Merry-go-round

He was alone. Last year, he wouldn’t have guessed that things would turn out as they had. And here it was again, the holidays. The calendar told him it was 2012 and his life had dramatically changed.

The change went deeper than a turn in the seasons or aging another year. It went under his skin and pervaded soul.

Life was like that, he thought. Everything could be stripped away in the blink of an eye. Yet everything could be restored. Things change.

He knew that now as he remembered his wife handing him the ticket.

For Michael, his life had hit bottom. His relationship with a colleague at work had violated his relationship with Michelle, his wife and his professional boundaries. He knew it was wrong and things went from bad to worse. Had he been in any other career than clergy, he might have been able to work it out.

The denominational officials thoroughly investigated and found no predatory behavior on his part. Just a brief and stupid consensual interoffice affair. Michael took full responsibility for what he did, resigning from the church and the denomination.

The Bishop, however, wanted to make him and his behavior an example and prepared to bring the whole matter to a public ecclesiastical trial. To save Michelle from further public humiliation, Michael defrocked himself from the ministry.

It also didn’t help that the denomination fired the Bishop. Somehow there must have been clerical consensus that though clergy screw up, they can find the redemption they proclaim but now two clergy were unemployed.

Some fitting career ending for the owner of a Doctorate of Ministry degree who had once gone on a book signing tour with his new work on the equality of women and men. Michael even had to quit his adjunct lecturer position at the university. No more feminist lectures there. “You want fries with that?” Michael was guessing to be included in his next career communication.

It did help, though, that he knew his way around computers and networks and was able to land a job. What really needed help, though, was Michael’s remorse. He had made himself and Michelle victims of nothing other than his own mindlessness. As often as he had tried to figure out his insular mindset that irrationally separated his life from his wife and the community – there he was – himself, the hypocritical Elf.

Through the months, Michelle had forgiven him. That was miraculous in itself. But nothing could get rid of the remorse that lived within Michael. Nothing could exorcise this dark visitor inhabiting his soul. Michael knew he had committed the unpardonable sin – to violate the quiet, sacred, loving trust of his soul mate. He knew too much to rationalize otherwise.

When Michelle handed him the ticket to the merry-go-round ride at the local Zoo, he laughed, a little confused.

“Here,” she said, “you need to take this ride. You’ve always been a merry-go-round freak!”

The next day, Michael stood in line at the merry-go-round. As parents corralled their excited children, he saw the unabashed joy on the parents’ faces as they watched their children fly through their air on their painted horses. They looked like cherubs.

Their joy, though, contrasted with the despair Michael felt. He was not standing next to his wife now, as they once had done in watching their daughter years ago. He was alone, in line, waiting to get on a merry-go-round like some kind of homeless outpatient looking like he was in between prescription refills.

The carney, boarding riders on this circle of brightly painted horses, looked a little rough. His beer-sculpted gut and missing tooth suggested he had experienced hard times of his own. Yet he cheerfully boarded the cherubs, their parents and Michael as the calliope music began.

Michael stood beside one of the stationary horses, choosing to stand and not sit as it began to move. He had always loved carousels. The movement. The colors and antiquated steam-driven calliope music from another time and land.

The carney was now standing in the unmoving inner circle of the carousel. As Michael looked ahead in the counterclockwise moving platform, the calliope music sounded like an old Public Television Masterpiece Theater song.

When the tune suddenly changed to the old Rolling Stones Song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” Michael thought something was wrong. Yet the parents and children in front of him didn’t seem to notice. He saw no one reacting to the shift in the music.

Michael turned around and looked behind him and then when it hit him. Seeing the fronts of their faces, . . . they all looked familiar. He somehow knew these people. He was looking back in time.

The one closest to him, riding on the next horse behind, was MaryJo. MaryJoe from high school. The first love of his life. Michael remembered how he dated her for months, only for her to declare she was interested in someone else. It broke his heart and he drove home, that night, crying and feeling utterly alone.

He walked over to her and saw the joy on her face as she looked ahead past him, as if he wasn’t there. He could see scenes into her life beyond high school. She had married a football star who became a business owner and politician. He saw scenes of her collecting her children from the private schools. How she helped her husband on his campaign trail of conservative values and fiscal integrity.

Michael was glad she had found happiness for herself and he understood. He was happy for her.

Michael was wondering if he was dreaming this magic ability to see people of his past and how their lives unfolded.

“No” the carney said, instantly appearing next to him, answering his thoughts. “You’re on this ride and I need your ticket. But keep looking behind for a while” he said as he took the ticket from Michael’s hand. He quickly stepped back into the carousel’s inner circle and disappeared in the arc of the moving ride.

Michael looked further back and saw his parents. They were in one of those brightly colored fixed benches.

Michael remembered when he was five, they had left him behind at his grandparents’ house, driving off and leaving him crying in the driveway. He remembered feeling abandoned, crying outside on his grandparent’s steps. When they soon came back to retrieve him, they were laughing, saying they were trying to teach him to be more prompt when they said it was time to leave.

As Michael moved closer to his parents, who couldn’t see him either, he saw snapshots of their lives. The distance between them. Their preoccupation with their jobs and he felt sorry to see their futile attempts to control so as to appear good enough by those around them. Michael forgave them.

Michel was just starting to grasp the magic of this dream-like ride. As he looked to the center of carousel’s hub, he saw the carney laughing as he looked over at him.

The carnival music tune changed to the Sam Cooke’s tune of “Wonderful World.” He moved further back and found a tall European-looking man he remembered to be Chris. He was the vice principle of his high school who had violently slapped him in his face for running down the hall into class.

This administrator never knew that Michael would feel the reverberations of his slap as it woke him from dreams decades later. But Michael also saw Principal Chris’s suffering from traumas of his own military experiences. He felt compassion and forgave him.

One after another, figures from Michael’s past appeared on the ride.

The calliope played on with the tune of the national anthem. This time it was the college Army ROTC sergeant teaching the class. He was explaining how the Army was placing artificial animal dung bombs along the Viet Nam trails to blow off the legs of hapless villagers. Women, children, hard-working and honest farmers. The sergeant said, “War is a nasty business and we’ve found this to damage their spirits so that we would gain a psychological advantage in the conflict.”

Like the others, Michael saw the Sergeant had eventually liberated himself from his career. Michael forgave the ROTC instructor.

When the music tune changed once again, it was now playing the tune to Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise.” This time, Michael saw a dejected figure sitting on a bench. Unlike the others in his past life, this figure was sitting sideways with his feet on up on the bench with his head turned away, held by his hand.

“There’s one more person to forgive, Michael” said the carney’s voice beside him. To his surprise, it wasn’t the carney standing next to him but was his Michelle. She put her arm on Michael’s shoulder as they both walked closer to the seated figure. “It’s why I gave you the ticket” she said.

The calliope organ softened and changed to the violin in the original Chapman song. Michael could hear the some of the words. “I’ll find my way back to you” were gently sung as they moved closer to the figure. Michael leaned over to see the face of the figure. It was himself. . . . “Please say you’ll be waiting . . . ”

Michael stood, looking at himself. He realized that he could forgive all of the people in his own past but he couldn’t come to terms with himself.

Michael sat down next to his own image. Scenes from his own life were already within him. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and then his wife’s warm embrace. She encircled his head with her arms. He felt the place where his own remorse had lived so many months had been vacated. Through her forgiveness, he had been released and could forgive himself. The waiting for forgiveness was over.

The music ended and the ride slowly came to a stop. As Michael and Michelle turned to exit, the carney said “Come through here” leading them both to the inner circle of the ride.

“But how do we leave?” Michael asked, looking at the carney and Michelle.

The carney had now changed in appearance, looking more like a kindly uncle. He said, “It’s not a matter of how you leave but how you return. You can come here whenever you want.”

Suddenly, Michael and his Michelle were surrounded by all the others who had been on the ride. As if participating in a centuries-old laying on of hands ordination ritual – each one reached out their hand and touched Michael. As the calliope started again, the carney said to them, “What is sacred in this dimension is how we are connected. It’s forgiveness that heals us and makes us whole.”

Immediately Michael found he was standing off to the side of the merry-go-round, watching parents and their children enveloped by the joy. He knew Michelle was back at home, waiting for his return.

