What Is Truth?

In 2010, Jehanne De Quillan published The Gospel of the Beloved Companion:  The Complete Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  De Quillan is a member of an independent religious order rooted in the Languedoc region of southern France.  The order claims a spiritual lineage to Mary Magdalene, who is said to have come to the region in the first century, bringing with her an original Greek text of her own version of the story of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In the early twelfth century, Jehanne De Quillan’s community translated the text into Occitan, the common language of the Languedoc in those times.  They claim to have protected both the Greek and Occitanic versions of the text in the centuries since.  The hidden nature of that protection stems from the early thirteenth century Albigensian Crusade and ensuing Inquisition, a twenty-five-year reign of terror unleashed by the Roman Church in this region, aimed at rooting out and destroying an elevated apostolic status of Mary Magdalene and other perceived heresies.

De Quillan claims, for the first time, to present a modern English translation of the original Greek Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  She does this with the permission, but not universal support of her community, which fears reprisal and persecution even today.  Reading the text, that fear seems justified in the shadow of a centuries old religious patriarchy.

The clear and consistent message of Jesus’s teaching in this gospel is simple, yet deep and very beautiful.  It is this:  The Kingdom of Heaven is within you, a seed of the Living Spirit waiting to be discovered, nurtured and cultivated.  And it is to be lived into the world outside you.

The fruits of this cultivation are described in a lovely vision of a tree at the close of the gospel, with eight levels separated by seven guardians, each to be overcome and left behind before the fruit of the level can be consumed, allowing ascension to the next.  These levels and gates are:

  • level one, the fruit of love and compassion, hidden by the guardian of judgment and wrath
  • level two, the fruit of wisdom and understanding, hidden by the guardian of ignorance and intolerance
  • level three, the fruit of honor and humility, hidden by duplicity and arrogance
  • level four, the fruit of strength and courage, hidden and defended by weakness of the flesh and the illusion of our fears

At the completion of this fourth level, the guardians are replaced by lessons or truths to be learned and fully embodied through the consumption of the fruit of the associated level:

  • level five, consumption of the fruit of clarity and truth, yielding the clarity and truth of our soul with the understanding that we are truly children of the Living Spirit
  • level six, consumption of the fruit of power and healing, yielding the power to heal our own soul
  • level seven, consumption of the fruit of light and goodness, yielding freedom from darkness and a resulting fullness of the light and goodness which is the Living Spirit
  • Having completed these seven levels, the eighth level is granted, which is described as a fierce joy in knowing and being embraced fully by the grace and beauty of the Spirit.

All else is folly.  In this narrative, Jesus is even more explicit than in the canonical gospels about this folly and the oppression practiced by dominant religion through laws, rules and dogma.  At one point, for instance, when challenged about the importance of circumcision, he responds that if God wanted males circumcised, he would cause them to be born that way.  And in his closing admonition to the disciples at the last supper he says, “Tell others of what you have seen, but do not lay down any rules beyond what I appointed you; and do not give a law like the lawgiver, lest you be constrained by it.” Mary Magdalene 35:22

The Gospel of the Beloved Companion reads at heart like a truer version of the Gospel of John.  Why do I say truer?  Somehow it hangs together better.  Whereas John is told by a narrator, this gospel is told in first person by someone who was not only an eye witness, but an intimate participant in the life and teachings of Jesus.

There are simple things.  De Quillan points out, for instance, that when the various events and their locations – which are sometimes different than in John – are plotted on a map, they make more sense in terms of the walking distances of the day.  We don’t have John’s mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved.” It is unambiguously clear that this is a story told by a woman, Mary, also called the Migdalah, or tower, who is the beloved companion of Jesus.

There is nothing sensational about any of it, and the message at every turn points to the teaching about being born of the Spirit, living as a child of the Spirit, experiencing the Kingdom of God.  But it has a much more whole and human feel throughout:

  • Without making any particular point of it, it is simply clear that what we know as the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, was actually the wedding of Jesus and Mary.
  • It is clear in this gospel that Mary Magdalene is the Mary of the Mary, Martha and Lazarus household, and they were essentially home base for Jesus during his ministry.
  • There is a different and gender balanced inner core of disciples who consistently understand the message of Jesus. This core includes: the original disciples Thomas and Matthew (referred to as Levi in this book); Mary, Martha and Lazarus; two women called Salome, one of whom is the mother of Peter and Andrew and the other who is the woman we know as the woman at the well; and Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who seem to be close friends.
  • The gospel does not try to disguise tension between this group and particularly Peter and Andrew, who challenge Mary at several points, indignant at the idea that Jesus might have told Mary, a woman, things that he did not tell them, or that she, a woman, might better understand the core message and teachings of Jesus than they did.

All of these very human interactions give the book an air of authenticity, as opposed to a story that was augmented or glorified in an artificial manner to prove the divine and extraordinary nature of Jesus.  Jesus is clearly someone sent by the Living Spirit with a message and invitation to his human companions that they, like him, are children of that Spirit.  He invites them to own it and live it.

I say authenticity.  To be clear, when I read this, it rings true to me.

OK, so you may ask the sardonic question of Pilate, which appears in this gospel just as it does in John, “What is truth?”  That is an excellent question when it comes to any scripture and, for most of us, especially the traditional biblical scriptures, which, as we grew up, were presented as ultimate truth.

Let’s ask it again today.  What is truth?

  • Is truth a canon of gospels, letters and visions written and rewritten to suit the tastes of a male hierarchy of patriarchs, three centuries after any fact and in league with the government of Rome?
  • Is truth the Gospel of John, which when read side by side with the Gospel of Mary Magdalene does not hang together with nearly the same consistency and authenticity? I come away from the reading with a sense that John, while certainly a unique and lovely book, was a redaction of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene intended to make it palatable and acceptable to a patriarchal church.
  • Is truth what appears in the traditional gospels to be a systematic denigration of a woman, the only person who consistently in all the narratives stayed by the side of Jesus through his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – the first one to whom Jesus appears and speaks? The institutional church, from the days of canonization forward, has painted Mary as a demoniac and whore.  Her only redeeming quality in that picture is that she is repentant.  I find it more likely that the portrayal of her as someone possessed by seven demons was a male redaction and upending of the vision Jesus gave her of the seven gates to be conquered in the journey to complete experience of the tree of the Living Spirit.  And the casting as a whore seems the ultimate stake of death, hammered through the heart by a male power structure that could not bear the possibility of a woman being the closest disciple and companion to their savior and champion.

