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.

Born in You this Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born in you this day.  Let it be.

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

Adoration

So much of our connection and relationship with others is shaped by our emotions.  We don’t like this person, because they do things that annoy us.  Someone else made us angry.  Another just sweeps us off our feet because they are so incredibly attractive.

These feelings are powerful.  If we try to ignore them, they find ways to keep popping up.  Or sometimes we just give into them and let them shape our responses.  We may vent our anger. We may carry a grudge.  We may pine away with hopeless longing for connection.

Long term intimate relationships can be especially confusing.  We are never another and they are never us.  We never fully understand another, and so we often interpret their actions as somehow directed at us.  That leads us to an emotional response.

And feelings, of course, wax and wane for a huge variety of reasons.  Our partner can become the unwitting object of all these changes.  While they are always the same person, there are days when our feelings for them may be wonderful and other days when we really don’t want to be with them.

We can chase our tail for life, under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, responding to one feeling and another, giving those feelings power over how we act and how we use our energy.  The end of that chase is generally exhaustion, and never satisfaction.

We have an alternative – a Tree of Life alternative.  Somehow I suspect that the Spirit that created us absolutely adores us.  We do not always act adorably.  Yet the choice of our Creator was and is an ongoing act of adoration.  We block it and don’t respond to it for much of our life.  But that is our choice, not the action of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.

While we may say we adore something or someone – you know, the warm fuzzy feeling – adoration, as I am using it, is not a feeling.  It is a practice.  It is an ongoing active choice.

Really.  Sooo – how does that work?  Well, let’s say we start by choosing to adore our long-term committed partner in life.  We acknowledge that our feelings in that relationship will ride the usual roller coaster.  We accept and don’t fight those feelings.  Rather, we choose to own them as our own, not something created by our partner, or for which our partner carries any responsibility.  And we choose not to let those feelings, positive or negative, carry the day with us.  We observe them and we learn what we can from them about ourselves.  And we own that our actions and reactions are ours, by personal choice.

That realization is called being free from attachment.  We are ourselves.  We are not the feelings to which we thought we were attached.

OK, step two.  Once we are free from attachment, we can choose not the feeling, but the practice of adoration.  Suddenly we are free from the blame game and the tail chasing, because we have stepped out of that vicious cycle.  We can stand still and truly see.  We can observe, we can soak in our partner as they truly are – an adored creation of C/S/M/S, just like we are.  And we can choose to adore them.

We can choose not to judge or to criticize.  We can choose to appreciate and to love what we see – all of their unique expressions, all of their hopes and fears, all of their work along their own path, as a creature learning and growing in all that C/S/M/S has for them.  And we can give thanks, and appreciation and adoration.  We can choose, in reality, to see them exactly as we can choose to see ourselves and all of creation around us.

We can accept and be grateful for the gifts they offer, rather than grasping or demanding what we think we need or deserve, or being disappointed that somehow they haven’t figured out what we really want from them.  We can give up “want” altogether, because we know we have what we need, and we are satisfied.

Adoration is not blind.  Rather, it is compassionate, knowing that we have far more to work on for ourselves along the path than we can possibly expect of or get from another.  Adoration reflects back, helping another shine her or his own light, rather than hitting back.

There may be times when safety or wisdom require separation – even permanent breaking off of an intimate relationship.  There is still no need to engage in the blame game.  Self-adoration, self-care, is our first responsibility – and then to love our neighbor.  Becoming stuck in hatred or bitterness is really just another way of giving up adoration of our self – another form of unhealthy attachment to feelings and to what we project about the other.

Practice is the key to success.  We practice the adoration we have received from our Creator.  And we practice letting go of our attachment to emotions and to our dependency on blaming someone else for the way we feel.

There were two special trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life.  Practicing a different way locates us under the one that yields true satisfaction.

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

Willingness vs. Willfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environmentalism and the Two Trees

In some big way, the Earth is the tree in our garden.  Going back to the C.S. Lewis view of the garden of creation in the Narnia books (Two Trees in the Garden, “The Fruit of Our Heart’s Desire”, July 26, 2013), our two trees – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life – are really the same tree.  The difference is in how we approach the tree and our use of the fruit we take away.

The Earth is the giving tree of creation.  It is full of fruit.  We choose, each day of our lives, which tree we will make it.

