Good Friday

It’s Holy Week, Semana Santa.  I started it this year in Guatemala.  Everyone is back to their hometown, it seems, to visit family and friends.  Alfombras, block long carpets of brightly colored sawdust and flowers, transform the cobblestone of colonial streets.  Huge elaborate floats depicting the passion of Christ are carried on the shoulders of fifty or more of the faithful, inching their way past the cathedral and central park.  The brass and drum corps marks time, in cadence befitting the gravity of the Lamb of God, taking upon himself the sins of the world.

It’s an outsize burden, I think.  Mayan women hawk fabulously beautiful weavings, made of handspun yarn and natural dyes, painstakingly extracted from spices, flowers, berries and insects.

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No price can adequately compensate the weeks of labor by these women, sitting on knees, the weight of their bodies creating the tension needed for the woof and warp of their backstrap looms.  The work is so gorgeous.  They ask so little.  The market prevails in its daily disappointment.

Our travels took us to their villages, where tombstones decorated with primitive art depict burned houses and hanged, hacked and bleeding bodies of the hundreds, thousands, perhaps 250,000 of their beloved family and friends, slaughtered by soldiers and paramilitary in the 1980’s, pieces dumped into mass graves.

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The generals justified these deaths with biblical quotes under a valence of anti-communism, preparing the way, as it has for 500 years, for the insatiable lords of wealth and power,  the robes cast off by the killers piled for safekeeping at the gates of the School of the Americas.

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I fly home.  Three simple words that separate me indelibly from the suffering on the ground.  I ride the slick shiny blade of the machete of progress, hacking its way through the friendly skies, bounding lightly across borders that say “No, you may not partake.  Your cup is a sop of vinegar served up on whatever stick you can find.”

59 missiles flip their way mindlessly to an airstrip in Syria and MOAB, the “mother of all bombs”, is dropped in Afganistan, this week’s blackbird pie served up for the ego of a spoiled child, daily millions demanded to fund the latest Mar-a-Lago deal, the White House an empty shell of a sucked out egg, the hollow hope of the poor and downtrodden.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy.

No amount of blood poured out has ever offered a drop of redemption.  It’s just another killing – another lie of the king, sanctioned by the priest, to justify clearing the path ahead.  Jesus died because of our sins, never to take them away.

Good Friday.

© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

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Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype at Two Trees Center for Spiritual Development, Estes Park, Colorado.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com or by phone or text to (970) 217-6078.  Click FOLLOW above to be notified of future posts.

The Super Bowl, Election 2016 and God in America

It was a whizz-bang week – the final presidential candidate debates before the New Hampshire primary capped off by the 50th Super Bowl.  God bless America, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Beyoncé and certainly Peyton Manning.  And fighter jets.  And the pyrotechnics.  And Wilson.  And Hyundai.  And CBS.  And the pill that remedies various colon related issues that prevent us from success in our daily conquest.

The Western Christian narrative of God and humanity has been one of separation and not connection, a fierce, frantic and fearful individualism.  A whole host of problems arise with this.  First, there is the underlying sense of alienation and isolation, resulting in chronic anxiety and uncertainty.  We are never quite sure, short of less than satisfying dogmatic formulas, whether we are safe or not.  Am I forgiven – enough?  Am I saved?  Is it really possible that God hears me when I pray?  How can I get that right and be sure?  Is there even God?

The flip side of the uncertainty is vain over-confidence.  I am all-powerful.  I can do anything.  The world is my playground.  You just don’t get it.  Get out of my way.  Stupid you if you don’t have enough.

Oscillating between these two poles, we exhaust ourselves.  The existential angst is never relieved, the material satiation is never enough, the domination is never complete.  We are a sometimes weary people in need of greater and greater assurance, no matter how shallow or hollow the language, no matter how sensational the show.

There are those that would say this separation, this individualism, is exactly the triumph of the West – that our belief in the power of the individual and the application of that belief in the material realm have created all that is good in the world.  We have imposed order on chaos, driven out superstition with real medicine, turned raw materials into comfort and pleasure and, through accumulation of wealth transformed into overwhelming force, assured the safety of humanity.

Certainly much that is good has been accomplished.

But back on the panic side of our void, our concept of prayer remains characterized alternately by begging or claiming – as if we are constantly but inadequately grasping at something that is not quite ours.  We need demonstrable proof, sure results.  The tornado lifted when it came to my house.  Or it didn’t because I didn’t pray hard enough.  Superstorms and terrorist threats are God’s judgment on “the gay lifestyle.”  We dash about and shout our certain proclamations.  And we allocate more money to put a material or military patch on the mess to keep it all from falling apart.

Presidential politics in 2016 reflects the fever pitch of our bifurcated anxiety.  It’s as if the deep underlying infection of isolation and desperation is finally forming a boil, a small and intense festering that burns under the thinnest layer of decaying skin, ready to burst.

The infection is spiritual.  It is not religious.  It is not political.  It is not tied to one economic system or another.  One candidate epitomizes the bluster and desperation.  And only one comes close to naming the underlying spiritual vacuum and disconnect that rules our discontent – the fire that drives our fever toward the threshold between morbidity and mortality.  When Senator Sanders pulls back the curtain masking unfettered greed, he touches, without fully naming, our great hunger and despair.

