The Most Important Thing

About 25 years ago I read a short book on breath prayer.  I don’t remember who wrote it, what the title was or much detail about it.  I do remember that the author believed that, with empty and open reflection, a person would be given a brief, mantra-like breath prayer.  The idea was a two-part phrase, the first part to be thought or spoken on inhalation and the second part on exhalation.  It would be repeated throughout the day.  And it would be just the right thing to meet the petitioner’s need, likely for a long period of time.

Being a fairly trusting soul, and thinking this sounded like a pretty good thing, I sat quietly and asked to be given my breath prayer.  And sure enough, it showed up:  “Thy will be done.”  Breathe in, “Thy will.”  Breathe out, “be done.”  So the idea was, just like breathing, to say, to breathe this over and over.  About a million times.  Seriously.  Just literally graft this into my autonomic nervous system.

And I have.  For twenty-five years, when I wake, before I go to sleep, riding in airplanes, when I am driving by myself, confronted with challenges or opportunities,  for a few minutes before I enter a meeting, I breathe in, “Thy will,” and breathe out, “be done.”  Incredible things have happened.  Incredible learning and growth have come my way.  Not to mention the numerous times I have been brought rudely to my knees.

I advocate the concept and practice.  Find your breath prayer, whether you are theist, agnostic or atheist.  Whether you think of God/Spirit/Mind/Source as a person, concept or force, I suspect your subconscious will offer up some useful breath mantra.  And when you incorporate it seamlessly into your breathing habit, it will find, strengthen, shape and heal something centrally useful for you over time.

But breath prayer is not what this piece is about.  It’s about choosing the willingness of connection to the Tree of Life over the willfulness of attachment to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  As it happens, I backed into this learning through my breath prayer, and have experienced the goodness of it for many years.  But the more I experience it, the more I think it is the most important thing.

Psychiatrist and spiritual director Gerald May wrote the most amazing book, Will and Spirit, which I have mentioned on this page before, and it is all about choosing willingness over willfulness.  The choice I am describing is the choice of abandoning personal control in favor of submission to something larger and greater.  It is the choice of trust over suspicion, of grace over judgment.  It is the wholeness of Zen over the mechanics of technique, openness to epiphany over grasping for contingencies.  It has nothing to do with abandonment of responsibility, but everything to do with balance and perspective.

The root of all our anxiety and most of our unhealthy behavior is our desire, our drive, personally to control everything about life.  This is a natural response to the sensation of individuation that comes with human awareness.  We feel vulnerable and alone.  We feel solely responsible.  We have enough awareness of our environment that we think we can and should govern it entirely.

But we cannot.  Our perspective and our grasp are necessarily limited.  We are, in essence, missing the “omni” part of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence.  We are created in the image of God.  We are filled with the breath of God, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  But we are never complete in and of ourselves.  And we are willfully deluded, headed for destruction and despair, if we think so.

“Use the force, Luke.”  There is so little to worry about in life when we approach it from a stance of trust and willingness.  Which of our biggest fears or greatest challenges have we changed with anxiety?  What problem have we solved or outcome have we truly influenced in a positive long-term way through willful control?  Healed any relationships lately with a swing of the old ego bat?

I grew up with a fairly positive experience of a personified God.  So even though “God” is now to me beyond the confines of concepts and language, “Thy will be done” works pretty well for me – very well, in fact, as I breathe in and breathe out every day.  But maybe you did not experience God that way, or maybe even the term God is totally off-putting.  No matter.  I think your breath prayer could be “Eat Jell-O,” so long as it takes your mind off yourself and opens you to a place of greater trust and less willfulness.

Let go of willful attachment to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Connect willingly to the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  All rights reserved.

The Right Path

What to do?  What to do?  So many religions and so many right ways to worship.  Catholics pass by the baptismal font on the way to the Eucharist.  The priest is the medium who performs the ritual that transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  I am a Mennonite and we say that you can’t be a follower of Jesus and go to war.  (Hey, I do, truly, believe that!)  Some forms of Buddhism note the requirement of assistance from certain deities on the path to enlightenment.  Depending on how one views it, every religion eventually evolves or devolves into a distinctive identifying set of rituals and requirements.

J. Krishnamurti, in the collection of his teachings titled Freedom From The Known (p. 115, © 1969 by Krishnamurti Foundation, Harper & Row, Publishers), says, “You might as well put a piece of stick you have picked up in the garden on the mantelpiece and give it a flower every day.  In a month you will be worshipping it and not to put a flower in front of it will become a sin.”

Our fear runs so deep that we are easily intimidated by religions and religious practices.  We become frantic in our efforts to do the right things, to find the one right way to salvation.  And instead of happily being a dog, we are a dog madly chasing our tail.  Or we become busy busy with “shoulds” and “should nots” and “rights” and “wrongs”, so much so that we lose awareness of where and who and how we are – ultimately to the point where we are righteously, or even violently anxious and obnoxious about how right our path is and how wrong all the others are.