When we view the Earth from our perspective under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we view it through a lens of scarcity.  Whatever the Earth might provide us, there is never enough.  The natural response is to grab, to grasp, to hoard and to engage in glutinous consumption.  The consequences of that view are apparent.  There is a rapidly increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in the United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth. (A recent president referred, with some chilling sarcasm, to “the haves and the have-mores”, blatantly celebrating the disparity.)  Resources are gathered and consumed without regard to the social or environmental cost.  And, ultimately, this gathering and hoarding is protected with violence and the cost of life.  War after war has been waged in the name of some lofty principle or other that masks the underlying defense of access to natural resources and the associated wealth.

We can swing our environmentalist, social justice and peacenik bats as fast and furiously as we like.  Certainly we must take positions of clarity on this issue.  Ultimately, this is a spiritual problem and needs to be addressed at that level.  We should be neither blind to nor distracted by the possible consequences.

Jesus, Gandhi and King are exemplary here.  Certainly there are others, but these we know in the West, the United States in particular.  In our objection to greed and abuse of power, we should never overlook the obligation and compassion of call to the one lost under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Jesus’s call to Zacchaeus, whose greed and fear were expressed in the abuses available to the tax collector, is a clear and simple picture.  There was some spark for Zacchaeus, at least enough curiosity to cause him to climb the tree so that he could see Jesus.  Jesus called him out.  He confronted him with compassion.  Zacchaeus changed his behavior.

Under the Tree of Life, our response to greed and fear must be the call of compassion, a call that cares for the perpetrator lost in self-centered fear and greed while at the same time fending for, protecting and improving the lot for the victims of the perpetrator.

We should never delude ourselves about the grip of power and wealth.  The human heart lost in that grip will resort to killing and devastation of anything to avoid freedom from and relinquishment of those false protections.  But neither should we be deterred or dismayed.

If we save the world from devastation through violence, we have saved nothing.  We have only lost ourselves to our own isolation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

There are no guarantees of success in the short-term.  We could lose the Earth to the violence and environmental degradation caused by those who are themselves lost in the grip of plunder, convinced that comfort and ease in this particular life will somehow protect them from bodily demise.  And we could easily die, as so many others have, standing in the way and making the compassionate call to view the Earth as our shared Tree of Life, with enough for all, and with a vision that is longer, broader and deeper than our current incarnation in the here and now.

In fact, there are no guarantees of success in the long-term, either.  There is only a choice of faith:

  • faith that the choice to live under the Tree of Life is the ultimate path of spiritual progress
  • faith that sets aside both hatred and fear
  • faith that expresses compassion and stewardship in ways that transcend our necessarily limited physical view and understanding of the world around us

I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist about the future of our planet.  It is a beautiful gift, one that calls for nurture, restoration and compassionate stewardship that seeks the good of all.  We choose what tree it will be – a nourishing Tree of Life or a depleted and exhausted Tree of the Know ledge of Good and Evil.

What I am convinced of, deeply, is the challenge and importance of our choices, personally and collectively.  My spirit rises to the call of the Tree of Life:

  • the call to steward, to stand, to confront and to call with compassion and welcome
  • the call to take the bullet or to be nailed to the tree when a frozen heart is convinced that our death will clear the path for the temporary safety of wealth and power
  • the call to rise up again – and again and again – to rise up again and to live in the home of love under the Tree of Life.

There is no end.  There is nothing to fear.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Take what is useful.  Share it.  Mention where you found it.

Spiritual but not Religious

In the past few years I have heard people describe themselves, and have sometimes described myself, as spiritual but not religious.  The label begs definition.  I guess, on a very simple and literal level, it means having a sense of larger connection to something we might call spirit that envigorates, guides and, in truth, is us, but having checked out of, or never been part of, institutional religious expression of a particular faith.

I have admired that position, at least insofar as it represents a bravery about rejecting or not being actively concerned with blind dogma and positions that separate rather than unite humanity – demands that people say this or that and assurances that if you follow the particular company line, heaven is just around the corner.

But there is, at least for me, something significant lost in that position, as well.  What is lost is the sense of belonging, of being part of a close-knit community of commitment.

Every fall, just after Labor Day, the community of Estes Park hosts the Long’s Peak Scottish Irish Festival.  There are bands and dance competitions, jousting, and real cannon firing bowling balls to try to sink an inflatable plastic dragon in Lake Estes.

And there is a parade.  It features, I think, just about the biggest collection of pipe and drum corps in the nation.  And it features clan after clan marching in alphabetical order, families in their tartans and kilts, marching proudly and happily together behind their particular plaid.  I have to admit there is something that grabs me at the root and brings tears to my eyes as I see them march by – little children, old men and women, their little Scottish terriers all decked out, heading to no war, setting aside their own squabbles and differences for a day of being part of something that reaches way back and commits to going forward, reveling in pure belonging.  I can’t help it.  Tears just run down my face.