I am not suggesting at all a vote of any sort.  No party, candidate or election can salve the infection of our soul.  Nor am I recommending that we shut off the Super Bowl.  But I am inviting us to see, to understand, to absorb and to embrace the nature of the illness.  And I am suggesting we can cure it with a change of orientation.

It is our isolation that fuels our insatiable hunger.  And it is our underlying narrative of separation that walls us off from the deep satisfaction and power of existence.  Believing conquest and satiation to be the elixirs of at least happiness, if not eternal life, we drive pedal to the metal toward the brink of extinction.

There is a different way, a different orientation, a different direction in which to look.  The forest sages of ancient India captured it so clearly in the Upanishads.  Through the practice of stilling the mind and quiet observation, these sages document a Self, immanent and transcendent, that is the loving essence of each one and every thing.  It is as if the flashing stream of still pictures that create the illusion of motion has been stilled, and the space between revealed to be something entirely other, a space without fear, a limitless expanse of satisfaction and creative bliss, a place beyond need or desperate grasping.

No matter what or how much it consumes, the separate ego is never satisfied.  And our belief that we are disconnected beings in a world we increasingly understand as only material, accelerates us exponentially toward exhaustion and annihilation on the wings of glittering despair.

Mastery of our lust comes from understanding and turning away from isolation and toward connection, away from insatiability and toward satisfaction.  It comes from abandoning fear in favor of trust, and willful grasping in favor of willing service.

And, ultimately, it comes from embracing our true Self, the Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source that is the light, the eternal energy and limitless love we begin to glimpse between the moving frames of our desperation.  We are not separate and fallen.  We only blind ourselves with the fear born of our limited consciousness and chosen view.  We are Spirit, experiencing the material.  Touch without owning, look without lusting, enjoy without hording.  There is enough.  Our greatness already is and has no vital connection to anything at all in the halftime show or ads or victor yet to come in Super Bowl 51, no critical dependence on the outcome of election 2016.

Embrace it under the Tree of Life.

© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

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Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype at Two Trees Center for Spiritual Development.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com or by phone or text to (970) 217-6078.  Click FOLLOW in the upper left menu bar to be notified of future posts.

Where is God?

Nothing cuts to the chase quicker than evil and suffering when it comes to the question of where or what is God.   Or for that matter, “Is God?”

Inevitably, the Holocaust comes up in the discussion.  Are you Frankl or Wiesel?  And terrorist attacks, with responses that range from “We will not be afraid.  Our love will conquer all,” to the Donald Trump trample.  And the potpourri of painful ways that life comes to an end.

The answers seem glib.  We point to various interpretations of the Book of Job.  We give up the concept of omnipotence, because a loving God cannot possibly be an all-powerful God and let this stuff happen.  We say that God is standing by – or with us – in the thick of it – or that God is judging and blessing in turn, based on our behavior.

Buddhism has the slickest answers in nonjudgment and the nature of life being suffering.  But those seem too easy.  They ring hollow in the face of our yearning for meaning.

Inevitably our answers, whether hardline zingers or thoughtful stories, fall short.  They are too empty or too full.  One answer undermines another.  And still, the suffering continues.

God, ultimately, is the thoughts we project on Big Mystery.  And Big Mystery is really big – or small, depending on our frame of reference and where we look.  For all we know there are an infinite number of universes in every Higgs Boson.

We throw our concepts and stories at it to see what sticks.  It all falls short.  We fall short.  Our consciousness is just not yet that well developed, if our consciousness is even anything at all.

We are left with speculation and choices.  Do we choose faith?  If so, faith in what?  Go ahead and try to answer – you, me, Job, the kid next door.  We slam our books on the table with condemnations to hell and a gunshot to send us there.

To what end?  We don’t know.  We just seek meaning and relevance.  Some little path forward.  Who can blame us for that?

As for me, I choose to believe that there is, indeed, a balm in Gilead.  I just want to.  Isn’t that enough?

I believe that when my wife and I dream the very same dream in a given night, that when we show up at the same time at a favorite haunt, from different points of origin and not a word spoken in advance, that there is more – that it is good, that there is healing, that the ultimate word written on our hearts is love.

And from there, all our choices unfold, and they all matter.  Not because there is anything certain that can be pinned down under them, but because something completely ineffable has spoken in our mitochondria – deeper, even, in the empty spaces between whatever particles form us, if those things are particles at all.  And that ineffable something has found its ways through our synapses and into our muscles, our visions and the words we speak to each other, the touch we share and the kindnesses exchanged.

Somehow it is better that way.  And so I believe.  I believe that we are the awakening of consciousness in its steady progression into the void, that we ride the very curl of the wave of creation.  I believe we shape that wave in all our intentions and connections, just like we shape our images of God.  And I choose together and not alone.  Where is the separation?  Can you find it?  Can you see any reality in it at all?

Somehow that awakening contains the full spectrum, insofar as we know it, of pain and beauty, of suffering and healing, of bloom and demise.  Our choice is to embrace or reject.  We cannot change it.

Let’s join in the embrace.  Please!  Come with me, will you?  Let’s sit together, under the Tree of Life.

© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

EP News Business Builder AdJerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype at Two Trees Center for Spiritual Development.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com or by phone or text to (970) 217-6078.  Click FOLLOW in the upper left menu bar to be notified of future posts.