What is truth?  By now we know that truth is not historical inerrancy of every word of the canonized scripture.  The inconsistencies are too glaring, the contradictions too complete.

Truth, capital T truth, seems something quite other than facts which can never be firmly established.  Even if, for instance, the Greek text guarded by this spiritual community in Languedoc turned out to be a first century original, there is no guarantee that it is factually true.  Anyone can write a story.

Truth, it seems, is something entirely other than proof positive.  So what is it?  Jackson Browne touches it for me, somehow, in a line from a song titled The Dancer:  “I don’t know what happens when people die.  Can’t understand it as hard as I try.  It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear, I can’t sing it.  I can’t help listening.”

Truth, I believe, is the song sung in a quiet heart.  It is as much a sound as it is an object.  Jesus, in every portrayal, whether canonized or otherwise, is consistent in this.  He says that the children of God, the children of the Living Spirit, are the ones who truly hear his words, who understand them and live them from their hearts.

Truth is the abandonment of wrath and judgment in favor of love and compassion; the eschewing of ignorance and intolerance in favor of wisdom and understanding; the forsaking of duplicity and arrogance to take on honor and humility.  Truth is the journey of the soul toward embrace and union with the light and joy of the Living Spirit.

May we quiet our hearts.  May we hear the song.  May we follow that sound to the Tree of Life, with its fruit in every season and its leaves for the healing of the nations.

© 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.

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.

O Holy Night

Something extraordinary happened in the birth of Jesus.  No one bothers to write tales of wonder about the birth of most of us: confounding tales of deep simplicity and wild extravagance; no room at the inn and choirs of angels; the politicos already attuned to the threat to power.

We come looking for a savior and king.  Something in us yearns for the perfect leader, the one who will make it all right, with enough for everyone, the end of death and sorrow and pain.

But the prince of peace would not be king.  He said to serve each other the way we have been served.  The supposed savior said it is, in fact, your own faith that makes you whole.  The one who shines a light on the path to the Tree of Life said that you – you and me – you are the light of the world.

And the one slaughtered on a cross did not call us to receive salvation kneeling at the foot of that tree.  The way of Jesus calls us all the way to the terrible end hanging from the top, nailed to the gnarly limbs of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil:  a death by submission to connection, by willingness to release the isolation of ego; death to fear; death to selfishness and the violence it engenders; the overwhelming death of embracing the pain, fear and sorrow of life without turning away, without running to hide, with no father or regiment of angels to take us down from that hanging before the last ounce is wrung out.

There is a barrier, a chimera, a lonesome valley and dark night of the soul that stands in the road between the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life.  We must ultimately walk it by ourselves.  No one is born again without the lonely death on that tree.  No one finds the other end of that path by staying stuck on their knees at the foot of the cross of Jesus.

O Holy Night.  Be born again: born through every step of pain and suffering; born to the last wretched and lonely breath, stolen by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Be born to your true light, the light of your life.  Walk as a companion and not a king.

Blessed Christmas.

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

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.

New Worship

Alas, for many who are no longer comfortable within the confines of a single religion, or who can no longer accept core doctrines of their root tradition, worship has become both a problem and a loss.  There is a desire to touch, to engage.  And there is an aversion and disappointment in what is found in that touch.  Beautiful hymns in four part harmony lift the spirit in ecstasy, only to crash suddenly to earth in a glorification of blood sacrifice.

Our existing traditions and the accoutrements of worship that support them have been built over centuries, with great care.  Meticulously orchestrated and standardized rituals mediate the sacred, serving as metaphorical doors that open for a moment beyond the limits of physical pain, daily toil and bodily death.  They deliver a prescribed, and for many still effective formula of immanent experience and transcendent connection with Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.

But for those with one or both feet outside the doctrinal door, satisfaction is limited or seemingly unavailable.  In varying degrees, there is a sense of alienation, of fraud.  We can choose to stay, crossing fingers or going silent when songs and liturgies lead us into language outside our defined circle of spiritual integrity.  For many, that is a useful transitional compromise, preserving aspects of community and offering some level of the expression of ecstasy.  But this route offers only a partial, incomplete and less than fully satisfying solution.

A richer alternative may be to extend the circle beyond judgment of the mediated.  Recall in our discussion of the sacred and profane that these are not two categories of phenomena.  Rather, sacred and profane are the lenses we choose between when we view and engage all that is.  Do we choose a sacred life of connection and reverence, or do we engage phenomena as though they are outside ourselves, materialistic products for consumption in a zero sum game of winning or losing, wealth or poverty?  This view, this choice, has profound implications for our concept and experience of worship.

Living only within the confines of mediated worship, or fighting its limitations are both positions of judgment, positions that leave us with the dissatisfied sorting of sacred and profane.  Either way, we decide that something – whether our traditional worship or our disdain of it – is sacred while the other position is profane.  We limit ourselves to external sorting and judgment rather than to holistic seamless engagement of the immanent and transcendent nature of all that is.

When we live life with the eyes of the sacred, we remove the barrier of judgment.  We expand with ease outside the limited mediated experience of organized religion without a need to judge or reject it.  It’s just that religion and worship are no longer compartmentalized experiences packaged and delivered by institutions.  They are not activities like a sport or a class that we choose to take.  They are not the prescribed clothing, food, prayers or practices of a given day of the week.  Religion and worship become, instead, the very fullness of life itself.

Worship in this sense becomes attention and connection.  We become aware of the people on the bus, the driver in the next car, the car and the road themselves.  We hear each sound, see each sight, feel each touch, glorious and mundane.  We engage with appreciation and reverence, without judgment, experiencing no boundary between institutionalized religious experience, if we choose it, and the fullness of life itself.

We hear the prophetic voice in a rock song, the hope and longing of a ballad.  A flower, a fly, a fleeting smile.  All things and all acts, ours and those around us, become part of the song of creation, the perpetual praise of becoming – the joy that we are, in the same moment and for all time, ourselves, the spark of being, at one, integral in the fabric of everything.

From this perspective we are free to engage even what we may feel that we have left behind.  There is no aspect of loss or limitation, only expansive, extravagant and compassionate welcome of every expression and exploration, each tentative test and step forward into the unknown, the unfoldment of the yet to be created.

There is no loss.  There is only more, something whole and complete, worship as the fullness of life and all that is, glorious expectation and engagement of all to come.

I am in Latin America right now.  In Spanish one might affirm, “Así es!”  This is how it is!  Así es!  Así es, 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.