As Michael drove home, he couldn’t wait to thank her for the carousel ride and for everything else she had done.

Your Way

It was 12:50 and church had gone over again. Michael pulled into Burger King. He was starving and with church letting out late, he
had to throw something down the hatch before he quickly changed into his jeans. He had to get back to church to help. A few of the guys were putting together a wooden Noah’s ark for the children’s nursery.

“One of these days God ought to do that again with the flooding” Michael said out loud to himself as he pulled into the restaurant’s drive through lane. He had just seen a lot of people in casual clothing coming out of the Blockbuster
Video store across the street.

“It’s clear they never darken a church door” he muttered as he waited in line with the others in the drive through lane. “They live like there is no God and if they ever really knew they’re going to be coming up short on judgment day, they’d be
shakin’ in their boots, dying to get into church – but it’ll be too late.”

What Michael didn’t know, when he was about to place his order, was that the voice coming out of the intercom would be God’s. That’s right, the Almighty was sitting inside with
the earphone and mike, taking orders. God had never done that work before but was giving it a try, . . . actually helping out one of the workers who had gone home ill a little earlier.

“May I take your order” Michael heard through the intercom, surprised that the voice wasn’t as crackly and artificial as usual.

“Yes, I’d like a double cheeseburger and an Adventure Cappuccino . . . and make it quick. I’ve got to hurry to get back to church” Michael said, surprised that he told this minimum-wage person why he was in a rush.

“Admirable” said the intercom attendant with some warmth. “Since this is Burger King, we’ll treat you like a king and you’ll have it your way, of course.”

“Yea, that would be the day” Michael said with scorn, . . . clueless about what was soon to come. “The day I have it my way,” he added, “this whole town would be cleaned up and you’d be able to walk the street and never worry about being attacked by the hoodlums and the ungodly.”

“Sounds like you’d get lots of votes if you were running in the next election” the voice cheerfully said through the speaker system.

“You know what I would do if I really had it my way?” Michael continued. “I wouldn’t pray for three atheist Supreme Court Justices to die, like Pat Robertson suggested. I’d get the whole job done at once. I’d send everyone, who feels they’re too busy to show up at church, right to hell, . . just like that. If these Godless-liberals want to drive our country to hell in a hand basket, let’s ship’em there permanently and save them the work of dragging the rest of us there.”

“That’s a pretty tall order” God said through the intercom with seriousness. Is that what you really want?”

“Sure,” said Michael. I’d send them all there, . . . ‘like a thief in the night.’ Throw ‘em all in the infernal region and flame broil them over the open fire ‘my way’” Michael concluded, proud of his tying in the restaurant’s advertising rhetoric.

“All right, it’s your call” the voice said. “And one thing further, do you want fries with that?”

“No,” Michael responded. “I’m trying to stay healthy” he said with a smile on his face. “Your body is a temple, you know!”

“Yes, . . so it’s said” God responded with a touch of sadness. “Please drive around.”

When Michael came up to the window, there was only his bag of food and no cashier. He called into the window and no one was in sight. He waited another couple of moments and called again, even beeping his horn. Finally, in exasperation, he just took his food and drove off.

As he passed by the restaurant, he noticed that no one was in it. The food in the bag felt hot but there wasn’t a soul in the entire place. Neither was there anyone on the street or across the way in front of the Blockbuster Video store. He was
the only one driving on the street.

It felt a bit eerie. Sure it was Sunday but there were a lot of people out and about just minutes before so he turned on his radio. Nothing was coming out of his radio except the sound of someone humming a tune.

He pushed the button to switch to this favorite Christian
station but it was the same thing, . . . someone humming a tune.

“What the hell is going on around here?” Michael said half to the radio, half to the deserted street in front of him.

“Well that’s just the point, Michael” the voice said to him from his car radio speakers. The voice he heard was the same one he had just heard from the drive through intercom. Michael slammed on the brakes and came to an abrupt stop in the middle of an intersection. It didn’t even matter because there were no cars anywhere in sight!

“What’s just the point?” Michael nervously said, wondering if he was having a breakdown or a sudden bout of insanity.

“What the hell, that is going on, is just what you ordered” God said from the radio. “You’ve just sent seven billion people to hell. They’re all gone but you’ve got a couple of problems with
that order.”

By now, Michael realized to Whom he had been speaking and took courage. “You mean You took care of all those unchurched heathens for me, just like that?” he
asked with some pride.

“Yes” God answered back through the radio. “But since there isn’t a literal place called “Hell” I brought them over into my place, just to get them out of your way. “And by the way, the only people who are left in your life are the two hundred or so who go to your church. There’s nobody left where you work. I’ve got most of your relatives. Have you noticed that your wife and kids have been bored to death with your church? So enjoy the quiet and the simplicity” God concluded.

Michael’s radio made a pop and a sputter sound and was silent. He saw a car coming toward him from the opposite direction. It was Hal Linden and his wife Brenda from church. He looked as bewildered, as Michael felt, as their two cars slowly stopped so they could talk.

“I can’t believe it” Hal said. “It’s the rapture or something and everyone’s gone. Maybe this is it” he concluded with wide-eyed excitement.

Michael looked at him and responded, “If it is, how come we are left here?” In the prolonged silence that followed, neither of them could speak.

Michael continued home. His neighborhood was virtually empty. It was as if a bomb had dropped and sucked every living thing away.

Michael’s radio snapped on and God asked one more question. “By the way, Michael, what’s a hand basket?”

Before and Beyond The Light of Day

One day, during one of Heaven’s typical beautiful afternoons, the unicorns had just finished performing a majestic dance and run across the meadows. It had been their gift to God and to anyone else who happened to wonder by.

After the performance, God thanked them for their delightful promenade and started back to the celestial palace. As it was, God felt like carving, a hobby recently undertaken by the Almighty. As usual, others of heaven’s inhabitants walked along with God just for fun.

On the way to the palace with The Almighty, the unicorns talked of their gratitude. They were still thankful to be free to roam throughout the land, unlike the ancient days when they were confined only to the pastures of sorcerers who thought they owned them.

As they headed toward the palace, they heard the beginning beats of a nearby orchestra which was starting a song. Michelle Branch was standing on a nearby hillside, surrounded by hundreds who comprised a full orchestra and as many singers of a great choir.

As the pianos, electric bass guitars and violins began with the initial beats in establishing a rhythm, The Almighty smiled in recognition of the hymn “You’re Everywhere To Me” (Recorded back in the ancient earth time as “Everywhere”on her CD The Spirit Room.) and immediately begin to sway with the music.

In an instant all who were walking with God stepped into a wonderful dance. They seemed to have been choreographed as all were waving their hands above and around themselves in perfect rhythm with the song. Everyone sang every word and those who could, performed equally exquisite symmetrical dance movements in the sky above. The swells of the chorus and deepening rhythm of the tympani drums thundered down through to the distant valleys. The singer’s high octave soprano voice was perfectly supported by the blending of the sixteen part chorus. Even the trees swayed with the song. At the final chord, God, and all those surrounding dancing and singing beings, landed in a graceful final posture. In that instant, the seraphim angels exploded themselves into a thousand multicolored stars to light up the sky. The hills danced. Heaven thundered with a final cord.

“Cool” said God as they resumed their walk back to the palace.

It didn’t take the Almighty more than a minute to begin singing another familiar ballad with the silver-horned unicorns joining in singing. There were now hundreds who moved along with God. There were people, numerous angels and scores of gleaming fairies who had joined them after the unicorns’ performance in the meadow. In Heaven, most everyone enjoys singing and whenever someone starts up a song, voices blend in with marvelous harmonies, rhythms and antiphonal choruses.

Along the way, Mary joined the group as she was just coming from the weaving cottage. She wanted to give God the beautiful blue robe she had just woven.

“This is splendid” God said, smiling and kissing her and putting it on with obvious pleasure. Its blend of blue hues were woven with intricate artistry, shimmering as it mysteriously reflected the light of the Creator’s countenance.

“Wow! Michael expressed, looking at God’s new cloak.

“Majestic!” said Angelica, a seraphim who was also among those who were in route to the palace.