Syria, Guatemala, the Twin Towers and the Tree of Life

Syrian and African refugees are flooding Europe.  Foreign ministers of the EU huddle in angst to find a solution to the crisis.  A little boy lapped by the waves on the beach captures our heart, a heart that we believe helpless to solve either the hostilities of the terrorist threat or the plight of the poor.  Meanwhile thousands upon thousands of Central Americans flee gang and narco-violence only to be housed in detention centers for children in Texas.  We, with Hungary, dream of a better wall.

In 1954 the US Central Intelligence Agency, in league with United Fruit Company, Congress, President Eisenhower and the US Department of State, overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala.  The New York Times, Time Magazine and the rest of the major media of the day swallowed the manufactured anti-communist rhetoric, reporting persistently and with favor what in reality was a thin charade of a military coup against a very democratic regime.  The agricultural land and labor of the indigenous people of Guatemala were the true prize.

Alas, it didn’t work out so well and ultimately required millions of dollars of arms, annually, to support successive regimes of oppression in the slaughter or disappearance of an estimated 250,000 Guatemalans, mostly indigenous, in the years between then and the early 1990’s.  Today, US and Canadian mining and agricultural interests quietly pursue the same business, in league with governments to engineer trade pacts that pave the way for the interests of wealth at the expense of the powerless.  We are blind and complicit in our convenient comfort.

The Guatemalan people, once again last week, spoke up, peacefully and successfully, to unseat the latest propped up corrupt president – a seeming victory.  But let’s read the history.  Anyone elected who intends to act in the best interests of all the citizens of Guatemala faces North American defamation and, as likely, murder for their efforts.  The best interests of all the citizens of Guatemala do not align with the insatiable hunger of the powers that be.

Greed fuels the engine of power abused.  Violence and despair are its polluted exhaust.  And there is no limit to the sophistication and depravity of lies and destruction that, unchecked, may be served up to keep that turbine whirling.

Fourteen years ago this week, these same powers co-opted the destruction of the World Trade Center towers as the demon of terrorism to mask yet another generation of violence in the Middle East.  The bitter fruit of that story is no different than that of Guatemala.  Hundreds of thousands, mostly civilian, lie dead (only thousands of our own, a cynically acceptable return on investment) in an ecological, social and political waste land that cranks out profits beyond the pale for military and oil contractors.  And the embedded press, as always, missed the story entirely, serving up the dulling Kool-Aid® of terrorist threat to a complacent and willing public.

Time will tell whether the demise of those buildings and lives served only as serendipitously convenient cover or whether, just like in 1954, this was an orchestrated sleight of hand to camouflage greed beyond imagination.   No matter at this point.  Violence and greed breed poverty and oppression, paving the way for trafficking and profiteering of all kinds.  Terrorists, drug lords, pimps and gang leaders are no more than a distracting by-product.  The immigrant crisis in Europe and the United States is not the problem of those that are fleeing.  Nor is it the result of the immediate violence that pushes these poor people, at last, to embrace the risk and humiliation of their plight.  Rather, it is the fruit of the soil tilled by the heart of greed.

There is no political or military solution, friends.  There is no magical system or policy.  And our Band-Aid® social and relief programs address only symptoms, not the disease.  There is only our willful refusal to connect the dots all the way back to the root and make the choice for which we are responsible.

When we are stuck in the fear of death under the metaphorical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we respond with greed, violence and the abuse of power.  We do this as individuals.  And the heart we choose as individuals becomes the collective heart of our institutions of commerce, religion and government.  These work together seamlessly to mask our bottomless fear, hunger and despair.

When the individuals at the helm of obscene wealth and its political, covert and military minions come to terms with the empty depravity of their abusive choices; when we as citizens of privilege are willing to face our complicity in blind addiction to comfort, we may find and embrace the solution to both the misery of the oppressed and the wake of violence that flows in to fill the void of our desecration.

We are neither helpless nor irreparably fallen.  We have a choice.  There is enough.  We are each and all responsible.  When we turn to live under the Tree of Life, we choose to embrace rather than oppress the powerless.  We refuse to create an enemy that masks and justifies the violence of our greed.  And we harvest the fruit of goodness instead of the bitter and rotten fruit we feed to the refugees of our depravity.

Conversion and salvation are not the easy mouthing of the name of Jesus.  They are, rather, the conscious and practiced choice of maturity, of becoming the true Self of compassion and kindness we are intended and able to be.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna and Aunt Susie.  Come you and me, with nothing but the desire to heal our hearts, in rest and sharing under the Tree of Life.  It is there, for our choosing, at the center of the City of Our Source, with its fruit in every season and its leaves for the healing of the nations.  (Revelation 22: 2)

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© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype at Two Trees Center for Spiritual Development.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com or by phone or text to (970) 217-6078.  Click FOLLOW in the upper left menu bar to be notified of future posts.

Dylann Roof and the Invitation to Transformation

On June 19, 2015, in a courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina, members of the families of the shooting victims of Dylann Roof, one by one, addressed Mr. Roof with words, not of reconciliation, but of forgiveness and the invitation to his own transformation.