Sacred and Profane

Sacred and profane are simply two ways of interacting with the same phenomena.  We grew up thinking that these were inherent characteristics of things.  Certain words, like “amen” for instance, were sacred.  Certain words, I dare not write them here, were profane.

The sacred and profane cluster and clarify, especially, under things we label as taboo.  Sex and money are the two most obvious taboo clusters in our society.  Typically these clusters exhibit a bipolar frenzy.  We parade them, we avoid them.  We exploit them, especially sex and money, in our marketing fantasies.  We avoid open talk about them at an interpersonal level, throwing a moral wet blanket over our silence.

This bipolar activity simply illustrates our frenetic discomfort, the tug of war of chase and avoidance, grasp and repulsion, fear and desire, loathing and lusting.  We cycle around, we yo-yo back and forth between the poles, always missing the powerful untouchable center of the taboo.

We abandon or abuse power in this bipolarity.  At one pole we are a victim, at another we are the conqueror.  We hoard wealth, we gloat in the spoils of the sexual conquest.  It’s a zero sum game with a loser for every winner.  There is a lot of money to be made, a lot of power and position to be garnered for anyone who can master the art of keeping the yo-yo of the masses going around these things.  The oil barons, the pimps, the hedge fund managers, the priests and imams of false religion sit atop these untouchable centers, taking their fees and building their empires on the wasted energy of the masses flying back and forth between the poles of desire and despair, having and not having, satiation and repulsion.

At the center of all this bipolar cycling stands the metaphorical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Al the center of all this bipolar cycling stands the metaphorical Tree of Life.  It is the same tree.  All that matters is the lens we look through.  Do we view it through the clouded and profane lens of scarcity and hoarding, of good and bad, of fear and violence?  Or do we view it through the clear lens of sanctity, the lens of non-judgment, satisfaction and enough?

All that we desire, everything we want and need hangs freely as fruit on the tree.  It tastes good.  It feels good.  It shelters and sustains us.  We can approach in fear of scarcity.  If we get there first, we can take more than our share and use the excess to harness the fears and desires of others.  We can use that yo-yo to fuel the frenzy that feeds our stash of wealth and power.

Or we can choose, when we reach the tree, simply to take and enjoy together what we need, leaving enough for others, experiencing peace and satisfaction, giving and receiving with grace.

Our choice, friends.  The tree is rooted firmly before us.  As individuals, as societies, do we choose the lens of the sacred or the lens of the profane?  Do we rest in the true power of enough, or do we exhaust ourselves in the bipolar frenzy of fear and grasping?  Food, sex, clothing; shelter, health, the environment; borders, commerce and security – sacred or profane?  Which tree will it be?

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

*From World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, © 1991 by International Religious Foundation.

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

Suchness and Form

Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source, the infinite mystery of the universe, is described in many ways:  word, breath, spirit, formless, suchness, energy, nameless with a thousand names.  We turn to look and do not see.  We listen, but the sound escapes us.  But somewhere in our being, everywhere in and beyond our being we know, we revel, we delight.

This Teacher of mine, this Teacher of mine – he passes judgment on the ten thousand things but he doesn’t think himself severe; his bounty extends to ten thousand generations but he doesn’t think himself benevolent.  He is older than the highest antiquity but he doesn’t think himself long-lived; he covers heaven, bears up the earth, carves and fashions countless forms, but he doesn’t think himself skilled.  It is with him alone I wander.  Taosim.  Chuang Tzu 6*

The sages have sifted and filtered the light for us and with us, spoken pieces of the word, cast metaphor on the formless, seen spirit in the manifest:

Just as light is diffused from a fire which is confined to one spot, so is this whole universe the diffused energy of the supreme Brahman.  And as light shows a difference, greater or less, according to its nearness or distance from the fire, so is there variation in the energy of the impersonal Brahman.

Vishnu is the highest and most immediate of all the energies of Brahman, the embodied Brahman, formed of the whole of Brahman.  On him is the entire universe woven and interwoven: from him is the world, and the world is in him; and he is the whole universe.  Vishnu, the Lord, consisting of what is perishable as well as what is imperishable, sustains everything, both Spirit and Matter, in the form of his ornaments and weapons.  Hinduism.  Vishnu Prana 1.22*

C/S/M/S is the essential energy and spirit.  We are not separate.  We and everything are embodied temporal expression of that spiritual reality.  We fool ourselves into fear when we hide alone in seeming separate ego.  But we hide only from the falsehood of fear.  There is no true hiding from our essential being, the Self that breathed us and is us – the Self that is every rock and tree and is at the same time the no-thing, the mystery we can only sense, only trust, but not fully grasp.

 When appearances and names are put away and all discrimination ceases, that which remains is the true and essential nature of things and, as nothing can be predicated as to the nature of essence, it is called the “Suchness” of Reality.  This universal, undifferentiated, inscrutable Suchness is the only Reality, but it is variously characterized as Truth, Mind-essence, Transcendental Intelligence, Perfection of Wisdom, etc.  This Dharma of the imagelessness of the Essence-nature of Ultimate Reality is the Dharma which has been proclaimed by all the Buddhas, and when all things are understood in full agreement with it, one is in possession of Perfect Knowledge.  Buddhism.  Lankavatara Sutra 83*

We move, we feel, we see, hear, judge and act.  We must never forget who We are as we do these things.  The talent is not to be buried, but to be used to its fullest in the creation of beauty, wonder, compassion, the newness and suchness of each breath.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  Christianity.  John 1:1-4 NRSV

We are the Word, spoke into being by I AM.  Thinking ourselves alone we hide in fear under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Awake, we breathe, we create.  Growing, becoming, we heal.  We are, suchness and form, in the image, under the Tree of Life.

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

*From World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, © 1991 by International Religious Foundation.

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

Science, Religion and the Engagement of Mystery

Let’s be clear.  Humans made religion and not the other way around.  We created our myths.  We were not created by them.  And religion has been, is and will always be no more nor less than our myth making, our dialog with, our effort and yearning to address and connect in a meaningful way with mystical matters of spirit.

Science, on the other hand, and also a discipline of our making, casts ever new light on the physical horizon of mystery.  We learn, with the tool of science, about the material manifestation of something we can never fully name.  And we use what we learn, for better or worse, to fuel our own evolution.

We want to think that our religions have stood forever.  They have not.  They have grown from the seed of our awakening.  They have adjusted and adapted continually, if often reluctantly, to changes in knowledge and culture.  Heresies of only a few centuries ago, like the notion that the earth is a body moving around the sun, are now accepted as simply good science.  And archeological finds, like the complete Gospel of Thomas in the scrolls at Nag Hammadi, give us pause and reason to reflect anew on things we once thought certain, like what Jesus did or did not say.