God decided to express thanks to Mary for the gift and swept a hand out toward the slope of the nearby hill. Instantly the hillside was covered with thousands of bird of paradise flowers – all matching the many colors of the new coat. In a whisper that all could hear, God said “Thank you Mary.”

As they neared the palace, several flew or walked off to other places. While walking down the beautiful central inlaid blue and green marble hallway, God noticed Michael stopping to talk with a woman leaning in her apartment doorway so God also came over.

Above them, the grand hallway of the palace vaulted up to the open and endless sky. The crystalline gothic flying buttresses regally leaned in from above, as if supporting the sky behind them. Between them were intricately carved cave-like stalagmites of gold. Each formed giant ornamental figurines. Their weight and mass created dazzling walls and foundations between and beneath the towering columns – giving the hallway a cavernous and endless depth.

Directly above the hallway was a ceiling of open sky – all of the planets and stars clearly within sight. From standing within this grand palace corridor, one could see the expanse of the universe above – framed by this golden and crystal edifice.

The woman speaking in her doorway was Doris. God remembered she had recently entered the celestial palace to take residence after a splendid life on the earth planet. She had been here long enough to rejoin her husband John and meet most everyone. She even made several new friends who had come from the planet Photon in the Crimea galaxy.

Doris’s face was radiant with joy as she saw God. Angelica and several others were coming to join her in conversation with Michael. She had passed through many human years but as were all, who dwelled in God’s house, she was ageless. The resiliency of her spirit radiated out from her human form in which her essence dwelled.

Pausing in her conversation with Michael, Doris slowly turned and said to God, “Thank You for the two lights You had sent me in my last transition, Holy One. I was uplifted at a time when I needed them most. I will thank them myself when I dine with them at tonight’s feast.”

“Your thanks have already been received, My child” God said, “for it was my two luminary essences and I Who Personally came to you in your move from your apartment to the rehab facility” God said with a gentle smile. “You would be interested in hearing how they came to you?”

“Oh yes,” said Doris with interest as she, and the others who were there, slowly began to sit at God’s feet in the hallway.

As God came to a cross-legged seated position to face the listeners, the winged creatures, in complete syncopation with the Almighty’s movements in being seated, also gracefully collapsed to sit as one unit, folding their wings behind them with the poise of a ballerina’s pirouette. With the natural silence of anticipation and reverence, all were now sitting around God in the grand hallway. God’s face became even more radiant.

Brushing hair back with both hands, God smiled broadly and began with a face of beauty and joy. A story was about to begin.

“Near your eightieth birthday, Doris, I was in the conference room carving on the grand table” the Almighty began. “I was considering how your earthly form was wearing and that you would soon be needing help. Of course I had, long ago, arranged for especially caring people to be coming into place to assist you as you had to change your dwelling.

One of the most difficult sorrows for Me is how I must refrain from showing My children the future. If you clearly saw how I am always beside you and how I unfailingly bring you what you need, you might go about your life less mindful of your own responsibility for your choices. In this domain beyond time – the future, past and present exist – you would have known that you were already here with John and the rest of us as he made the transition to fully experience of My Presence.

“On that side of time,” God went on, “you had to dwell without knowing the future. This is so that you would use your freedom to direct your life’s choices with the resources I’ve already given you. But you could not see this then and I knew you were troubled.

“I was feeling your sorrow when you were grieving about leaving your home to move into the health care center. I know the comfort of familiar friends and familiar surroundings and the sadness that comes with their loss. So as I was feeling your sadness, I was carving in the great conference room table. My current project is the wooden carved reflection of earthen life on the surface of the conference table.”

As The Almighty spoke, all could see the scene of God over in the palace conference room. When God spoke, you saw things as they happened.

In the room was a lengthy mahogany table with villages, farms and cities intricately carved on its surface. If it wasn’t for the uniform deep brown hues of the mahogany wood grain, you would think the table top was vibrantly alive with life and movement.

God was sitting near the end of the lengthy table, slowly shaping the hat of a miniature person walking along a peaceful street in a town. At God’s left was a gentle Turquoise glow, a light form being who, by being there, was reflecting her rays directly on the table at the place of the carving in progress.

To God’s right was a darker, more purple, light form also reflecting upward and around to the other parts of the room. This light was Indigo on the spectrum, also casting a complementing light directly upon God’s carving work. As God continued telling the story, the listeners watched it unfold.

“I was carving on the table with my two luminaries Turquoise and Indigo. They accompany Me wherever I go and as it happened, Turquoise was giving each of us a hot fudge sundae.

Turquoise, . . . I love how she becomes deeper in her hues when she fills with enthusiasm, . . . she began to speak of her meeting with the Sun. She talked of the Sun’s powerful rays. The pulsing radiance of the golden and orange glow. As she ate and spoke, she paused to look into God’s face and then at Indigo but went on.”

All the inhabitants of God’s house, who were gathered there in the grand hallway, continued to see the events as God spoke. They saw God carving at the table, sitting comfortably and casually back in the chair, smiling as Turquoise spoke and changed hues of her color according to the inflection of her words.

“I hope to spend more time with the Sun” Turquoise continued. Perhaps it will increase my own intensity. I know I could glow with a deeper radiance and wider spectrum” she said wistfully, pausing, and then looking at Indigo and then at Me” God noted. “She was looking for advice but I just smiled, knowing Indigo was soon to respond.”

“Indigo agreed with her about the Sun’s warm and powerful rays” but God let her go on without interrupting as she thought, out loud.

“If you ask me,” Indigo finally responded, knowing she had finished and that God was likely to wait until he responded, “consider being more mindful of the perfect intensity you already possess.”

Indigo smiled and let his words sit for a while with Turquoise. He looked at her with a steady and unchanging golden glow as Turquoise pondered what her response might be.”

“As has always been the case,” God said with an engaging warmth and thoughtfulness, “my friend Turquoise had given her pause but before she returned to her thousands of emerging ideas and creativity. She slowed in her thoughts to consider his words. Turquoise looked at the calmness in Indigo’s countenance and then continued her next words. She looked at Me and from the look on My face, she knew I was about to speak. Her smile broadened but her eyes revealed her questioning feelings.

“Turning toward Me she asked, “How can I become more mindful of my intensity? It seems dim in comparison to the Sun’s glow.”

I said, “One of my children is about to enter a life transition, during which she will need you both. Both of you come with Me and the answer to your question, Turquoise, will become evident.”

“With a sudden flare in their light forms, both Turquoise and Indigo thrilled within themselves as they passed out of the conference room with The Omnipotent One to the Milky Way galaxy and to earth. The hot fudge

sundaes had been consumed and like magic, the dishes had instantly appeared in the nearest one of many palace kitchens. In no earthly time, the three of us stood in a modest apartment. The time space was measured just past one of the galaxy’s millennium markers” God said.

As Doris sat nearby listening and watching the Almighty’s story unfold, God turned to her and said, “Doris, here you see yourself sitting and reading through the descriptions of your future living space.” As could the others seated around her, she could see herself in her old apartment. It was the wee hours of a morning and she had woken, unable to sleep. She was looking nervously through the pamphlets the retirement home had given her in preparation of her arrival.

“Your worry has found expression on your face,” God pointed out, “and I felt your sadness. You were struggling with letting go of your familiar furniture. You knew not all of your familiar possessions could be taken with you.

“You were also remembering your years with your husband John. You were overcome with a sense of your loss” God said, reaching over to put a hand on her shoulder. “How I longed to show you how you were already here with John in this place, even though all of your senses were focused only on your earthly residence in time past. You would have never understood how the celestial city exists in times past, present and future. You were certainly not even aware that the three of us were beside you. I wept for your sorrow and the limitations of your awareness.

“It was then, however, that I turned to Turquoise and said, ‘This is your calling. Speak to her of what is possible. As you do so well, put her in touch with her abilities to see what could come about. Lead her to create and bring about what has not yet been’ I said.

“Next, I turned to Indigo and told him to wait for Turquoise to do her magic. ‘At the appropriate time,’ I said, ‘show Doris that things are just as they should be. That all things that matters are connected and there are lessons in each experience that relate to all others.’