In the words of Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of the murdered Daniel Simmons:  “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

These were words of deep maturity, of great strength and power of spirit.  These were the words of people who have made the arduous journey of transformation from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life.  They speak volumes to each of us and to our society, a society that more naturally turns to the language of vengeance than to the invitation to transformation.

Transformation is the movement from the lie to the truth.  It involves abandoning the lie of violent protection of the defended self and moves to open and compassionate engagement.  It is an assertive and passionate stance that postures itself in fearless non-defense as it presents its invitation to compassionate connection.

Transformation is all encompassing.  True transformation addresses every corner, every action and interaction of life.  The big transformation reflected in these people’s beautiful statements does not happen without continual loving attention to the mundane.  I want to drive the same streets as these people.  I want to meet them when the clerk cannot solve my problem at the checkout counter, when my computer crashes and the washing machine breaks down.  I want to be them when my neighbor hates cats or believes something not true about me.

Transformation denies nothing.  Rather, it feels all fully, expresses all truly and then makes the choice of non-defensive invitation.  I cannot say this more clearly than to use the words of Nadine Carter, daughter of the slain Ethel Lance: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Transformation is not distracted.  Rather, it is present and engaged.  This is no small thing in contemporary culture, a culture of the numbing distraction of the material packaged in the seductive pill of perpetual media.  The transformed life is practiced and lived in active presence, not in passive distraction.

Transformation addresses the heart, not the periphery of the matter.  Change happens by planting and nurturing the right seeds, not by trying to stick new leaves on old trees.  The courts will perform the duty of public safety by placing necessary physical constraints on Dylann Roof.  And to the extent of the law, they may go beyond that, in expression of the tree of our broader culture, by acting out violent retribution.  Aside from limited safety, nothing changes in this model.  But these profound people, instead, have offered Mr. Roof the seeds of true transformation in the gift of forgiveness, the invitation to repentance (change of heart and mind) and the call to engagement of new life through the path of transformation.

Transformation is for people and affects systems.  It is true that we need systems that reflect transformation.  But systems only reflect the condition of the collective soul.  Our collective soul reflects, increasingly, massive greed masked by perpetual distraction and enforced, ultimately, by violence.  Johnny Appleseed grew apple trees by planting apple seeds.  True transformation of systems happens through the constant invitation to and nurture of individual change.  Dylann Roof, dear friends, has been invited.

Transformation is a choice.  In fact it involves one choice after another, with practice.  Like musicians who have mastered their instrument through years of focused practice, these fine people have achieved mastery of their lives through abandonment of defended ego in favor of compassionate connection and engagement.

Ultimately, transformation is the singular journey of our life.  It is the journey home, the journey from isolated small “s” self to connected capital “S” Self.  It is the journey that transcends suffering and death, that recognizes and clings to the eternal and relinquishes the temporal.

May we each have the courage to engage transformation and practice it with the persistence demonstrated by these amazing people.  May we abandon isolated and defended ego in the embrace of fearless connection.  May we invite others – even those who would kill us in hatred with the hands and feet of fear – may we invite them to join us under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

Forgiveness II: Our Emotions Are Our Teachers and Not Our Rulers

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  (Jesus to Peter, Matthew 18: 22, NRSV on the question of how often to forgive)  Stuff just doesn’t go away that easily.  It’s not so much that someone has wronged us seventy-seven times.  It’s more that we keep working on the wrongs that really nail us over and over and over.  The encouragement, I believe, is not to be a fool and allow the same person to harm us seventy-seven times – the delightful wallow of co-dependence – but rather to keep working it out, keep working it out.

Whatever the cause of a deep pain, our overwhelming response is anger, the desire for revenge and even hatred of another.  These are natural emotional efforts to protect ourselves.  It hurts.  I’ve been wounded.  I have lost things that cannot be recovered.  There are scars.  The wounds may be physical, psychic or both.

Here’s the thing.  We need our emotions to be our teachers and not our rulers.  We need our emotions to be our teachers and not our rulers.  The first seventy-five times we work at forgiving someone in our head we are probably just learning that lesson.  The problem is that we feel bad about the emotions – the fact that we are still angry about having to give our perpetrator a Get Out of Jail (or Get Out of Hell, as the case may be) Free Card.

Emotions jump up and tell us that we have been hurt, that we have been violated, that we are suffering and in need of repair because of the actions of another.  Pay attention.  These are messengers.  We need compassion.  We need care.  We need healing.

Our Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil response is to let these emotions become our rulers.  OK, anger, take charge.  This feels good.  Let’s get violent, whether in thought, word or deed.  Whether in aggression that is active or cloaked in passivity.  Let’s break some china.  Let’s destroy some things, deliver the pain that will bring this sum back to zero.  Let’s take it a step further to teach a lesson and win the game.  Be done with this sucker.

All of this is compounded by the deep wounds of childhood, wounds that happened before we had any clue of how to deal with them.  Wounds when we were innocent and did not even know that the world should not be, or might not be like the world we were experiencing.  Seventy times seventy times seventy, the iteration and years of learning and coming to terms with these wounds.

Under the Tree of Life, our emotions are our teachers and not our rulers.  They tell us that our little manifestation of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source has been wounded.  We need protection and shelter.  If we are wise, we will give true heed to the inclinations for fight or flight, and we will make, for us, the best choice about the immediate and longer term path out of danger.

