippers that she will hand to you as a gift. Cookies and slippers filled with holiness because of the hands that made them. And there's something so very holy in the hugs that remain, many years after these hands ache too much to knit the slippers, to make the cookies.

There's something holy there when you find yourself walking behind an elderly couple on a pathway beside a fountain, near red, pink, and violet flowers. Bent over by age, their love and faithfulness stands strong as they enjoy a short walk outside of their retirement home.

And there is something holy in this fine-tip pen and the blue ink that spills down onto this crinkled paper, continuing the evolution, continuing the learning that began so very many years ago with desire, with power, and an explosion of stars.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Leaving The Path Behind

Living a religious or spiritual life is often compared to taking a path. The destination is often a peaceful, joyous afterlife, where “real life” begins after this temporary, earthly existence. But before getting there, we walk the path, accomplishing necessary tasks along the way. For evangelical Christians – I’ll speak of this particular religion due to experience – the start of the journey is critical and happens when a person makes a decision to believe that they’re a sinner and that they need Jesus to forgive them of their sins in order to be acceptable to God. After this is done, other tasks along the journey may include getting baptized, trying to share their faith with other friends who are not on the path, and reading books in order to find out how to walk the path more accurately. Prayers are prayed, sermon notes are jotted down.

And this is all quite fulfilling to a great deal of people; it provides meaning to their existence. I truly realize this, and am reminded tonight of the quote, “Religion doesn’t work because it’s true, it’s true because it works.” So for the countless throngs for whom this pathway works, I have an increasingly deep and genuine appreciation for that fact and am happy for you.

But for many others, any kind of path that one must follow is much more like a maze that is far too exhausting to navigate. They wonder if they are walking too slowly or too quickly, if they should turn left or right. Energy is spent trying to find the right book or tool. If they become unhappy or unfulfilled they sometimes will chalk it up to themselves, that they must be straying from the path, or not having enough faith. This can get all the more confusing when you have countless varying groups claiming to hold the secret to walking the path more accurately than anyone else. Recently a Christian pastor told me of another minister, who, in referring to their particular denomination, remarked that of the many varying denominations, it “most closely resembled how the church was in Jesus’ day.” Have you heard of anything more ridiculous? I have a strong aversion to the over-used acronym “LOL,” but…LOL!!! (I will not, however, be rolling on whichever floor that people roll on in times such as this. I draw the line there.)

But back to the pathway to God.

In my humble opinion, there is no path.

The path may very well be something that has been constructed over the course of human history because of humanity’s fear of the unknown. I tend to agree with John Shelby Spong when he writes that humans were confronted with powerful forces which they felt they had no control over, such as wind and fire. Over time they came to believe that god(s) held control over these powers, and if only they could figure out how to please these gods, or follow the right path, they’d be a-ok. And if you want to be cynical, there’s a fair amount of importance and prestige to be gained by religious leaders who claim to know the right way to walk the path.

Another thought is that while walking a set path may seem to provide some comfort and safety – and safety to a great degree is really so very wonderful – is that what we really want? Maybe. But maybe we also want wildness, and passion that does not “follow a path.” Maybe to find this passion that we ache for, we have to let go of the idea of a path. Anyways…

There is no real path which we must follow. For those people who have struggled to walk the path, only for it to become an exhausting maze, hopefully something will happen for them to realize that they don’t have to be caught up in it any longer. It can vanish before your very eyes.

And that is the key. To learn to see with your own eyes and to trust them. This requires a decisive step to say goodbye to the false assumption that humanity – and you – are essentially flawed or in need of something or someone to make you better or good. It’s all up to you. We can take the steps that are uniquely ours to take. What are the passions inside of you that are waiting to be lived out? What are the gifts inside that are just waiting to be born into the world?

There is no path.

But don’t take my word for it. Take yours.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Before You Say Goodbye

Funerals are unique things to be a part of. It’s very interesting to watch and listen to what goes on during the couple days of visitations and the service.

Besides the undeniable and necessary presence of grief, one of the other most notable presences is that of family and friends whom you haven’t seen for years. Forget about seen, at funerals you see people whom you haven’t talked to or perhaps even thought about, since, well, who knows when. Generally it is good to see these people again, and so you sit down next to them and get caught up on the details of their lives. Over coffee you hear about your Great Aunt’s granddaughters terrific new job; between bites of the finger sandwiches you’re scarfing down – maybe ham and cheese or perhaps salmon – you smile as you listen to cute stories about your distant cousins sons first words or first steps.

…And then perhaps more often than not you go your separate ways, until the next funeral, where you will have more stories to tell under a different but still familiar umbrella of grief. Sure, there’s weddings too, but chances are if you never talk to these people, you aren’t going to invite them. With funerals the invitations are null, whoever comes, comes. Bottom line, though, is that you sometimes find yourself saying “It was really good to see so-and-so again…why is it again that we are never in touch?

Another noticeable, and striking thing about funerals is how nice everyone is when talking about the person who has passed away. Whether it’s the funny stories that are shared with others as you strain to read the cards on the flowers to see who sent them, or the minister attesting to the person’s praise-worthy attributes. Almost always you will hear something like “Remember when Uncle Frank ate 7 donuts all at once on a dare?” or “Edith had a serenity about her that brought a sense of calm to everyone around her.” Seldom will you overhear things like “Cousin Jen was always the lazy one; that’s why she dropped out of college,” or “Aunt Brenda never had as good of a personality as her sisters.” And of course this positivity is the way it should be.

What can be learned from all this? Firstly, we can put more effort into keeping in touch with people - not just on special occasions. And more importantly, treat people kindly on a day-to-day basis, in life, not just after they're gone. As nice as it is to honour, memorialize, and reminisce about someone who has passed, isn’t it better to honour, uplift, and enhance the lives of those who are still around us?

I hope you’re enjoying your summer day.

Mark Andrew