“For the time following, Turquoise began to bring Doris’ attention to the pictures of her future dwelling in the health center. Without her knowing of My presence and the luminaries, Doris turned her focus not on what she could not take but on what she could bring with her to her new home. She became full of ideas and possibilities. Turquoise showed her how a small oak table could serve as a writing desk as well as a breakfast table.

“Doris, you remember this time, don’t you?” God said to her as she was intently watching her former form sitting in her apartment. “You were full of energy and some delight as you went through your most prized possessions and contemplated new uses.”

“Yes,” Doris replied with joy in her voice, “I found that what started out as a dreary day had been transformed into a time of creativity. I felt like I did when I was planning for our first new home” Doris concluded with joy in her face.

“In the earth hours that followed,” God continued, “you heard a knock at your apartment door. Your kind neighbor, Andrea, had stopped by for tea and to ask if you needed anything at the store.”

Those attending the story saw a red haired and cheerful woman in her forties, speaking brightly with Doris. “She had many enthusiastic ideas to help you decide what furniture would serve you best” God continued. “With Turquoise’s gentle but new light, you came back in touch with your life-long abilities to think of new possibilities. You embraced your gift of creativity and connected with the new ideas of your neighbor Andrea” God added. By now, you’ve noticed that Andrea lives across the hallway from you here, as well.

Doris nodded in affirmation with a warm smile but soon returned her gaze to the continuing scenes of her past life before her. “I wish I had been more mindful of what You had already given me” Doris said to God. “It seems as if I have lived with less light than I could have for so many years” she noted with a sigh.

“Ah, my dear Doris” God responded with a gentle arm on her shoulder, “that is why I have always been beside you. So that you would never feel the searing and unending despair as one who has no hope. Of course it was Indigo’s role to continue from there” God went on.

In the scenes which followed, Indigo’s purplish glow appeared to surround Doris in her new residence. She was eating in a rather pleasant dining area with other residents, talking with her new friends. At times, she laughed. In other moments, Doris was seen with sadness as she heard others tell of their transitions. Yet in more scenes than not, Doris seemed to have a look of contentment.

“Your thoughts often returned to your past” God pointed out as they watched. “Whenever the light of Turquoise embraced you, you were filled with profound thoughts of all with which you have been blessed and what could be in the future.

Whenever you were graced by Indigo’s deepening light, you saw that in all of your loss, you somehow were able to embrace the wholeness of your own life. That throughout the many unexpected times of sadness, people and things had come together to the point of there being enough. As Indigo illumined your soul, in the tired sunset hours ending your days, you were mindful of time made precious in time’s passing. You sensed the purity and holiness of each moment in which you have taken breath. Each each exchange, with another of My creatures, is always filled with new possibilities of healing and delight – filled with a never-before-connectedness which makes for the meeting of minds and hearts.”

“All these things you have sensed throughout your visit to earth” the Holy One said, “and it is now that you fully see how wonderful and transformed life becomes with the wisdom of these added lights.”

“Yes, Sacred One” Doris said, looking into the gentle eyes of God. “The light of what can be and the knowledge of how everything is just as it should be makes each moment sacred. How utterly magnificent that we are privileged to breathe in each moment in eternity” Doris concluded.

As the story had gracefully ended and a singer was stepping up on a nearby pedestal in an enclave further down the hall, God, and all who where gathered, slowly rose.

God beckoned, with a slight wave of a hand, inviting Turquoise and Indigo to move into the gathered assembly. A chorus and musicians was beginning a song. What seemed like a thousand musical instruments and voices quietly began a song, just in front of the millions of heavenly hosts.

God gathered the two light forms Turquoise and Indigo closely and said, “It is to you both that I entrust My Spirit of Wisdom for My children.

“Turquoise, before the morning rays of the Sun come to My children, cause their eyes to envision what they can not see. Sing to their hearts of what they can bring about that has not yet seen the light. Fill them with the knowledge that in any moment, with a playful mixture of fun and work, magic can be created in any task. But know that it is the exact intensity of your present glow that brings about this power to transform the ordinary to something of splendor. Turquoise, the Sunshine has nothing on you.”

Turquoise smiled and her light blue hue deepened and all, who were near her, moaned in awe at her joyful glow.

“Indigo,” God continued, “your illumination brings all to see My actual presence in their life. As the weariness of life comes upon my children and as they reminisce over what has been, cause them to see how all things are connected. Illuminate them so they may make the connections between the pain and the healing, the loss and the contentment. Bring them to see the astounding love we all have for them in a time when their hearts are shrouded with the darkness. Speak to them, as you did in speaking to Turquoise, that who they are is just who they should be. That they are and will become what they must. Convince them in their hearts that all things are in transition to good.”

As the music was beginning of the song, God said to them all, “This has been from the beginning. All that ever was and will be is for you. All that I have been and will be is embodied in an unquenchable love of your soul.”

As The Almighty spoke, God’s image transformed to the likeness of a constantly changing person. God’s face and countenance continually changed. God’s countenance became a celestial display of gentle compassion and renown wisdom.

In as much time, again God’s image transformed into a slowly moving swirl of light. It was as if all of the colors of the universe now joined in a dazzling blend of distinct light forms. Yet half of this moving column of light burned with an intense Turquoise – the other half, a deep Indigo.

Suddenly all of the heavenly hosts joined in the rising swell of singing and instrumental song and dance. All that lived, moved in dance or flight into sparkling patterns – all in cadence to the song. The earth, the stars and all the planets of all the galaxies pulsed with the unending universal chorus.

And it was morning and it was evening and everything was just as it should be.

 

It’s a Wonder We Can Think at All

“When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall”
from the Simon And Garfunkel 1973 song “Kodachrome”

Remember our priorities back in high school? The things we did to achieve recognition or our own self-worth? We’ve forgotten the very people we tried to please in order to fit in and be accepted.

By our thirties, we had grown out of our myopic high-school view of the world around us. It was like a now too-small suit that our parents had given us, in which we wouldn’t be caught dead. Those adolescent world views and judgments on large swaths of humanity. All these opinions and pronouncements are now gone – vanishing like someone else’s overheard burp from another room. It’s like the vicious radio talk show host who is forced into retirement after society, and all his former show’s sponsors, have moved on with other, more enlightened value systems.

What caused us to disregard what had once been at the center of our values?

Certainly it was exposure to new people and their broader perspectives in life. Likely, it was the pain of suffering – ours and theirs. The test of time ground down the inadequacies of oversimplified religion and ideologies.

It was, as Simon and Garfunkel’s song suggested, a transition of our minds from black and white to ‘those nice bright colors and their greens of summers, that make us think all the world’s a sunny day.’ Most of us emerged from a childhood where we are shown the world through a black and white lens. Perhaps out of our parent’s exhaustion and inadequate teacher credentialing, they did the best they could but wanted to keep it simple. They wanted to control things, or at least appear to be in control. To them, there were the good and the bad; the angels and the demons – “them” and “us.”

By the time we found ourselves in college, we were truly embarrassed to discover that we had actually believed what we had been told. Those millions of people, labeled as “Communists” by our parental units, turned out to just like us – only with a different political system. We discovered that everyone who is poor had not brought it upon themselves (from their lack of adapting, in a Social Darwinist scheme of ‘making it’).

To our dismay, the people and institutions, in whom and in which we were taught to trust for our religion and spirituality, were sometimes false idols themselves. They actually believed that they were the only ones right and everyone else was wrong and headed toward’ hell in a hand basket. ‘We discovered, in time, that the values we have been carrying around, as if precious and holy, were woefully threadbare – contradictory to the core teachings of all of the world’s wisdom traditions.

“Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is”
Pebby Lee, 1969 ‘Is That All There Is?”

“Seargeant O’Leary is walking the beat.
At night, he becomes a bartender.He works at Mr. Cacciatorre’s down on Sullivant Street,
Across from the medical center,
And he’s trading in his Chevy for a Cadillac, lac, lac, lac;You oughtta know by now,
If he can’t drive with a broken back,
At least he can polish the fenders.
And it seems such a waste of time,
If that’s what it’s all about…
Momma, if that’s moving up, then I’m moving out.”
Billy Joel, 1977 ‘Movin’ Out’

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred”
Bob Dylan’s 1965 It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

When we did begin to pull ourselves away from “all that crap we learned in high school,” we probably spent a number of years proclaiming what we don’t want for our lives. We expressed our dissatisfaction with the bigotry, prejudice and the painful social injustice. We did it with the clothing we wore, the language we used and our lifestyles. For some of us, we are lucky to be alive from risking drugs, alcohol and Californication. We were hell-bent on stating, with the canvas of our lives, that we were not our parents. We did this with our lifestyle, language and how we spend our time. We were defiantly not what we were raised to be. Or so we thought.