But our view is too often reactionary, when it should be engaging and embracing, welcoming change while being ever in amazement and awe at the new mystery that unfolds continually before us.

Good science and true religion are never at odds.  They are simply independent disciplines serving completely different purposes.  Science observes and tells us – always provisionally – what and how.  I say provisionally because deeper and more complex discoveries constantly change our view and understanding of things.

Religion explores meaning and gives us – always provisionally – a sense of purpose in the void beyond our physical circumstances.  Again I say provisionally, because the edge of the void, the event horizon between the measured and mystery, is constantly moving.

This change need not be the threat it is so often perceived to be for religion.  We want the event horizon to stay fixed.  And so we focus on battles over the fault line.  We hold tight to ridiculous claims about the number of years since creation or our vision of a Creator that we, more likely than the other way around, made in our own image.

Religion locked in this backward view sets itself up for little more than an equally immature “told ya’ so” from those that claim the latest finding of science as total and ultimate truth, the undoing of dogmatic religion.  But true science is never ultimate and always only provisional.  It is just the next tiny discovery in the puzzle in the face of mystery beyond measure, words or imagination.

When we become stuck in scientism or religionism, we waste time heaving rotten eggs and tomatoes at each other across a false divide of our own imagining.  Respect and wonder are the appropriate positions as we journey relentlessly and together into our home in mystery.  Science pulls back the curtain on amazement at manifestation, things that can be seen and measured.  Let us continually appreciate each new discovery, each speck and marvel revealed on the emerging horizon.

Spiritual experience and exploration grant joy, gratitude, a sense of meaning and blind direction in the engagement of the unmanifest, the mystery within and beyond.

May all who go forward into exploration of the void bring back forever the gifts of knowledge and of the spirit, to be enjoyed in fullness, celebration, appreciation and humility, together, 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.

The Authoritative Word

Authoritative is a word often used in reference to scripture.  It implies a superior truth.  Paul claimed that his vision of Jesus, his gospel, was superior to and superseded the Torah of Moses, which he viewed as a temporary or even flawed fix of the human condition and our relationship to the divine.  Muslims claim that the book – the Koran – received by the prophet Mohammed is a more perfect revelation of the word of Allah.  Latter Day Saints claim that the books revealed to Joseph Smith are a more current gospel.

The natural result of any claim to exclusive authority is division and strife.  All are required to make clear cut, dualistic, judging statements of acceptance or rejection.  The response and action of those who decide in favor of a given authoritative word ranges from benign tolerance, to active proselytization, to violent vengeance and retribution.

Christians in the United States busy themselves with bloodying each other and the society around them with special authoritative words for or against select issues of morality.  Islamic fundamentalists feel righteous zeal and justification, based on their authoritative word, in delivering death to the infidel.  The West responds with “justified” violence.  Latter Day Saints take their authoritative word, two-by-two, from door to door.  Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to get by with just one carrier.

I believe – I know in my heart of hearts – that the Authoritative Word is, indeed, one.  It’s just not this one or that one.  The Authoritative Word is beyond the limitations of language.  It is bigger than any single revelation.  It is greater than any set of rules or code of ethics.  It includes all scriptures.  It is none of them.  It is read on all pages, but seen only in blindness.  It is heard by the ear, but known truly in silence.

In essence, the Authoritative Word is.  It manifests in creation and evolution.  It is glimpsed in beauty, felt in kindness, spoken in healing and known intimately in the depths of the heart.  It does not judge and is not judged.  It is not born and never dies.  Found in book, in song, in story, it is none of and beyond all of those things.

All our scriptures exist within the limits of our bodily manifestation.  They are temporary touches and glimpses of the eternal reality, as are the bodily manifestations inhabited by you and me.

When we claim any manifestation as completely and exclusively authoritative, we stay stuck under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We judge and are judged.  We participate in aggression and defense.  We find ourselves threatened by the enemy or deluded by a false sense of security.

Be still.  Be still and know.  See all, hear all, experience all.  Judge none.  Encounter the Authoritative Word.  Be the timeless, Authoritative Word that you are, through and beyond manifestation, under the Tree of Life.

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

Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

Second Birth: The Upanishads, Jesus and the Journey to Self

Recall that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a metaphor for the first awakening of human awareness: the ability to perceive a discreet self; the ability and propensity to judge phenomena as good or bad, depending on how we think we are affected; the ability to contemplate life, death and the nature of the universe.  It is, in short, the realization of ego.  In its immature form, the ego only perceives separation and vulnerability, and the response is fear along with a desperate grasping for protection at any cost.

The metaphorical Tree of Life represents a maturation of awareness.  It is achievement of a stage of realization that recognizes the interconnectedness and spiritual nature of life and all that is.  We are no longer just isolated selves, dependent solely on our ability to protect our body and our fragile ego.  We achieve a realization that we are part of something larger, something that transcends time, space and physical manifestation.  We are, in fact, living sparks of the very mind of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source, breathed full of the breath of life, the creative thrill of the universe.

The garden trees themselves are, in reality, only one.  They simply represent the manifestation of all that is, the complete creative activity of C/S/M/S.  They are the source and stuff of life, the universe and everything (appreciation and apologies to Douglas Adams).  The two trees are not distinguished by their unique and independent natures.  Rather, they are distinguished only by how we view them.  Their names – Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or Tree of Life – are just indicators of the level of our own spiritual maturity.  Have we grown to a level of trust and comfort with our place in the universe, a place of willingness to give and to receive without fear or grasping?  Do we trust that there is “that” of us that transcends birth and death, space and time?  Or do we see only as much as we can through the blinders of separation and scarcity, good and bad, physical life and death?

The journey from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life is, in reality, the journey from small “s” self to capital “S” Self.  Nowhere is that journey presented with more clarity than in the Upanishads, wisdom teachings attached to the Hindu Vedas that grew out of the merger of the Indo-European speaking Aryan culture and the resident culture of the Indus Valley.  This merger of cultures is believed to have happened about 4,000 years ago, placing the Vedas among, if not distinguishing them definitively as the earliest of what we would call scriptures.

The relevance for those of us in the West, particularly as we move away from a spirituality based on original sin and redemption through blood sacrifice, is tremendous.  Here are writings, among the earliest on spiritual reflection and experience, that discover and declare the difference between these two different levels of spiritual maturity.  There is no presentation or burden of guilt, just recognition that we are born into small “s” self and that our task in life is to grow, to mature to capital “S” Self, our connection with and existence in timeless being.