Ultimately, perhaps around cycle seventy-six of our desire for revenge, we may begin to understand the edict that we love our neighbor as our self.  We begin to love our self.  We hear our own pain and respond with compassion.  We see our wounds and apply the dressings, or find the person who can help us apply them.  We sit with our self.  Our capital S eternal Self beyond all harm sits, and holds, and cries, and rocks and soothes our small s manifested and wounded self.  We gift our self the Breath of Life that cools, the Healing Water that cleanses, the Leaves of the Tree that create the balm of protection and restoration.

And when seventy-seven rolls around, we might just be ready to turn to our neighbor, our father, our mother, our colleague, the perpetrator of our hurt.  We turn and we offer, from our Self to their self, the seat of welcome and restoration.  Come sit beside me, here, beneath the Tree of Life, with its fruit in every season and its leaves for the healing of the nations.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

For Christmas this Year, Let’s Let Jesus Off the Bloody Hook

For Christmas this year, let’s give Jesus a gift.  Let’s let him off the bloody hook.  Somewhere between the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s letters, “Follow me” turned into “I did it all with blood sacrifice.”  Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 – 1109, sealed the deal with his writing on the satisfaction theory of atonement.

And ever since, we’ve been killing him (Jesus) softly but surely by piling on the sins of the world, Sunday after Sunday.  Data tells us he’s almost half dead now, under the load.  Barna Group relentlessly counts the beans of evangelical angst, documenting the slippage of the “churched” through the door to become the “unchurched”, searching for just the right moves to get’em “churched” again.  Their latest book, Churchless:  Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, documents that the “unchurched” segment of the US population has grown not just steadily, but at an ever increasing rate from 30% in the 1990’s to 43% in 2014.  For Barna and company (A better book title might have been Clueless.), it seems a daunting task to stem that tide, given what they see as the relentless bashing of Christianity by godless unchurched culture.  A small first step might be to get rid of those repelling and out of touch churched and unchurched labels.

Let’s let Jesus off the bloody hook.  Lots of folks have tried to redeem atonement by turning it into “at-one-ment.”  Too little too late, I fear, but the sentiment is useful.  I believe with all my heart that Jesus was “at-one” with Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.  And I believe “the way” to which he persistently called the people of his small corner of the world in his time is, indeed, the path forward – the very same foundational path forward whispered by the breath of life in all places and all times.

But we – you and I and Aunt Suzie – won’t find that path by continually “casting our burden upon the Lord.”  (If you are sufficiently unchurched, that phrase of evangelical atonement might be unfamiliar, and I promise not to use it again.)  We will find it, metaphorically, in our own journey from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life.  We will find it by changing the way we view ourselves and the world around us.

“Salvation,” another hopelessly abused and by now nearly dead word, is really just our choice to grow up and move along that path.  A bloody choice?  Well, let’s be honest.  Turning from the fear and separation of the metaphorical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is very threatening to power, at least to the misused power of twisted politics and those that wield religion to mediate your redemption and mine.  Taking personal responsibility for growing up to compassion, confidence and responsible relationship – becoming the Adult of God (Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source – not an old man in some heaven) that we become under the Tree of Life – taking that personal responsibility and acting on it generally, at some point, puts us crosswise with the powers of fear.  Witness Jesus as the Romans nailed him to a tree, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer and six millions Jews up in smoke in bloody Christian Germany.

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5: 21-24.  God I love my old Revised Standard Version.)

Want to be saved?  Stop going to war.  Want to be saved?  Take care of the planet.  Want to be saved?  Don’t even think about killing the food stamp program.

Want to be saved from “sin and death?”  Stop nailing Jesus to the tree and crying salvation.  Grow up and choose it.  Forgiveness is not a gift that was given in the bloody slaughter of the Lamb of God.  Forgiveness is a state of being.  No one can give it to you. You must truly embrace it for yourself.  And then move on.

Move on, move on down the road.  And consider a gift to Jesus this Christmas.  Take him off the bloody tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree of fear and hate and twisted power.  Clean him up, like the Good Samaritan would.  Clean him up and walk with him, even through the valley of the shadow of death.  Walk with him, all the way to the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

American Christianity’s Elephant in the Room

Since the very beginning of the nation, Christianity has been the dominant cultural narrative of the United States.  Or, more accurately, the narrative of American Christianity has been the dominant narrative, and it reads something like this:

  1. Jesus, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, was different from you and me. He was truly God’s child, the first and last God incarnate.  We are not.
  2. Jesus loves you and wants to live in your heart.
  3. Jesus looked pretty much like a white middle-American, except he wore a robe.
  4. Jesus plays good cop to God’s bad cop. We sit in the chair of interrogation.  In the end, if we don’t answer right, we’re going to get it.
  5. Jesus said a lot of wonderful things and performed a bunch of miracles, but what really matters is that he died on the cross to save you from your sins. Jesus saves.
  6. Everyone is welcome in heaven, so long as they believe Jesus died for their sins and they praise his name on a regular basis.
  7. Jesus is coming again to get those who qualify under number 6 and to leave the rest behind, gnashing their teeth as the world goes down to hell. One of my favorite bumper stickers, in fact, reads, “Jesus is coming soon, and is he pissed!”