But we were busted. In the course of every day conversation, work-place exchanges and patterns of how we actually did things, we ended up becoming not that different than our parents. We found ourselves riddled and driven by the same fears as our parents. We overused the personal strengths that served us in the past in compensating for our fears.  Our therapists complicated by our task list of schemas which get us caught up in some of the same unhealthy over-compensations as those who raised us. This is not your father’s Buick but it’s a Toyota .- so what? (See  Tara Bennett-Goleman’s Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart)

Genetics? Probably not, except for our body types. But fear drives us to it. We write off people by the millions who approach life differently than us. We fear them and we fear change. We fear the kind of learning that forces us to set aside the old and pick up the new.

Consider how they used to catch monkeys for zoos. They carved out a coconut, attached a chain to one end of the coconut and the other end to a tree. Next, they put fruit in the coconut. When monkeys come along, they’d grab the fruit inside the coconut but refuse to unclench their fist that is holding the fruit inside. Unwilling to let go, they remained stuck to the coconut, chained to the tree.

In potential teaching moments, we are somewhat like the monkeys. We won’t let go of what we know and believe. That’s because it requires us to do the work of stopping and reflecting outside of our usual patterns of interpreting and compensating for our fears. It requires the work and energy to empathize with others – embracing their experiences and perspectives. We aggressively surround ourselves with people who look, act, dress, think and speak just like us. It’s fortunate we all don’t become hermits and wall ourselves away from society – refusing to talk with or read about anyone else. Some people, we guess, actually die of stubbornness and ignorance. We all have bouts with it.

If you enjoy developmental psychology, reflect on what we did with ourselves during our twenties. The school degrees. The striving for certifications. We climbed up rungs up the corporate ladder. The PTA meetings and how we drove our children to “succeed.” Like lemmings, we flocked along, trying to get our self-worth out of our careers or who we are married to, our money or power. We insured everything in sight so that we can replace anything.

But when do we stop talking about what we don’t want for our lives and pursue what we want? At what point, in the short linear path of our lives, do we get down to the business of pursuing what is truly most important to the core of our being?

  • What  most important to our life?
  • What is the meaning of our life and where are we headed?
  • Who and where is our source of learning how to pursue a life of greater meaning?
  • Is there an app for that?

Maybe you’re in the process of discovering that now?

Compassionate Presence

October 11, 2010

There is a lot of sadness around us. As Buddhists would point out, that’s because of the almost constant attempts to control, predict, grasp or fearfully run away from (or avoid) it all. They also teach that everything is temporary but not to the point of existential meaningless where nothing seems to be connected or to have meaning. It is to teach that whatever is, will ultimately change. “Where moth and rust corrupt” in the tradition of your early years of teaching.

To say that compassion is the only thing that is ‘permanent’ is probably better understood if it is said that when all things and people are gone, what seems to endure is compassion.

We remember a person’s character of caring and self-sacrificial love for others. That seems to stay with us when they are gone. It won’t be their temporary ownership of a Heisman trophy in the trophy shelf of the back room of the mansion (that the next mansion owner will likely try to sell to the highest bidder on EBay). Neither will it be the amount of political or financial power one accumulates during this relatively short lifespan.

Instead, what will endure will be the extent we are able to be truly present in the moment with others in such a way that we can fully accept and take them in a loving and unconditional way. It is in those moments we find avenues of reaching out and truly connecting, as kindred spirits, so that we can be agents of compassion and healing. As we form a community (which knows no boundaries), we join in something that is greater than ourselves and become more fully mindful that we are truly connected with all others and all living things.

We gain a keener sense of this in the practice of meditation. That’s because in this sedentary activity, we first learn to be fully present with ourselves. (How many people in your life are really there with you – who aren’t frantically eying their Blackberry or looking at their watch while they speak at you with no eye contact?) Learning to be fully present in the moment with ourselves yields learning to be fully present with others. We need then learn to be open and present with the Spirit Who created us.

Now all of that sounds like a Hallmark card on steroids but a lifestyle of being truly present in the moment, . . . being at home with yourself, others and your Source . . . brings you to compassion. I believe this life of compassionate mindfulness is at the core of all world religions that seem authentic.

These core teachings are present in all religions but are more, in my opinion, intentionally taught in Buddhism. If you’re interested in reading some more on this, take a look at Jack Cornfield’s The Wise Heart. ISBN: 978-0-553-80347-1 (0-553-80347-6)

Holy Moments

(Written when I was Interim Executive Director of Canopy of Neighbors):


I work for an organization which enables seniors to remain in their homes or apartments as long as possible. We help them thrive and remain relatively independent – preventing them from having to go into an assisted-living institution.

It’s called Canopy of Neighbors.

We do this through a network of volunteers and groups which give their time to do the kinds of things you and I already do to help well-aged friends and loved ones. We give them rides to doctor’s or therapist appointments. Help them get their prescriptions. Sometimes we help them with confusing bank-account or bill-paying tasks. We flip their mattresses or set their clocks ahead or behind twice a year. We change a light bulb that is out of reach – anything to prevent them from stacking kitchen chairs and making a perilous climb and risking a fall.

We also enable them to come to free yoga classes and coffee gatherings where there are featured speakers on health and aging topics. There’s even a monthly luncheon at a local restaurant which offers a low-cost fee for everyone.

I spent a couple of hours this week talking with a couple in their 90s, answering their questions about joining the membership. They are impressed with Canopy. They live in a grand old home in a neighborhood where, in time, only the wealthiest could afford. Homes of doctors, senators and CEOs. Their home was full of life. Paintings filled their home, his paintings. Their furnishings reflected world travels and a lifelong engagement with their children, their careers and themselves. They even have a beautiful Australian border collie who has been part of their household for years.

As I summarized my organization’s services and patiently answered their questions, in my peripheral vision, I could see their daughter. She was in from out-of-town, looking a little frustrated. She’s been here before with them, I suspect. Their hesitancy. Their resistance to get involve with anyone outside of their family for their personal needs. And yet they knew they could use some assistance here and there.

I couldn’t help but think that they only reason they were a little hesitant to join is that it might imply an inability to be independent. Perhaps some giving up of control. Having ‘outsiders’ involved in potentially unknown changes in their lifestyle.

They are truly dear people. Talented and very intelligent. But my heart goes out to them because they seem so frail. He’s a retired but working artist, still holding an office with studio privileges in the local university. But his Parkinson’s is already affecting his mind-to-speech abilities. He drools as he tries to construct his sentences.

In another room, he’s got an unplugged collection of turntable, amp, radio, tuner unplugged and he hasn’t been able to reconnect them. It would take me or another volunteer probably half a day to rewire it. In other rooms, they say their computers are giving them problems and they claim not able to get back into using them. They can’t get their email working.

Her physical condition has left her barely able to move. She has had some disfiguring strokes and yet she is fully engaged in conversations. Reflective, insightful and empathetic toward others. But she says ‘I know we are vulnerable.’

I already know that whatever my organization can offer them, they will need more. Much more. They’ll soon have to contract with outside healthcare organizations for in-home nursing and home-care aids. How much longer can they remain in their lovely home? Who will take care of their dog?

They will be thinking their membership over and will let me know in their own time.

They both have had me thinking, today, of how frail we humans are and temporariness of life. We can get to the point in life where we are blessed with good minds, more-than-adequate resources and all the time we need to pursue anything we’d like. Yet our bodies wear out, out of our control. There is no Toyota to replace parts, even beyond their usual warranty. Our bodies die out from under us. They slip away from us, as do many of our component parts. ‘Moth and rust doth corrupt.

So today, I’m mindful that being present with others, in the moment, is the only place where the meaning and authenticity in life resides for any of us. When I left them, I touched their shoulders and genuinely told them it was a pleasure being with them.