We are, in truest essence, born again when we make this move between the two trees, the journey from disconnected ego to connected essential being.  We achieve this step, our second birth, through renunciation of attachment to the senses – the mindless drive to chase what we think is pleasure and safety and to run from what we perceive as danger and pain.  Renunciation is not separation or disengagement from these life experiences.  Rather, it is to live them fully without attachment, without being driven and governed by them, recognizing their passing existence as opposed to our eternal being.

From the Isha Upanishad*:

6 Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
7Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

8The Self is everywhere.  Bright is the Self,
Indivisible, untouched by sin, wise,
Immanent and transcendent.  He it is
Who beholds the cosmos together.

From the Katha Upanishad*:

Part I [3] 15The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end, beyond
Time, space, and causality, eternal,
Immutable.  Those who realize the Self
Are forever free from the jaws of death.

Part II [1] 2The immature run after sense pleasures
And fall into the widespread net of death.
But the wise, knowing the Self as deathless,
Seek not the changeless in the world of change.
3That through which one enjoys form, taste, smell, sound,
Touch, and sexual union is the Self.
Can there be anything not known to That
Who is the One in all?  Know One, know all.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3: 3, NRSV).  This is indeed second birth, to renounce the fear and slavery of small “s” self, and to engage our true Self, at peace, at one with all there is.  Experience without fearing.  Enjoy without grasping.  Share without owning.  Choose, practice, to be born to Self under the Tree of Life.

*From The Upanishads, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, © 1987, 2007 by The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.

© 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 World We Dream

In his book, Mending the Past and Healing the Future with Soul Retrieval, medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo describes the shamanic/spiritual practices of the Laika, an indigenous community of the Peruvian Amazon:

The Laika believe that everything is imaginal.  Whatever we perceive is a projection of our inner world, and the world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.

“The world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.”  I believe that to be true, individually and collectively.

So what does that mean?  Does that mean I can imagine great wealth and it will happen to me?  Maybe.  The prophets of positive thinking would say so, and Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates certainly imagined something.  I have actually heard people say that the entire universe is constructed, at root, to conspire for our greater good.

But there is something about this glib thinking that is potentially shallow and backwards.  This thinking tempts us to focus on changing the reflected image – the world we create or manifest – rather than the underlying reality, the condition of our soul.  We act out, we manifest, what we have allowed ourselves to become.  And the work for a better world is done not by sitting around and imagining a better world, but by working on the condition of our souls.

If I focus chiefly on the universe conspiring for my greater good, I will get a world that looks like my soul – a manipulative and selfish world with relationships and outcomes to match.  When I move my focus to outcomes, I lose track of who I am and I become, perhaps unintentionally, but truly, the picture of my neglected soul.

This is true collectively as well as individually.  The United States has begun air strikes in Iraq to counter forcefully the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  Our focus is on outcomes.  But the real world, the world that is, reflects the condition of a collective soul that wanted wealth and oil at any cost.  The condition of our soul manifested a world that supported oppressors like Saddam Hussein – or the Shah, or Somoza or any number of puppet regimes – in the oppression and pillage of people to yield the comfort we thought was our greater good.  And the perpetual wars that result, whether the violence in the Middle East or the violence in Central America beneath the current child refugee crisis, truly mirror and are an accurate manifestation of the condition of our soul.  When our soul, anyone’s soul, is sick with greed, we manifest a world of oppression and violence.

I remember bumper stickers that said “Visualize World Peace,” as though sitting still and picturing a peaceful world in our mind would make it happen.  But that is magical thinking, no better or more effective than the satirical bumper sticker retort, “Visualize Whirled Peas.”

“The world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.”  Mirrors can be useful.  Any one of us can look in the mirror and learn something about reality.  I might learn I am aging and wrinkling.  I might learn that I am contorted with anxiety, or that I am satisfied and radiant.  Certainly I can paste on a different face if I want to imagine something different than what I see.  I have manipulated the outcome of an image.  I have not changed the underlying reality.

There were two metaphorical trees planted at the center of the Garden of Eden:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and, beside it, the Tree of Life.  We ate from the first and were given the gift of conscious awareness.  We could see the mirror image of all that we had manifested.  It was frightening and disconcerting.

Our reaction was to try to manipulate outcomes, to make the picture we saw safe and comforting.  Seeing only ourselves, we resorted to fear and greed.  We created religions in an attempt to get the gods to conspire for us, to cooperate with us, or at least not to work against us.

But there were – and are – those who grew up, who awoke to a different truth.  These prophets, saints and mystics realized that the world was just a reflection of something deeper, of the condition of our true spiritual selves.

Their call in all times has been to turn from the mirror, to embrace and nurture the reality.  The reality is the quality of our soul.  If we cultivate peace and harmony in our spirit, the mirror reflects it.  It’s not that we changed the picture.  It is that we changed our being.  We made the choice to grow up.  We nurtured the condition of our soul.  And the picture around us – the manifested world of relationships – reflects our nurture.

The two metaphorical trees in the garden, as I have noted before, are really only one.  When we focus on the mirror, we see only the image of the tree.  That image is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we bang into the mirror, over and over, trying to get what we want, what we think we need from that picture.  And the picture only gets worse, because it reflects our frustration and unhappiness.

When we turn away from the mirror of our manifested world, and cultivate the quality of our soul, we find that we are living in true reality, under the Tree of Life.  We manifest peace.  We manifest kindness and compassion.  We manifest abundance – the power of enough for all – because we have cultivated those things at the root of our being.

Turn inward.  Cultivate your soul.  Live in reality under the Tree of Life.  You won’t need the mirror to know the outcome.

© 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.

Let it Flow

We all experience pain in our lives.   And it never really quite goes away.  Damage we received from our collisions with others.  Losses.  Memories of actions we unleashed and wish we could retrieve.  The memories can crush us as much or more than the true moment of the event.

We wonder why we harbor these things.  Didn’t we work at forgiveness, truly forgive the other, truly forgive ourselves?  Must we do this work again?  How long, and how many times must we suffer this brokenness?  Why can’t we heal the one we know is hurt?  Will we ever move on?

Sometimes it’s a dream where we rework the encounters, striving again with the feelings and remembered truth.  We fail still once more to change the situation, to win or to make it right.

The landscape of creation aches along the broken faults of our lives.  Sometimes a rift is torn.  Sometimes a range heaves up.  We moan audibly in an exhalation of the memory, a sound and a breath completely irrelevant to the air and the time and place that receive it.  But we know what it is.