I would argue that this is not at all what Jesus was about.  But that is for another day.  Today, the message is that Christianity, at least in this cultural narrative, is dying in America.  And for the most part, the Christian church does not begin to comprehend the reason why.  Look around carefully, there is an elephant in the room.

Church attendance has indeed declined steadily for at least the past two generations.  Catholics have been hit hardest, followed by mainline Protestant congregations.  Large evangelical churches have been more likely to hold on, but even these are now seeing some decline.  In every research result, the “nones” and their “spiritual but not religious” cohort (all unaffiliated with any church) are steadily rising, especially in the emerging dominant millennial generation, but even among boomers and the silent generation that preceded them.

The evangelical mega-churches which had their hay day in the last twenty-five years are not immune.  Their marketing strategies and strategic plans implicitly acknowledge the consumer mentality of their, should we even use the label, parishioners.  Entertainment is not true religion.  Run the country out of fossil fuels or put on a better show down the street and watch what becomes of the theater seats, big screens and easy faith.

Some pollsters say the numbers lie, that what is happening is that people just go to church less often.  Others say that people are expressing their faith in house churches and other nontraditional gatherings.  There is no doubt a level of truth in both of these observations.

But no one is identifying or addressing the elephant in the room.  The American Christian church is dying.  It is dying not because of Jesus, but because American Christianity’s dominant story line, its basic value proposition, is bankrupt, with fewer and fewer willing to consider it credible enough to buy.  Fewer and fewer give any credence to the narrative that we are at core defective, not made just the way Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S) intended, and that America’s Christian God requires blood sacrifice – specialized human/deity blood, at that – to keep from damning us to hell.

And nowhere in the church is that being acknowledged or addressed straight out.  In my review of religious demographic surveys I could not find even one that asked Christians or anyone else whether they truly believed that God required the blood sacrifice of a human incarnation to redeem them from their fallen nature.  Why is that?

I suspect at least three problems.  First, American Christian leaders are scared to hell of the likely results, which is why they persist in speculations and surveys about every other possible reason for their steady and imminent demise.  Further, it is possibly beyond the realm of imagination for these bearers of Christian angst to conceive of this issue at all.  It is literally unthinkable.  Finally, the elephant is both so large and so preposterous that people in general find it simply easier to dismiss it quietly and not to talk about it.  Who wants to disturb a holy elephant, dead or alive?  The result is that hot air is steadily cooling in this once dominant balloon.  And the poor wizard, while nervous, convinces himself that the curtain still hides him and the illusion holds sway.

Spirituality in America needs a new value proposition.  There were two special metaphorical trees in the Garden of Eden, both intended for us in the mind of C/S/M/S.  We ate from the first, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  We did not fall, we just thought we did.  We simply woke to all the splendor and terror of human awareness.  C/S/M/S never wanted us to kill anyone or anything to get free of that tree.  That was our idea.  The call in all times and places has been to grow up, to make good choices in the context of who we are and to move on to the tree of life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

The Birth of Willingness

When I was in high school, back in the late 1960’s, I was a bright young man, full of hope and promise – class president, student council president, president of my church youth group, co-salutatorian of my graduating class, a good singer.  OK, I was depressed.  I know that now looking back, but I was working so hard on persona, trying to figure out and be who I thought “I” was or should be that I had no concept of the reality – which at that time was a pretty scared and depressed young man yearning to break out of and let go of so many things.

I was busy busy willing my way forward.  And, while I didn’t know it, I was struggling and fighting my way toward a spirituality of willingness.  It was a long fight, something like a 35-year engagement with an oxymoron, this battle of willing (an action verb) my way to willingness (a state of being).

It’s a necessary struggle, this discovery of individuation.  And it involves picking up and wearing so many masks – a little like Adam and Eve trying on clothes in the Garden of Eden, eyes opening to the discovery and awareness of themselves.  It’s a path of necessary loneliness, a path that, without fail, for every human, leads us out of the garden.

We learn something of our gifts, certainly.  But we struggle and fumble with how to use them.  The fight continues just as long as we wield those gifts for the purpose of creating our particular place in the world, as long as we struggle with willing our way toward being something or other.  Eventually the path leads to destinations of numbness, delusion or brokenness.  We settle into a numb acceptance of a rather meaningless life and go through the motions for the duration.  Or we achieve something of material grandeur and success and delude ourselves with the image of power and status that we have created in our comparison to the others around us.  If we are lucky, we, like Jacob, see the angel in our path and engage a fight that we (our self-created image) will ultimately lose, a shattering of the mask, a wounding sufficient to make us want to give up the fight, a wounding that heals us all the way to willingness.

But when we are broken, oh, when we are broken, it hurts like hell, it hurts like birth.  We may be angry about the pain.  We may be bitter about the loss.  We grieve the fight, we bemoan the years of struggle and, if we are fortunate, we exhaust ourselves to a place of rest.  We resign ourselves to the passage, to second birth.

Birth, the actual process, is something that happens to us.  Even if, as some believe, we choose a particular birth – whether by will or by karma – the actual passage, once it is engaged, is a movement of power and transformation that is beyond our particular control.

The image that comes to me is the bud of a flower.  We are clamped tight in protection, thinking that is all we are and all we have.  We resist change.  We resist birth.  But one day we are torn, the husk is ripped and pushed aside.  We lose our grip, we give up and the beauty begins to emerge.