When I got home, I embraced my wife as if it was our anniversary and said I had a great day at work because there were holy moments. ♦

Hierarchical Thinking and The Myth of Redemptive Violence

April 13, 2011

Where did we get the idea that some people have more worth than others? The “we” in that sentence means you and me. For some reasons, you and I seem to believe that some people deserve more than others while others, conversely, deserve less.

Living in America, we acan’t excape the power of of capitalism over our thinking. Those who work harder and are more creative and innovative deserve rewards for their efforts beyond the medioachre. So we have “self-made men” who have “picked themselves up by their bootstraps and made something of themselves.” The assumption, here, is that those who haven’t received rewards for their efforts are medioachre, lazzy and less productive. “People who have made bad choices” in the words of one political executive in our region.

A close companion (and perhaps lover) to this simplistic, self-satisfied, judgmental and completely compassionless outlook on life of the mythic “American Dream” is Soocial Darwinism. This philosohy was brought to us in the mid 20th centry by Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Darwin’s insight in biological evolution through adaptation of species who were judged as more fit for their changing environment came to be applied to sociological points of view. The poor and the disadvantaged came to be judged as mal-adapters, unmotivated, lazy. The rich and prosperious came to be judged as better adapters, more evolved in society. Better.

So in various societies, particularly in the US, there are those who believe that there isn’t enough to go around and that it is up to the more evolved to preserve what they have, protecting their things from those who haven’t adapted and propered as well as they have. The other group of people seem to be those who believe that there are enough goods and services in the planet for all to not only survive but thrive. Karl Marx knew of this dicatomy in societies and warned that if the few affluent dictators with power and wealth oppressed the masses, there would be revolutions.

Unfortunately, accompanying this class warfare, there is the myth of redemptive violence. I quote a large section of Walter Wink, The Powers That Be because I believe you find it to be profound.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.

“The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.

This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. I myself first became aware of it, oddly enough, by watching children’s cartoon shows. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with the mythic structure of cartoons. This was in the 1960s, when the “death of God” theologians were being feted on talk shows, and secular humanity’s tolerance for religious myth and mystery were touted as having been exhausted. I distinctly remember hearing God’s death being announced on the morning news, and then seeing, in a cartoon show moments later, Hercules descending from heaven to earth, an incarnate god doing good to mortals. I began to examine the structure of other cartoons, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructi­ble hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and. equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three-quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until, miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode. Nothing finally destroys the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, whether the villain is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned, or shot into outer space.

Thankfully, not all children’s programs feature explicit violence. But the vast majority perpetuate the mythic pattern of redemptive violence in all its brutality. Examples would include the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the X-Men, Transformers, the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Ice Man, the Superman family, Captain America, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Batman and Robin, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, and Tom and Jerry (plus the Power Rangers, where real people act out cartoon characters). A variation on the classic theme is provided by hu­morous antiheroes, whose bumbling incompetence guarantees their victory despite themselves (Underdog, Super Chicken). Then there is a more recent twist, where an evil or failed indi­vidual is transformed by a technological accident into a mon­strous creature who—amazingly—does good (Spider-Man, The Hulk and She-Hulk, Ghost Rider). It is almost as if people no longer believe that heroes of sterling character can be produced by our society, and that goodness can transpire only by a freak of technology (such as electrocution or radioactive poisoning). In all these shows, however, the mythic structure is rigidly ad­hered to, no matter how cleverly or originally it is re-presented.

Few cartoons have run longer or been more influential than Popeye and Bluto. In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a scream­ing and kicking Olive Oil, Popeye’s girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oil, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth. Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honor Olive Oil’s humanity and repeated pummelings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.

Something about this mythic structure rang familiar. Suddenly I remembered: this cartoon pattern mirrored one of the oldest continually enacted myths in the world, the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 B.C.E. The merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. Our origins are divine, to be sure, since we are made from a god, but from the blood of an assassinated god. We are the outcome of deicide.

Human beings are thus naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must continually be imposed upon us from on high: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, aristocrats over peasants, rulers over people. Unquestioning obedience is the highest virtue, and order the highest religious value. Nor are we created to subdue the earth and have dominion over it as God’s regents; we exist but to serve as slaves of the gods and of their earthly regents. The tasks of humanity are to till the soil, to produce foods for sacrifice to the gods (represented by the king and the priestly caste), to build the sacred city Babylon, and to fight and, if necessary, die in the king’s wars.

Later, Marduk was fused with Tammuz, a god of vegetation whose death and resuscitation was enacted in the humiliation and revival of Marduk, an element that is preserved in cartoon shows by the initial defeat of the “good guy” and his eventual victory over evil, as it were, out of the very jaws of death. The only detail in our modern rendition that is different is that the enemy has generally ceased to be female.

As Marduk’s representative on earth, the king’s task is to subdue all those enemies who threaten the tranquility that he has established on behalf of the god. The whole cosmos is a state, and the god rules through the king. Politics arises within the divine sphere itself. Salvation is politics: the masses identify with the god of order against the god of chaos, and offer them­selves up for the Holy War that imposes order and rule on the peoples round about.

Walter Wink, The Powers That BeA Theology for a New Millennium, ISBN: 0-385-48752-5 (Galilee/Doubleday; New York; 1998) Pages 44-48.

That said, the folks who influence us from the Buddhist outlook on things, suggest that the first place of discerning mindfulness happens in our heads. Here are a few questions:

  1. What groups of people do we judge to be of less worth than us?
  2. What gives us (you and me) our worth?
  3. If our circumstances (yours or mine) changed because of war, disease, natural disasters or our own ineptitude, would our worth change in any way?
  4. Isn’t the worth we attribute to ourselves or others actually a value we have in our head?
  5. Who taught us that value system?
  6. What is the value system of your faith expression?
  7. What is the value system of the people who have and do nurture your life, somehow impacting on your current lifestyle, beliefs and activity?

Only you have answers for those seven questions. But here’s one last question for your consideration.

Life is pretty short. When you come to the end of your gig in, as Ira Glass terms it, “This American Life,” what affect will your existence had on people where you’ve been?

Try wrestling with these questions. We’d benefit from hearing from you because we are all in this together for what seems to be a very short time. We are open to learning.

Worst Practices

Joseph still hasn’t shown up.

“Of course” says the pageant director flippantly. “Gabriel? Where’s Gabriel?” she calls to the back of the church over her shoulder. “Gabriel” she musically calls again as if she’s calling her child for only the second time for dinner.

“Oh” Gabriel says from the back of the church as he stumbles hurriedly down the aisle.

“I was showing her how to keep her ribbon on” he explains with more earnestness than the task would normally command.

The director comically tilts her head sideways and says “Ya? . . . ya?” as if to mock him for his failure to be up with the other angels who are, at this point, rolling on the stage floor with the shepherds who are supposed to be asleep on the hillside but have somehow missed their morning dose of Ritalin.®

As speakers number 4 and 5 rapidly mumble through their lines, it’s clear that once again, nobody in the church will hear anyone say anything from the front. The fact is, they’ll be cute and it won’t matter. It’s the doing of the pageant that makes Christmas.

Joseph is still not here and a couple of the angels are missing in action. How many had to show for the original nativity scene? Did God have to have a last minute rehearsal and sit them all down, barking out, “Now during this scene, you can’t talk to the person next to you. And don’t pick your nose. And if see any Gameboys® I’m going to take them away from you and you won’t get them back. So take that back to your parents or you’ll never see it again.”

The director rattles through the order of events once again, obviously confident that their photographic little minds will methodologically and nimbly string the coming sequences of pageant segments together with the precision of Microsoft’s latest video editing program.

The mid-teen Joseph slowly waltzes down the aisle. “Joseph is finally here” the director says with some relief. “We’re glad you made it” she says, softening even more. Perhaps her real life experience of the male absence or unreliability has taught her to work with what she’s got.

Suppose the original Joseph hadn’t shown up and Mary would have to go through the birth alone in the stable? Who would have wiped off the cow drool ? Would she have screamed at the weird little drummer boy to go practice anywhere but in the stable – “like go play in the DMZ of the West Bank or something!” she could have blurted out.