What a wonderful situation for the worldly powers looking for the raw material of war and domination.  It’s the devil’s dream playground.  Our God, our might, our right.  But powers of domination and governance come and go.  None of them last forever.  None of them bring any real protection.  None of them create ultimate happiness.

And the religions.  Ritual and sacrifice bring no hope or assurance, no matter whose label they are under.  While they might each have a lens on capital T Truth, the religious institutions of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam; none of them will save our hide from death and decay.

God/Mind/Spirit/Source – whatever inadequate label we choose to try to name this beauty and compassion that we know is here inside – God/Mind/Spirit/Source needs no rituals and practices.  God/Mind/Spirit/Source – true religion – is alive and kicking, loving, truthing and connecting, heart to heart, hand to hand, no matter what the institutions are doing around us, no matter what the circumstances of life may bring.

Some would call it end times.  To me, we are at a time of beautiful convergence.  Think of it as a mountain with many paths.  As we get closer to the top, the paths come nearer and nearer to one another.  They are visible, one to the next.  We can see the travelers on the other way and wave to them, or stop for greetings, conversation or a meal.  The paths might even crisscross or merge.  Meanwhile the top of that holy mountain of our hearts is closer as we travel.

There is beauty to behold in each traveler and each robe and costume.  There is music and art, sound, sight and utility in each ritual when it is just a tool to help bring the attention of the mind to the leading of the heart as it opens to the Spirit.  Or there are walls to divide and altars upon which to sacrifice and scales upon which to judge, if we choose to make the rituals gods to worship, weapons to defend or blinders to fool our vision and thinking.

Let us be humble, open and without judgment.  Let us observe the things we carry with us, the rituals and practices that guide us, in the context of all that we see and, most of all, in the light of the Spirit as it shines on all the paths and all the travelers we encounter on the way.

All are called to the mountain.  All are invited to drink from the river.  All are welcome at the Tree of Life, and its leaves are indeed for the healing of all nations.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  All rights reserved.

Whose Will is it Anyway?

So we’ve chosen to let go of ego, small “s” self, and the attachments that drive us relentlessly to the pleasure and away from the pain we experience under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And we’ve embraced the Lord of Life, the capital “S” Self of the Upanishads under the Tree of Life.  Furthermore, we did this as a free will choice.  It seemed like a good thing to do.

But who did it, if not my ego self?  And who are we, or, in fact, are we at all, once we have made that move?  These are not small questions or little fears (ego fears, admittedly).  I remember when I was in high school, early in my years as a follower of Jesus, and I read a lot of the things Paul had to say in the New Testament about “Not I, but Christ.”  It troubled me that I had been given a brain and the ability to think and to write, and then, at least as I understood it, I was being told to throw all that out the window and somehow someone else was going to live in me and witness on street corners and say embarrassing things I didn’t want to say.

And then I went to college and took a philosophy course from our college president, a Harvard trained philosopher and a true follower of Christ, and learned that in the Eastern religions a person really arrived, achieved nirvana or enlightenment, when the self was completely annihilated and merged into this formless unitive mass.  I still see the circle on the chalkboard.  OK, supposedly it was blissful, but if I didn’t exist, how would I know?  I mean, how attractive is that?

Not long after, what with the busyness and confusion of early middle age, I just let it all go pretty much numb.  But the question of if not me, than whom, continued to poke its head up and nag me every now and then.  Am I mine or am I someone else’s?  Or am I even asking the right question?

Hamlet, as it turns out, pretty much nailed it in his simple and eloquent conundrum:  “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”  Or even better, Billy Crystal’s wonderful impersonation of Sylvester Stallone doing Hamlet:  “To be, or what?”   The answer, friends, is in “being,” not in “whoing.”  The answer is in the “am” more than in the “I.”

There is a good bit of speculation that Jesus studied under spiritual masters in India, Egypt and perhaps even with the Druids of the Celtic Isles during the many years of silence.  Someday he might tell us.  Whatever, much of his behavior is consistent with this thought.  When James and John asked to be seated at his right and left hand in glory, he responded that true leaders serve and are not served.  And his final act of teaching for his followers was, as a leader, to set aside the “who” thing and engage the “be” thing of washing their feet.  He consistently rewrote his “I” as “to be.”

In the Hindu classic, The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna adopts a similar stance.  He is not the mighty warrior.  Rather, he is the charioteer – the servant and counselor of the very human Arjuna, who is struggling over the “I” issues of the tasks that have been set before him.  There is no more profound and lucid explication than the Gita, when it comes to detachment from outcomes (the “I”) in favor of full engagement of the satisfying acts of service that represent our true nature (the “be”).  This is rich and joy filled reading.

Gerald May, the late psychiatrist and author who founded the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, in his profound book, Will and Spirit, asserts that we find meaning in life when we abandon “willfulness” (the “I” stance) in favor of “willingness” (the “be” stance).