When we give up the hold of individuation, when we give up our will to dominate others and to protect our separation, the surprise is that we gain Ourselves.  The only thing we lose is the fight of isolation, our fear of personal annihilation.  We learn that we are indeed something, that we are a necessary, useful and beautiful part of an unfolding grandeur beyond our imagination.  We are all that we are created to be.  Instead of the struggle to will, we flow in the beauty of being willing, to be the flower that we are, to offer that beauty in the urging forward of creation.

It’s like that, this path from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, all the way to the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

Born in You this Day

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”   Luke 2:11, NRSV.

There are so many ways to wreck a good story.  In fact, we might as well call it Christmas Cancer for all that it has become in the last two millennia:  grafted onto holiday trees from other traditions; the insanity of soldiers stopping to sing carols to the enemy across the front lines of WWI, resuming the fight in the morning; Santa Claus and Rudolph; enough lights to outshine a supernova; a worldwide binge and burp of the economy big enough to make us confident that Jesus has finally entered the temple and whipped, once and for all, the rogue dogs of evil empire.

What was born?  Who was born?  Lamb of God?  For all our focus on blood sacrifice to grab salvation, Jesus might as well have been a 4-H calf, corn-fed and off to the fair, sold at auction to the highest bidder, the owner of the fanciest restaurant in the state.

What was born?  Who was born?  The birth narratives of Matthew and especially the iconic scene of the stable, manger, angels and star in Luke, are memorialized annually from the tiniest of crèche scenes reconstructed in the shell of a bird’s egg, to the bigger than life plywood or even living crèches that, despite our silly doublespeak laws about what religious freedom is or isn’t, stand in front of churches or town squares worldwide.  God almighty, the things we fight about to avoid our own truth.

What was born? Who was born? Without doubt, a true Rose of Sharon, a balm in Gilead, a little Prince of Peace.  And stories like these pasted onto the front of Matthew’s and Luke’s life narratives are effective “sit up and take notice” calls that here was a birth and a life of great importance.

Alas, we are so prone to losing ourselves in icons, drama and worship – anything to avoid personal responsibility.

The real birth of Jesus, good friends, took place in the silent stretch of nearly twenty years between Luke 2 and Luke 3, a gestation of learning and practice, of formation in the womb of wisdom and spirit.  The real birth of Jesus was the birth of authentic Self, the hero’s/heroine’s journey to which we are all invited when we are silent in the presence and willing in spirit.

Luke tries to hammer this home with his genealogy, the long list of names at the end of the third chapter, almost entirely ignored by 2,000 years of Christianity, that ends, for both Adam (read “you and me”) and Jesus, with “Son (child) of God.”  This genealogy marks the line of transition, the end of gestation.  It is followed immediately by a baptism of grown-up spirit and the launch of Jesus into his brief public life of healing, bathed and swaddled in an honest and consistent call to peace, compassion, fairness and, most of all, the pleading invitation to each of us to join him in our own true birth.

What was born?  Who was born?  A human was born, like every human, who gained his life with the whisper of prana, the tickle and nudge of the breath of God, the life force of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Self.  Born a human, you and me, under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This one grew up.  This one accepted that suffering (true love, while it may cast out fear, just as often draws fire) was the price of second birth, the true and human birth to capital “S” Self, the birth canal of silence, prayer and practice that bore him all the way to the Tree of Life.

How utterly astounding that for all the effort to tell us in symbol and story, for the repeated invitation of Jesus to each of us to grow up, to enter and to walk through the inevitable suffering of birth to true and mature life, we choose instead to worship the stories.  We shield our eyes in the waving of palms and drown the voice in our din of praise.  Truly, for the most part, we would rather kill the guide than hear the call, hear the invitation and embrace the path.

Born in you this day.  Born in you this day, kind friend.  The invitation to embrace the path, the invitation to second birth.  Born in you this day.  The call to accept, without judgment, the pain and suffering of growing up.  The call to embrace and transform it with the practice of peace, of compassion for self and others.  The call to be authentic sons and daughters of C/S/M/S, true birth under the Tree of Life.

Born in you this day.  Let it be.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

Willingness vs. Willfulness

Two hearts diverge in the center of my chest.  One is right, absolutely certain of what it deserves, red, furious, sulking, adrenalized, ready to explode.  This one does not like change, at least not change that does not go in the direction it wants – the right and fair direction, the direction that I can see so clearly.

The other is quiet and at peace, in relationship, observing, taking in the whole, engaging without attaching, nimble as a stream flowing over rocks, flexing with what truly is.

What a grip the first heart has, and how complete the blindness and stranglehold.  And how utter and painful the defeat if it carries the battle to the end and loses.  Or how empty the victory if it wins and beats its perceived opponent into the ground.

It is all the same heart, of course.  It is mine and I make the choice, just like choosing whether or not the giving tree under which I live is going to be the Tree of Life or the other one.

But how can I make that choice when I am so thoroughly blinded?  The truth is, sometimes I can’t, or don’t, and I drift further and further into the hell I create with my own sightless determination.  How difficult, but how important it is to change course and to bring it all back home.  Sometimes the path is long and painful because of the bitterness built up inside and the damage inflicted on others around me.