OK, so no little drummer preadolescent or any a-rump-pa-pa-dums in the original production. They should really make this last minute pageant rehearsal THE pageant. Most of the parents are here anyway and the director’s expectation that this production will be anything other than what it is now (only without her prompting everything and everyone across and off the stage at the right time) is the most spectacular act of faith in the history of Christendom. “Come see a faith that can move mountains” the bulletin board outside of the church should say. People ought to get out of their beds and come here to see the futility of this rehearsal.

The children are herded back to the Sunday School classrooms to change. We expect more of the same to happen only back out of sight. But we know that with the addition of costumes, the in-the-wings nervousness of their peers and a sanctuary packed with their family clan and a host of unknown adults grinning, the volume of their spoken lines will dive down to zero, the prompters’ shouted whispers will be even more embarrassing and the pauses before the hoped-for movements of groups of bathrobed or haloed children will seem painfully strained.

So when central characters didn’t enter stage right in the original production, what did the Almighty do? Whisper little prompts in their hearts? Did Joseph suddenly snap to attention out of a distracted moment and say “Oh yea” after hearing an inner prompt just before lurching over to stand by his wife who had creatively used the cow’s manger for a cradle?

How much stage whispering did the Cosmic Producer of this first nativity have to do to remind Joe and Mary that these overworked and rambunctious contracted sheepherders are supposed to be crashing their barn encampment in the middle of the night and just after the baby finally got to sleep?

“Mary, stop breast-feeding – there’s a bunch of guys coming in here!” Joe probably said.

And later on, not long after their boy would ace His bar mitzvah at the temple and be offered an internship as the youngest teaching assistant in the history of the temple’s education department – why did Joseph disappear?

Did all the pressures of being the parent of a miracle worker itinerary charismatic religious guru and countercultural icon drive him to drink?

Maybe Joe had a gambling problem and when the young Jesus started turning angry bully’s thrown rocks into birds before they hit their victim, Joe started making bets. “I bet you my boy can out-argue a member of the Supreme Court” he’d wager and win several hundred shekels. Maybe Joe, one day, got a little cocky and bet the whole wad and lost to some pretty heavy hitters and ended up at the bottom of Lake Galilee wearing clay overshoes.

Whatever happened to Joe must have been a major embarrassment to the Apostolic Fathers for them not to even mention him after a certain point. Maybe Joe got Alzheimer’s and the gospel writers couldn’t figure out why Jesus, Who could raise the dead, couldn’t or wouldn’t bring clarity of mind to His mom’s husband.

But with all the botched lines, absences, miscues and frankly inappropriate behaviors, there was a first nativity scene with inattentive and clueless characters.

“You work with what you’ve got” the Almighty must have mumbled to Self after every scene in the Messiah’s life.

Just before the pageant starts, the Reverend comes to the podium and announces to the congregants that “whoever has come in a blue Ford with a license plate that starts with NAZ has left their lights on.”

This brings predictable and comfortable laughter among the assembly. With all of our life’s struggles and our obvious failure to be the next Dali Lama of our own faith expression, church is the one place where we can forget to turn off our car lights. Perhaps all of life is like one large Christmas pageant through which we stumble, forgetful of our parts or relevance to some unknown overriding theme.

The pastor flees the podium, just after expressing gratitude to all the children and the beleaguered director for what they are about to present.

As narrator number 1 begins to mumble through her hurried description of the scene (with the Gameboy® in his bathrobe pocket), I think I hear something. It’s a voice but is it behind me? Perhaps a child speaking to their parent?

No, it’s internal. It’s within me. It’s like a quiet thought that suddenly comes to you like an almost forgotten matter that comes to you in a special and spiritually profound moment.

And the voice within me says, as if it’s my  clue to the meaning of my life today and forever,  “ . . . and don’t pick your nose.”

How Connected Do We Need To Be?

It is 2005. It’s been a technologicalogical year so far. I taught a class for the Religious Studies Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo on Paul’s strange first letter to the Corinthians. I’ve been able to experiment with the use of their relatively new online course software called CourseInfo.® 1 It has a quiz generator which the students loved because they could take the tests at home without leaving the squalor of their meager abodes. With virtually all the time in the world to take the quizzes, they could look up any answer in their class notes or the web-stored lectures.

Actually, the quizzes have served as a forced
review of the class material, achieving my original
goal: that they never sit in a church and hear a talk on 1st Corinthians and not be aware of the historical, religious, cultural and linguistic things prompting Paul to write such a diverse and difficult response to their problems. If their ministers ever fail to do their homework before their Sunday presentations on Corinthians, they’ll know it.

Yet many of these students won’t because
churches, by in large, aren’t making that connection with the 20’s age group. The clergy and the staunch leaders of the denominational franchises may get their second chance when these young adults return for the wedding and baptism certifications.

It’s odd to me that some people spend their
lifetime having nothing at all to do with a local
church and yet be hell-bent-to-leather to make sure they participate in two church rituals – baptism and a wedding in a church building. It’s almost like they have to have these two good luck charms in order to move ahead several squares on their Americana board game of life.

But when the pager on my hip starts to vibrate, it reminds me that I have succumbed to the lure of yet another gadget. This time, it’s the Motorola “Talkabout”® pager. Perhaps their Marketing department wanted to create an image of a 1  made by Blackboard.com.© “walkabout” in the Australian “outback.” . . . Tie me kangaroo
down sport, . . . whatever.

My last pager stopped functioning and the
service provider suggested I subscribe to paging and email services with the cell phone I already own. This, I figured, would dictate that I have to leave the phone on all the time to get pages. The attractive young woman behind the counter suggested I also purchase a vibrating cell phone battery so the whole phone can vibrate.

What they fail to realize is that cell phones are
too big to be pagers. Can you imagine carrying around a beeper the size of a banana and have it suddenly begin vibrating in your pocket or purse? Good grief, you could get arrested or something. Perhaps I could use it in an audition for the cast of Ally McBeal.

“Excuse me but I think there is a phone over
on your desk that is having a seizure.”

This little technological wonder looks like a
miniature computer from a kid’s gum ball machine
with a keyboard small enough to be operated by a
touch typist eight inches tall. It is the width and
thickness of the palm of your hand. The little screen displays the telephone number of the individual paging you if the caller chose option number one but it can do more.

Those calling my pager number can also choose option two, allowing them to leave a  voicemail message. When a voice message is left, the display indicates a voice message is waiting, prompting me to dial the number on the nearest phone and listen to the message.

Option number three of this paging service
connects the caller with a live operator who will type whatever the caller dictates and that message appears on the pager screen.

“Pick up eggs on your way home.”

“I am sorry I missed the class quiz on line but my computer isn’t working and I couldn’t get on one at the school library because my car wouldn’t start.”

Imagine standing in line, looking down at
your pager and it says, “My divorce lawyer has
documented all of your shenanigans and we’ll see you in court.”

You look up and respond to the person behind
the counter, “I’d like a cheeseburger, a fries,
chocolate milkshake and several aspirin please.”

There is even an internet address assigned to
this device so people can type a note directly to my pager from their computer. Since I can read these messages anywhere I am, I’ve also instructed my Outlook Express© email software on our computer to forward all received communications to my pager. Since the pager uses wireless and internet technology, I can actually type a response to the text messages sent to the pager and there isn’t a cost-per minute fee.

But with this much accessibility, I wonder
just who I think I am? The Almighty? There are not
that many people who need my immediate attention. Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis?
Someday, into the not too distant future when they add the live video function, are we going to have to rent a small locker into which to put these things to get a little privacy? Someday, will we be surprised to see Leno or Letterman trying to have a video conversation with us from our pocket when we reach for change to pay the paper carrier? “Are you truly happy with your cellular carrier?” one of them might say.

Perhaps it’s our loneliness that prompts us to
want to be so accessible in our cellular and internet connectedness. Frankly, I would like it if God would send me a digital message once in a while.

“Nice going on how you handled that road-raged jerk of a driver” God might type to me.

“Buy Lucent Technologies stock – now!” God might advise.

“Missed you in worship services yesterday” I’d be
reminded.

“Stop everything and go back and apologize. She was right and you completely missed the most important thing. I don’t know why I ask her to stay with you.”