We cannot uncreate.  We cannot undo the past, make it disappear, remove its effect from our lives.  But we can, today and always, let it flow, let it move and twist and turn.  Let it become the new thing that it will.

Breathe, moan, let it flow.  Sometimes the hot lava of the volcano, sometimes the blue water of the fountain.  It’s the flow that creates, whether it’s a glaring red-yellow stream that cools to the dark rock of a new mountain, or the water that carves a canyon in its flank on the return ride to the ocean.

Let it flow.  A good river never quits.  Water pushes up from the source.  It picks up streams and sediments on its way.  It spreads out and drops its dirt in the rich delta, only to rest in the sea, where the vast surface yields to the sun and air that return it once again to its beginning.

It’s the flow of life, the non-judging and continual cycle of movement and rest.  When we try to step out of it, to stop it or avoid it instead of riding it, we are out of touch, we lose our connection, we become the dam that only temporarily, despite our struggle, stands in the way.

There is a river that flows beside the Tree of Life.  It cleanses.  It heals.  It keeps moving, never fighting what it is.  Drink the water.  Ride the stream.  Let it flow.

Scripture today from my friend, singer/songrwriter JD Martin:

Hear me, rock of ages
Let me hide myself in thee
Touch me, living waters
Let me drink from your flowing stream

© 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.

Stand Clear of the Closing Dogma

For five years in the 1980’s, I had the wonderful privilege of working for New York University, in the heart of Greenwich Village.  I commuted by train, the first two years by subway and the last three by a combination of commuter railroad and the PATH tubes under the Hudson River.

Unlike the automated trains I took for years at Denver International Airport, these trains had human operators, accelerating, braking and using their own voices to announce station stops and safety messages.  The standard warning on the NY Subway system before departure was, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”  One memorable operator had a deep, slow, ominous and very serious voice, a real attention getter.  “Stand  Clear  of  the  Closing  Doors.”  Never lost a passenger, that one.

And so, in my deepest, most serious and reverential voice, I implore you, “Stand clear of the closing dogma.”  If you must believe any hard and fast set of words, believe the words silent, open and empty.  I mean it.  Take it all and take it all in.  And then throw on that grain of salt.

Every message out there since the beginning of time has contained the whole truth.  It’s just been wrapped up in limited human words and experience.  The stories unfold and circle around, carrying the cloak of their own times and the long since desiccated husks of the messengers who told the tales.

We turn these words and tales into idols when we insist that they are carved in stone, unchanging, hard and fast rules for life and salvation.  “Dogmattit!  Do it this way or go to hell.  Go directly to hell.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200!”

My poor Mennonite Church USA is going through the throws of dogmattit right now, with a herd of selective literalist thumpers holding up their marble idols, their rock hard billy-clubs insisting that, “Dogmattit, the divine billy-club says you can only have sex this way, under these circumstances, with one individual from the opposite sex and only for procreation, to boot.  Dogmattit!”

“Dogmat mutual respect or right relationship.  Dogmat the way you were created and the one you love.  Dogmat you both.  Dogmat all’a’y’all.  Dogmat you straight to hell!  And we love you.  We just can’t abide that you don’t kiss our holy billy-club.”

“We stand firm at the holy doors, dogmat billy-club in hand.  Stay out, you that were made to tickle in the wrong place.  Stay out, the one who would give their life and lifetime to you.  Stay out ‘r I’ll club you and all the other vermin that snuck in here when I wasn’t lookin’!  And don’t forget I love ya.’  And God does, too, dogmattit!  Just can’t abide your low down ways.  And by the way, I’m a pacifist, just like Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong.”

Ah, the painters, poets, songwriters and novelists get it right.  We accept and appreciate the changing styles and times when it comes to art.  If only all the religions of the world could do the same with their scriptures.  Take a step back.  See the line, the beauty, the color.  Soak up the kindness and truth in the whole picture, the whole story.  Let it fill your heart and feed your soul.

Make no mistake.  We need to learn the rules and ropes.  We need grammar and syntax.  We need technique, tools and methods.  It is good to teach our children.  But as we master our trade, our art form, we grow when we see and paint something entirely new – something entirely new that will become old and tested in tireless time.  And we need to give it to the world, the gift of picture and story that will be viewed and heard and felt, so long as its communally acclaimed quality speaks a growing, evolving, universal truth.

Scriptures are stories and pictures, dear friends, stories and pictures to show and tell under the Tree of Life.  The ones who see and hear have hearts of flesh and not of stone, hearts that beat in relationship and compassion.  Hearts that grow and evolve and create, radiating kindness and beauty and welcome.  Dogmattit!  Tell me a story.  Sing me a song. Show me a picture.  And please, put down that billy-club.

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

Creation and the Law of Three

Where did we come from?  Where are we going?  We stand, collectively, in the present.  We piece together, as best we can, stories of the past – myths, legends, archeological and historical evidence.  We reshape and retell the stories to give them meaning and relevance in our contemporary existence.  We create models of the future and test them under controlled conditions.  We make projections based on the extension of measured trends, with the speculative incorporation of newly emerging factors.  Scenarios are published in journals and debated by legislators, corporate leaders and environmentalists.

But change and impermanence seem the only certainties.  How and where do we fit in?  What role do we play?  What, if anything, can we possibly control?

Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, speculates on an interesting model for change, or named differently, the ongoing act of creation.  Much of eastern thought postulates stasis, the balancing of tensions as in yin and yang.  Drawing from the work of various western mystics, and her own knowledge of Christian theology, Bourgeault postulates a dynamic, evolving law of three, where these opposing forces, cyclically, encounter a third catalyzing pole and, together, yield a fourth and previously unmanifested reality.  This, she suggests, is the ongoing trinitarian rather than dualistic nature of things, the essence of ongoing creation.

Bourgeault speaks of this dynamic – the law of three – as being the very nature of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S).  And this trinity has more to do with tensions, process and evolution than it has to do with three distinct persons. 

The basic model works like this:

  • In one corner of the trinity, there is an urge, a pressure – initially the urge to physical manifestation.
  • In another corner of the trinity, we find a countervailing or opposing force – a resistance that creates a discomfort, an itch.
  • In the third corner there is a catalyst that sparks a reaction, something that intervenes or ignites the building tension to yield a newly created fourth, something entirely different than anything in the original trinity.
  • This fourth eventually becomes the new urge, the positive force in a new trinitarian cycle, something that will encounter opposition or resistance, building a tension that becomes available to a new round of catalytic intervention and resultant creation.