What are the turning points, the places of repenting?  Sometimes it is awareness of the misery, sometimes it is the voice of another who can see me more clearly than I can see myself.  Sometimes it is the practice of quiet prayer, the prayer that seeks, in a mantra of willingness or a broken open silence, to let in a small sparkle of light, a trickle of healing water, finding the pinhole through which a larger landscape can be seen.

Always the turn involves practice.  It involves breathing and conscious letting go.  It involves releasing my death grip attachment to a self-determined and willful outcome.

We do not diminish ourselves when we choose willingness, the open connection to the whole.  Rather, we become our true selves, the Self of paradoxical oneness with all that is.

The picture is always larger, and I am only a part of the whole, not the entire thing, as I want to believe.

When we practice willingness, when we practice being open and available, expanding our vision and releasing our determination to have the speck of sand we thought was everything, we experience healing.  We find that the ache and inflammation begin to subside.  The poison is leached little by little from our system and the blinders fall away.  We are able to see both the detail and the landscape.  The stream flows in its ripples and pools, turning with ease to follow its natural course.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalms 51:10, NRSV)  It’s not so much a new one, but rather a connected one. And it is already there.  We don’t have to beg or grovel for it, nor do we have to tear out anything as though it is wrong or defective.

Rather, we choose.  Will we be willing or willful, separate or connected?  Our spirit and our heart are not other than that with which we are gifted in our creation.  There are no defects.  There is only choice, the choice of isolation or the choice of connection.  When we are real and whole, we are both individuated and connected.  We are the gift of our own place and being.  And we are the gift of the entire universe.  It is the paradox and beauty of being a thread in the fabric.

In any case, our heart is truly only one, our very own, offered willingly in connection to the whole.  Ah, the wonder and taste of the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Rights reserved and offered.  Make use.  Share the source.

Suffering

My wife is a special educator.  She tells me stories about kids who are and will be, no matter how hard they work, miles and miles short of successful functioning in our society.  I hear about the amazing ways that she confronts them and engages them to draw out even the most basic responses to external stimuli – things like pointing to or grabbing a particular picture that indicates something they want or need, communication in its most elemental forms.  My mind spins off into the future for these little lives and I ache.  Something in me inclines toward discouragement.

According to Wikipedia, 230,000 people died, in 2004, in the Indian Ocean Tsunami (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake_and_tsunami), triggered by an undersea megathrust off the west coast of Sumatra.  The millions that survived carry the soul etching memory of terror, and the loss of loved ones, places and ways of life that were wrenched irrevocably out of their being.  Even from a distance, the collective soul of the earth feels and bears the rip, the wound and the scar.

The Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University (see http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-civilians) estimated, in February 2013, that between 16,700 and 19,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan as direct or indirect casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom.  iCasualties counts 3383 deaths of coalition troops since the war started in 2001 (http://icasualties.org/oef/), not to mention the traumatic head injuries, loss of limbs and suffering of families of the injured.

Life as we observe it and experience it is full of suffering, whether natural, psychological or of our own making.  And it is so for the observer and survivor just as it is for the victim. 

The Sanskrit term dukkha captures this completely.  The Wikipedia article on dukkha (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukkha) explains it in three categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birthgrowing oldillness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

When we choose to stay stuck under the metaphorical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, life is indeed dukkha.  We see everything through a lens of a battle to eliminate the pain of our current existence, even to the point of killing others and increasing pain because we think somehow our own security will be enhanced and our dukkha decreased.  In reality, we just pile it higher and deeper.

I have a friend, Vern Rempel, who postscripts his emails with these words of his:  “The code of the universe is written in beauty.” The Buddha said:  “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.”  Somehow I think these two assertions are headed in the same direction.

We cannot judge the pain of temporal existence any more than we can judge – as good, bad or indifferent – the unfolding of our universe and the emergence of life itself.  It is.  It is, it is, it is.  To say “it is” is not indifference, but rather acceptance of and wonder at the mysterious whole and trajectory of creation.

The cessation of dukkha is no more nor less than the choice to live under the Tree of Life.  It is, I believe, a more complete nirvana, and the essence of the Greek term metanoia, translated in the Christian Bible as repentance.  That word has become heavy laden with the trappings of a religion of judgment.  More accurately, it simply means to change, or to turn away from.

When we turn away from our judging and fearful view of life under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we find ourselves, simply, under the Tree of Life.  We repent of dukkha.  We let go of, we turn way from our limited and temporal view of suffering and we engage fully in the ongoing act, the revelation/evolution of creation.

We, in our evolutionary state, have been given at least the level of awareness that comes with observation.  And we have been gifted as well with the ability to judge what we observe.  We also have the ability to choose our response.

We can willfully try to manipulate life and the world around us, desperately seeking to avoid what we perceive as dukkha.  When we do this, we only create more.

Or we can willingly accept and participate in the beautiful and staggeringly powerful onslaught of creation, sharing compassion, soaking in the beauty and mystery, acting in the creative initiative of God/Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.

There is a tremendous ache, the ache of birth, in the act of creation.  We are part of it.  The birth, the code of that ache, is the handwriting of the universe.  The child of it all, the child of us all when we participate in and do not fight the unfolding, is beauty beyond words and saying.

Come, turn, breathe, care, steward and create.  Live under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share as you please.  Mention the source.