Maybe it’s fear. Perhaps we’re hoping someone will send us the one little encouragement or bit of information that will come at just the right time.
Maybe the Almighty has been sending messages
we’ve ignored. Missed any messages lately?

With today’s much more powerful cell phones and wireless palm devices, we are now able to be so connected that we can be in touch with anyone and everyone at any time, do business anywhere. But has you noticed that, in the process, we run
the risk of never being in touch with ourselves? In the overall seduction, we can easily forget that our primary connection to life is through our own
interiority – the experiencing of our own body and all our senses, including the mind, which allow us to touch and be touched by the world, and to act
appropriately in response to it. . . .

“With all this talk about connectivity, what about connectivity to ourselves? Are we becoming so
connected to everybody else that we are never where we actually are? We are at the beach on the cell phone, so are we there?” (See John Kabat-Zinn, p.152=153. Coming To Our Senses, Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, (New York: Hyperion, 2005) ISBN: 0-7868-6756-6.

How Much Space Do You Need To Be Happy?

It seems that we don’t think much about our space requirements unless we see the inside of a multi-million dollar mansion in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or we’re in a Zillow research for an apartment in New York City, Boston, Atlanta or Chicago. Or a nursing home where they aim to plant us in a tiny room with another disabled person so we don’t stray and cause more work than we already do for their staff.

Personal space. How much do we really need? And how does that need relate to our happiness?Initially, when we fantasize about winning a mega lottery, we’d go for one of those Beverly Hills mansions with three-story vaulted ceilings and every opulent room looking like it came out of a coffee table magazine. The long walks from any one of the several living rooms all the way back through a kitchen large enough to park several cars and eight walk-in refrigerator-freezers. The exercise in going from one end of the house back past the indoor pool, the six- bedroom suite for guests and the polo field beyond the outdoor tennis courts would get us half way to our Fitbit step goal for the day. “Now THAT would make me happy!” we tell ourselves.

But throughout life, we’ve already heard “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” (The Beatles) or “You can’t take it with you” (a comedic play in three acts by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; film with Jimmy Stewart; album by As Tall as Lions or “This World Is Not My Home I’m just a-passin’ through” (by Albert E. Brumley 1952).

Our mansion fantasy fades with our first real pay check. Our dram of having an extravagant and luxurious living space is left to live out its short existence on the rectangular television screen. And even though those video actresses and actors are raking in a million dollars an episode, have you ever noticed the apartments and hallways just outside of their studio set living spaces? Think “Friends.” Think “The Big Bang Theory.” Even these hallway studio props are plan, small, drab and a little dingy – nothing memorable. They’re just like what we end up with when we have to rent.

I have loved ones living in apartments in LA. Neither they, nor anyone they know, could ever affordto purchase housing there without direct and committed involvement with the criminal elements of society. If you move to the convenience and stimulation of urban living, downsizing is a way of life.
You know that you end up with less as change comes. You figure that what you lose in living space, perhaps, you’ll gain in career and social stimulation. Otherwise, why would we sell our mostly owned houses and move to a lifestyle we can’t afford with dramatically less space?

Observation #1

We will not achieve happiness by getting more space in which to live.Then there’s the life-long commitment to the idea that we want to stay in one place while we are aging. I’m not talking about wobbling geriatrics who live in constant fear of teetering down to the ground to break a hip or pelvis, followed by 6 months in a tiny rehabilitation room for five grand a week and no bandwidth.

I mean young and agile yoga-sculpted twenty-somethings who finally get their own apartment but quickly embrace the familiarity of the new surroundings, making it their new “home.” “Home” being defined by accumulating familiarity with the friendly coffee shop server; the drug store pharmacist who seems to know your name; the organic grocery market manager who smiles at you when answering your question; the clothing shop sales person who shared her story of her scare with breast cancer or our postal carrier who made small talk by jokingly apologizing about delivering only bills.The familiarity of all of these things and people seem to be the fabric which gives substance to our sense of “home” and happiness.

Observation #2

We interpret our happiness by the level of our familiarity with things and people.We are thinking that it isn’t the amount of space we have that brings us happiness. We may be thinking that familiarity is supposed to make us happy. That’s why, in every poll of the aging population, we all say that we want to “age in place.” To stay where we are. Avoid moving. Keep everything as it is, the way we know it is (and should be) simply because we are used to it being that way. But a parakeet in a cage lives that way!

But familiarity breeds contempt. “Long experience of someone or something can make one so aware of the faults as to be scornful. For example, Ten years at the same job and now he hates it – familiarity breeds contempt. The idea is much older but the first recorded use of this expression was in Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee (c. 1386).” (From the Free Dictionary.com)

But when we’ve been striving for something new and different, we are grasping, looking for something else. But then, “Nothing lasts forever!” Consider: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, …” (Matthew 6:19). From the wings of the stage come the Buddhists dancing in their red robed kick line chorus, singing: “Everything is temporary!”

‘Ok, we get that’ you say. ‘But you can’t live that way! Shouldn’t we try to live in happiness? What is this ‘circling the drain’ theme you have for a title of your blog? Are you some sort of manic depressive?

One of our problems with clinging to keeping everything the same as we’ve always had it is that everything changes, no matter what we or anyone else does. The changing world is totally independent of our preferences, our desires, our plans and our investments. Change is out of our control. We can only manage our response to it.

Yet we live as if we can control what happens in our lives. We are all a little schizophrenic in that way. We think or pretend that we can actually control most of the world around us. The folks who think they can (and should be able to control the world around them) are incapable of growing intellectually, socially and spiritually.

Put another way, people who frequently say, judgmentally, ‘We’ve never done it that way before!” are, sooner or later, abandoned by people around them.

People who continually treat those who are different from them as “The Other” are living examples of a “Wacky Plaks” post card I saw in the 1950’s: “People who are wrapped up in themselves make a pretty small package.”

The people who try to control spirituality and religious inquiry by imposing their dogma and creedal formulations on others – are, sadly, needy and boring control freaks who quickly drain all the joy, human compassion and creative beauty out of any moment in the atmosphere. They justify their social and intellectual death spiral judgmental behavior by claiming that they are earnestly trying to do “the right thing” while they lacerate to shreds the self-worth of the unfortunate others whom they lambast. Avoid watching FOX (so-called) ‘News!’

Observation #3

We don’t get our happiness through having more space or stuff. Neither do we attain happiness through familiarity or knowing, in a predictive and controlling way, how everything is going to turn out – as if we can know and control everything. Therefore, it must have to do with being content with what is and bestowing compassion.

This isn’t being complacent with what is. If that is all it amounts to, then we should just take our “Soma” pills, as in Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World dystopian work. “What about social justice? … Are you suggesting that we tacitly sit back and let bad and evil continue to oppress and ravage humanity?”

Contentment has to do with a complex presence of a number of things in our own head.For one, it is the understanding that everything changes.For another, it is the awareness that we don’t have the resources or the influence to change or even have an impact on most things or people.

The most power we have is over ourselves, our thinking, our feeling and our own behavior.But we can’t skip off singing: “Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be; the future’s not ours to see; que sera, sera; what will be, will be” (Roy Evans, 1956). We are not isolated robots, sputtering off in our unique programmed behavior, doomed to run out of our battery power and cease viability at some random end point before our parts are relegated to the scrap yard.

We find contentment, and therefore meaning, as we approach each moment of our lives with what Andy Puddicombe (of Headspace.com) explains as “beginner’s mind.” It is that space or openness within our consciousness that approaches everything with wonder and acceptance. It is that mindfulness and awareness that no matter what physical spaciousness or material opulence that may or may not be around us, we can find delight, contentment and breath-taking creativity in any moment as we approach whatever it is that is our next thing.

Some think of this as spontaneity. Some call it intellectual curiosity. Some see it in looking for outlets of compassion for anyone we meet. It’s all the opposite of living a life where you’re trying to control, compete, judge, frantically escape or hoard in order to vainly try to find happiness.

That’s the “Space” in which we will find happiness or contentment. It is the space that possesses an unlimited amount of compassion. That compassion, by the way, is what will change the world and transform people and things that have gone awry. That is the space we need to ‘be happy’ but each of us already have that space within us. We just need to be present in it, from moment to moment.