This, of course, is an analogy, our chief tool for the understanding of almost anything.  Let’s use an analogy to illustrate it.

I love the Rocky Mountains.  They began as the measureless ache, pressure and breaking caused by the persistent and powerful movement of oceans and continental plates, force and resistance with an urge to become.  The spirit and power of creation resulted in an upward thrust.  The new (fourth) and previously nonexistent reality is seen in the flowers, streams, trees, wildlife, weather systems and human interaction that now distinguish this vast emergence.  And this current reality is now a force in the corner of a new triangle that will struggle with intricate and phenomenal resistance, encountering a creative catalyst that will yield some as yet unimagined and untold beauty of the future.

Bourgeault references a law of seven, as well, postulating that in this full cycle of manifestation – from big bang until the end of the universe and time as we know it – there are seven cycles of major trinitarian creation.  In essence, she describes a cycle of the breath of C/S/M/S from unmanifest, through aeonic stages of maturing creative manifestation, to full return to the unmanifest.  She suggests that the cycle with which we are most familiar, and are about to exit, is the sixth.  It is distinguished by Creator (traditionally Father), Word (traditionally Son) and Spirit (indwelling presence).   The new fourth, the resulting emergence, is a more fully awakened humanity – the Kingdom of Heaven – one prepared to take its place in the corner of a seventh cycle, urging at ever increasing pace toward its own epic climax.

We do indeed live in a time when former structures are crumbling.  Even the individual seems to be disappearing into some mass electronic collective network.  The social changes that have rumbled since the 1960’s, the vision of the Age of Aquarius, the recent end of the age in the Mayan calendar, the relentless breakdown of old religious and social institutions, the exponentially increasing rate of technological and environmental change – all these support that we are leaving an old dynamic and entering something entirely new.

Bourgeault seems confident that this new manifestation is truly the Kingdom of Heaven, and that it will take its place in the corner of a new trinity – Kingdom of Heaven, Creator, Spirit – that will yield Oikonomia, the ultimate divine plan or economy of C/S/M/S.  Andrew Harvey and others enthusiastically name and champion this as a collective “Christ Consciousness.”  I am, admittedly, less sanguine, less optimistic.  I can also envision the clutch of crazies that rushed to the top of a skyscraper in Los Angeles to greet the aliens, only to be fried, in the film Independence Day.

Of course it’s an analogy, and we see only the glimpse that we can see, guessing at what we are making and where we are going.  But that is how it has always been, force and resistance interacting with creative spirit to yield a new reality.

We walk in faith.  I believe we are, collectively, one corner of some new trinity.  I believe that corner has the potential to be the Kingdom of Heaven.  Even more, I believe that whatever it is eventually named, it will be the sum of our collective human choices, and it will be the irrepressible urge toward a new round of trinitarian creation.  Who knows what mountains may rise, or what flowers and streams may appear.  May kindness and compassion – Tree of Life choices — be the character and essence of our collective expression, with trust in the catalyst of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source as together we urge forward in the friction and itch of creation, to be resolved in some new beauty beyond our sight and imagination.

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

Who We Are

Tradition has it that Jesus was born to a virgin, conceived in an immaculate flash of union with the Holy Spirit.  Tell me, how is that different from the way you or I were born?  Creation is creation.  Or perhaps becoming is becoming, if we think of things in an evolutionary frame.

We can explain the mechanics of conception and birth in great depth and detail.  But it seems we will not touch the complete mystery of life and spirit anytime soon.  Even Jesus looked around at the rocks in the field and said that Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source could make children of them.

We are who we are, no more nor less.  We are a particular mix and match of Higg’s Bosons – the very same quarks and electrons that make rocks, stars and all that is – coming together under the right conditions.  Where did the self-awareness step in, and how?  Does it matter?  Despite the insistence of some religions on our fallen nature, we are children of the universe, beings with the gift of self-awareness, being and becoming what we will become.  Let’s relax with that.

Is there a creator God behind all of this, pushing around the Higg’s Bosons, mixing and matching the quarks?  Perhaps.  That is a question of faith, not science.  I believe (the faith piece, the confidence in things not seen, but perceived) that there is, indeed, a vast and beautiful creative source and energy.  I believe that we are somehow emanations and expressions, actual part and parcel of that immaculate energy.  And the essence of that energy is creative expression, not manipulation.  There is no offended judge ready to burn our bodies and spirits for eternity in hell because we didn’t say this, we didn’t do that or we broke somebody’s holy rule.

What are the grounds of my belief?  Simple.  The cells of my body literally rejoice when I contemplate and trust connection with the energetic whole.   They are flowering and at peace in the sunshine and rain of all that is.  And I know, as well, when they despair, hate, fear and retreat.  This happens whenever I drift into belief that I am disconnected and alone, an isolated and completely vulnerable ego-self.

We cannot really separate ourselves from what we are.  We can only imagine that separation in the awakening process of our self-awareness.  And when we imagine that separation, we create our own little imaginary hell in which to live.  It is a hell of worry and fear, expressed in grasping this and fending off that.  It is a hell that is, most of all, scared to death of death, of perceived annihilation.

But my spirit soars, it thrills, at rest in a stream beyond the speed of light, basking in the unseen power and evanescence of being, of becoming.  It is this perceived knowing that is the experience, essence and expression of faith.  It is knowing beyond comprehension, seeing beyond observation, joining in union beyond touch.  It is being and becoming.

We waken to life, conceived in that immaculate flash under what appears at first to be the tree of duality, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We grasp at good, we ward off evil, we run, scared as hell, from death.

But when we stop, when we set down our grasping and defending, we find ourselves at peace, being and becoming under the Tree of Life.  Come rest with me in that streaming stillness beyond the speed of light.  Drink the refreshing tea of the leaves that heal the nations.

There were two special trees, planted as crown jewels in the metaphorical Garden of Eden.  Yet they are one.  It is our faith that makes us whole.

Scripture today from Cat Stevens, “Sitting:”

Oh I’m on my way, I know I am,

Somewhere not so far from here.

All I know is all I feel right now.

There’s a power growing in my hair.

© Jerry Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden.  Quote as useful.  Please reference the source.

Sex and the City of God

My Mennonite denomination (Mennonite Church USA) finally seems near the point of over-determination on issues of human sexuality.  That is to say, the tipping point, however long and tortuous the path, seems imminent on elevating the gospel message of loving relationship over the ancient purity codes around human sexual preference and practices.  Recalling the early church’s angst over circumcision, I find it interesting that two millennia down the road, the hottest topic in the church still revolves around what happens with men’s penises.  At least today vaginas are on the table, as well.  We can be grateful for small steps.