I don’t know how long it has been true, but it is true now that something very special has happened in those ranks.  Yes, there are tall lordly Scotsmen – some kind of purebred marked by a particular demeanor and full white moustache – and strong women capable of cutting down forests with only a few strokes of the axe.  But there are also, in the clans, marching with all the same pride, people of Asian or African descent, fully Scottish just because they have married into the clan and everybody says so.

There is nothing inherently bad about religions.  They are just the tools we make them.  And there is value and meaning in belonging – in a commitment to community that says, come hell or high water (or, as we have in Estes this week, the hell of high water), and regardless of our petty differences, we are one.  We will stick together and care for one another and we will take pride in and celebrate our values and commitments.

There is nothing inherently bad in this, so long as there is a significant grain of salt in all our sacraments.  Strength comes in offering and welcoming, in serving and caring.  The stories we tell and the lessons we teach are nothing if they don’t result in true humility and compassion.  We may display our colors with pride, so long as the door is open and says come in if you like.  And so long as we know our door is just one of many on the street.

At the end of the day, we may take off our clothing, grateful that it has protected us and provided a vehicle and context for our service.  But that is all it is, a bit of pretty decoration for a body that is no different, or better or worse than the one inhabited by each of our global and religious – or not – neighbors.

And our religious families are wasted and nothing if they are not chiefly a magnification of service and welcome at the level of community, rather than just the individual.

Spiritual but not religious is, I believe, a wonderful position that sheds, appropriately, the strictures when community has lost its way, more concerned about the clothing than the body, wrapped up in pomp, power and appearances.  It is a sign of prophetic rejection of all that is hollow and false.

But it is also lonely.  Grant us community, a family that makes us part of something broader and stronger, that accomplishes so much more than we are able on our own.  And gift us, Great Spirit, Breath of Life, the vision that whatever our community, we are always part of a larger family still, a family that flourishes on strong humility and confident sharing, founded on a bedrock of compassionate service.

Make us one, be us one, under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  If you like it, share it.  Kindly note the source

A Good Read Under the Tree of Life

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we abuse scripture.  We bind it up in leather, with gilt pages and we worship it.  We thump it on the pulpit, we display it on the brass stand or podium, and when we do open it to read it, we shop for – and find – the bullets, knives and bombs we need to protect our separate selves and our separate religions.  The tree always gives us the fruit for which we ask.

Scripture is the place where the stirrings of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S) meet the mind of humanity for distillation into concepts and words.  Bodies of scripture, combined with years of interpretation, become the normative structure and formative tradition for religions and even whole societies.  That is, perhaps, a useful social function.  But it also, when scripture is adopted as uniquely and exclusively authoritative, becomes the blinders of division that keep us from open interaction and rich cross-fertilization between traditions.  At its worst, it becomes the justification for oppression, violence against individuals, sexes and classes, used most abusively to support terrorism and war.

Types of scripture lend themselves to particular forms of abuse.  Historical narrative – the bulk of the Bible being the prime example – can, for instance, lead us to believe that the struggles and understandings of one culture are more than that.  We allow them to become the defining history of C/S/M/S to the exclusion of all others.  We miss the richness of interaction and learning when we idolize the characters and stories rather than seeing them as a useful record of human experience, much like our own.  When we close the canon, we in essence deny and shut down our own direct and vital connection to C/S/M/S.

Revealed scripture – the Koran, the Book of Mormon and more recently, A Course in Miracles – lends itself most easily to manipulation.  Followers may be tempted to grant it an air of particular exclusivity.  Again, the learning of the content is ignored in the sacralization of the whole.  We may find ourselves using it to define in-groups and out-groups, or to idolize the founder who received this intense spiritual download.

Myth – like we find in the Bhagavad Gita, the biblical creation narrative or the many stories of the Buddha – is sometimes written off as not being real.  We think, “How can something that is not real be as authoritative as something that is real?”  Or equally as risky, we make it authoritative, clinging to and slinging around a literal interpretation of a good teaching story.

I personally find most easily accessible the experiential writings – the Psalms, the Upanishads, the struggles of the prophets.  Somehow it is easier to place myself side-by-side with another human who relates their experience of wrestling with or finding unity on their spiritual path.  But the same risks apply.  I might be tempted to grant sacred status to the experience of another while denying the reality of my own interaction and relationship with C/S/M/S.  Or I might ignore the truth that is there because I grant higher status to another source.

We get all messed up with judgment under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good Evil.  We make this sacred and that secular.  We assign qualities and attributes to make things more or less than what they are.  And we do the same to ourselves.

In general, we have adopted a low view of ourselves in relation to all that we choose to label sacred.  We insist that we are stuck in our separation from C/S/M/S and that “believing in” this set of writings or the tenets of that religion will save us from our assumed natural state of doom.

I believe scripture.  I don’t believe in it.  What am I saying when I say that?  Under the Tree of Life, everything – absolutely everything – is available to us for learning and for growth.  The written experience of all cultures and interactors with C/S/M/S is useful.  We have tools to use, not objects to worship.

We don’t need to grant authority to one book or another.  C/S/M/S is our author, and we are the breath of that creation.  We have the same dynamic relationship as the prophets and writers of any past.  And we share the same temptations to isolation and to ego.

We have the opportunity to rest and to revel in the word, in all the words that we encounter in each day of our life.  They are the expression of our human discovery of connection and unity with C/S/M/S.

When we sacralize and canonize scripture, we profane our own lives.  The fruit is ours, to pick, to eat and to live.  It was never intended to be worshipped or to be thrown as a weapon at someone else.

Here we are, under the Tree of Life.  Let’s settle down with a good book.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Let folks know where you found it.

Heading for the Information Wars

I get “push” messages on my iPhone – CNN and The New York Times duking it out in the information wars to see who can be the first with the latest to ring that little bell in my pocket. Sometimes it’s just AT&T about my data usage or the Estes Park App with the latest dinner deal. The information wars.

But this week it is chemical weapons in Syria and the build-up to whether the President of the United States will declare war on yet another country in the Middle East. Holy holy Jesus. Allah, Allah, the compassionate, the merciful. How did we get here? And where will we go next?

Somehow we have to kick it up another notch. We are all, every adult on the face of the planet, responsible for every action of every government. And death for so many innocents, by our collective hands, is the consequence of our lack of imagination and our inaction.

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, greed and power are always poised to dash in for the kill in any moment of weakness – the greed and power of individuals, the greed and power of political factions, the greed and power of religions, the greed and power of nations. It is all the same, collectively or individually. It is our human choice.

We are President Assad. We are the religious factions looking to force their will and control into any chink in the wall of power. We are the soldier we train and equip and send in to the next bloody and endless conquest. And we are President Obama, doing what? None of us, when it comes to the festering pain of our world, seem capable in the final instance of thinking or acting effectively outside the sandbox of violence. The biggest gun may kill the most people, but it never ever wins the heart. Our heart, folks. Everyone’s heart.

And no amount of individual meditation or spiritual practice, uncoupled with creative action, will ever ever tip the scales. Jesus tipped the scales. Gandhi tipped the scales. Martin Luther King, Jr. tipped the scales. You and I can, too, with deep, deep spirituality hand-in-hand and at-one with crystal clear intentional action.

But what kind of action? If it is not action taken under the Tree of Life, it is doomed only for the cycle of violence and death. If it is not action that lifts up every voice, calms every fear, touches every heart – bar none – it is the action of judgment that puts us back on the merry-go-round of death and despair. If it is not action taken with the strength of full vulnerability and the absolute absence of fear, it will be ineffective.

What are the ideas, the dreams of your heart, that you are afraid are just too small, too irrelevant, too naïve to possibly be effective? What is the rock of your love, slung tight in the cords and pocket pouch of your heart, which might just slay the Philistine of our collective fear – the fear that numbs us to inaction?

Is it maybe a Peace Force? Damn our halls of fear and power! (Make no mistake, those halls are us. We have no fingers to point.) Is it ten thousand people willing, at a moment’s notice, to find their way from many countries, to walk together across any border in the face of any fire?

I will tell you that such a force could sing a song, a song that breaks through the fear that underlies the manic greed of President Assad. It could sing again the true song of Allah, the one who calls us to mercy, compassion, hospitality, the giving of alms and never to be the judge, jury and hangman of anyone – never never ever that. And it could sing a song that tells us we no longer need to carry around the supersized arrogant balloon image of ourselves, fabricated of the wealth and complacency that lull us into the belief that we will never die.

Can you share this a thousand times, and can we do something together, now, across the globe that celebrates the Tree of Life in the vacuous and lying face of death? What will it be?

How will we stand up together and sing that song under the Tree of Life?

Scripture today from Jackson Browne, “Information Wars” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoCfII2p8BA – 

© Two Trees in the Garden. Share it. Speak it.