Sexuality is powerful.  Where there is power, there is danger of abuse.  Perhaps a good measure of the power of sexuality is the immense catalog of abuses it has accumulated over the millennia.  The major sections of the book would include slavery, domination, profiteering and the threats of damnation used to perpetuate religious institutions.

Power, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil.  It just is.  And the biblical lens on sexuality reflects this.  We each have power – whether sexual, monetary or otherwise – in various measures.  The primary tasks – and the biblical admonition – in our connection to power are to submit it in relationship and to use it in the service of justice.

For Christians, perhaps the most instructive biblical lessons on sexuality and power are in Matthew’s less than subtle but almost completely ignored inclusion of four women, all notably not Israelite, in his genealogy of Jesus.

The first among them is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah.  Tamar seduced Judah and bore his son in order to shame him into honoring his obligations to care for family, whether Hebrew or other.  When all else failed, she effectively used sexual power in the service of justice.

The second is Rahab, the Canaanite woman who ran a house of prostitution on the walls of Jericho.  It is interesting that Joshua and his band of spies stayed with her and was protected by her on that holiest of land grabs, the retaking of the Promised Land following the Exodus from Egypt.  Rahab apparently married one of the troops and was elevated to the status of a progenitor of the Christ, despite the fact that the ancient world thought women played only the role of incubator in the process of procreation.  Sexual power, here, was turned to relationship.

The third is Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of the Hebrew Naomi.  Ruth, with the direction and support of her mother-in-law, seduced Boaz, effectively claiming a rightful inheritance and protection for these socially vulnerable women.  Ruth was the grandmother of King David.  Sexual power, here, was used to secure protection.

And finally, there is Bathsheba, the Hittite who withstood the murder of her husband and the uncontrolled sexual urges of King David, becoming the mother of Solomon in the royal line of the (biblically) chosen people.  In an act of redemption and justice, Bathsheba is elevated, at least in Matthew’s genealogy, to the position of matriarch in the messianic line.

People point to the story of Sodom to illustrate divine hatred of homosexuality, if not just sexuality in general.  What was hateful in Sodom was the wanton pursuit of sexual satisfaction without regard to the safety and welfare of the other, yet alone any thought of relationship.  The men at Lot’s door would not be satisfied without violent and abusive sex.  And the worst among them was Lot, who was ready to submit his own daughter to rape and murder in order to save his own sorry self.  That city burned itself down with self-centered violence.

The point of these tales is not that God (as the Bible names and perceives Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source) somehow had a negative view of homosexuality (in the case of Sodom) or on sexuality as a force in human relationships.  Rather, it is that sexuality was recognized as powerful.  Like all biblical stories of power, the consistent message is that it is used appropriately for relationship and for justice, and never for violence, greed or anything at the expense of others.

Under the Tree of Life, sexuality is a thing of astounding beauty, magnified in relationship.  It is, in the words of Jackson Browne (“Looking East”), “the power of a sunrise, the power of a prayer released.”

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil we become lost in rules, social norms and false morality that have everything to do with the abuse of power and nothing to do with beauty, relationship or justice.  Our sexuality, when we own and celebrate it in relationship, travels with us as a lovely companion – strong, true, beautiful and useful – on our journey to the Tree of Life, at the center of the metaphorical city of God.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Quote as useful.  Please mention the source.

The Village Green

In his book Grassroots Spirituality (2004, Imprint Academic), Robert Forman documents a huge sociological shift in the last generation away from strict barriers between religions and toward a shared spirituality.  His metaphor (pp. 89, 98-100) is a village green:

It is as if the residents of the various religious houses have wandered into some huge village green to chat with each other.  Then they’ve taken what they’ve learned from each other back to their respective houses, and have taught their followers (in their own respective languages) what they’ve learned.  (Parenthetical insertion mine)

That’s a beautiful image, and I hope it is so.

Religions, like any institution, are nothing more than the collective expression of the individuals who comprise them.  We project the level of our maturity and development onto these institutions and they become magnified by the power of the collective consciousness they embody.  Governments, for instance, can be like the government of Costa Rica, which reflects the collective expression of a people who have decided that an investment in a standing army would compromise investment in things like education and health care.  Whereas the people of North Korea have invested to the extreme, it seems, in paranoia and its protection.  In the United States, we worship wealth so much that we are willing to give it to a very few, just to dream that someday it might be possible for the rest of us.  In each case, collectively, we believe that this is the way things should be.

The unique thing about religions is that they reflect our collective approaches to mystery, to the unknown and to our longing for meaning.  In the presence of mystery, many things are contrasted:

  • Trust and fear
  • Meaning and nihilism
  • Pattern and accident
  • Time and eternity
  • Obligation and freedom

These are scary issues.  Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we address them with the gods we make and the religions we construct as their playpens.  In essence, we create metaphors for an unnamable mystery.  Trouble comes when we begin to believe our metaphors, to make them real and concrete rather than beautiful poetic expressions of our experience with mystery.  And when enough of us agree strongly enough that our metaphor is the real deal, we cannot possibly admit that another may have relevance.  That is, in fact, the true meaning of idolatry.  Our levels of judgment, when we have solidified and latched onto our religious creation – our idol – will vary on a scale from a knowing toleration of the misguided to violent annihilation of the infidel.

Who knows, someday someone may even take this two trees metaphor and build a new religion with which to judge, measure and exclude others.  There will be shrines to the trees and people will bring offerings to avoid damnation, the certain consequence of irreverence.  And non-believers will be hung daily from the branches.

But true reverence in the face of mystery requires nothing more than silent awareness.  There are those in every faith that have gone deep into that silence, who through practice have stripped themselves bare of all the trappings in order to experience whatever touches them.  The deeper they go, the closer they approach oneness with the mystery.

Whatever tent they hale from, these beings move freely about the village green.  They know that the ground that supports us and the air that enlivens us are the same for all, in all places and all times.

We stake out the shelter of our little communities of faith, fine and good for protection and a sense of family.  But the ground and the air are never ours alone and our tent shelters no one if it is less than welcoming to all.  Our true home is the earth and the air, the ground of all being and the breath of life.  We need not fear it.  Nor should we fear the tents that are not ours or their inhabitants.

Let’s enter and engage freely on the village green.  Let’s share together the sustenance of the Tree of Life and the river that waters it.

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

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.