And if there remains any doubt, in the clearest identifying statement of the Biblical narrative, God declares to Moses (Ex 3:14, NRSV), “I AM WHO I AM . . . . Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  God/Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source is not “who.”  GCSMS “is.”

So whose will is it anyway?  The answer is to detach from the struggle of the question and TO BE, in action, who we ARE, created in the image of God.  We are not “Who (ego).”  We “are (Self).”  Our true nature and satisfaction is to act, to serve, to be accordingly, with every cell and atom of our creation.

Today’s scripture, from the Gospel of John Lennon:

 “Imagine”

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

© Two Trees in the Garden.  All rights reserved.

The Way Between the Trees

It’s a nice idea, the thought of letting go of addiction to pleasure and aversion to pain, the thought of moving away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and moving on to our true gift and home in the Tree of Life.  But how do we accomplish that?

We accomplish this by practicing, practicing and practicing some more letting go of our judgments and reactions to people, things and events around us and replacing these reactions with deep understanding and compassionate service.  History  and the great traditions provide us with vivid and powerful examples, examples worth emulating.

In 3073 BCE, the Hindu author of the Srimad Bhagavatam wrote about Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu:

Whenever truth is forgotten in the world, and wickedness prevails, the Lord of Love becomes flesh to show the way, the truth and the life to humanity.  Such an incarnation is an avatar, an embodiment of God on Earth.

Some three millennia later, Jesus is quoted as saying (John 14: 6-7, NRSV):

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.

These are not competing, but rather mutually affirming statements.  The point of both of these writings, one from over 5,000 years ago and one over 2,000 years ago, is that incarnations have always happened to demonstrate the way forward, the way between the trees, the way to true life.

What is an incarnation, an avatar?  It is someone in the image of God, God in the image of someone.  And if what our Hindu author says is true, you can bet there were not just two.  In fact, when would that be, when “truth is forgotten in the world, and wickedness prevails”?  Or more accurately, when would that not be?

You, my friend, were created in the image of God.  When you choose the path of a good and strong guide, when you practice letting go of ego and attachment, when you practice compassionate service of others, you, too, become the way, the truth and the life.  You are that exemplar of the path.

And don’t get lost in the divinity trap.  Was Krishna divine?  Was Jesus divine?  Yes, yes!  And you were born with that same Buddha nature – created in the image of God.  There is neither pride nor shame.  And worship of them in our traditional sense is foolishness.  True worship is to follow, to practice, to become, to be the way, the truth and the life for the next person, created like you in the image of God, just behind you on the path.

From the Mundaka Upanishad, Part III [1]:

1Like two golden birds perched on the selfsame tree, intimate friends, the ego and the Self dwell in the same body.  The former eats the sweet and sour fruits of the tree of life (read here “knowledge of good and evil”) while the latter looks on in detachment.

2As long as we think we are the ego, we feel attached and fall into sorrow.  But realize that you are the Self, the Lord of life, and you will be freed from sorrow.

3When you realize that you are the Self, supreme source of light, supreme source of love, you transcend the duality of life and enter into the unitive state.

4The Lord of Love shines in the hearts of all.  Seeing him in all creatures, the wise forget themselves in the service of all.  The Lord is their joy, the Lord is their rest; such as they are the lovers of the Lord.

The Upanishads, Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran, 1987, 2007, The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation

© Two Trees in the Garden, all rights reserved.

A Different Free Will Choice

Classical Christianity presents the basic free will choice in life to be acceptance or rejection of the salvific act of the death of Jesus.  With acceptance comes redemption from original sin and admission to the resurrection and life everlasting.  Rejection leaves us on a road to eternal damnation.

But the two tree metaphor of the Garden of Eden offers a different possibility.  Remember that in this view, the first tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, no longer represents the universal fall of humanity, but rather a simple metaphorical descriptor of our natural coming of age.  The bite from the apple symbolizes the essence of our maturation, our discovery and awareness of our individuated self – our ego. 

We become aware that we are in some way separate from and have power over others and our environment.  Initially this awareness feels pretty good.  We can exercise it to strengthen our relative position in life.  Having more, comparatively, than another, we feel safe and secure.  Somewhere deep inside, in fact, we think we might truly, with material enhancement, just continually better our lot in life.  Seems like a good path to follow.

But somehow an additional awareness comes with that bite, the awareness of our mortality – and it scares us all the way to delusion.  In fact in the legend of the Buddha’s life, his father was so afraid of mortality that he tried to protect his child prince from any possible exposure to old age, sickness and decay.  Inevitably, however, accidental exposure finally created the crisis that set Siddhartha on his quest for the answer to suffering, which culminated in his awakening or enlightenment.

We remain inclined, however, to hold to the material road.  We believe that enough wealth and power will conquer not only our discomfort and our fear, but ultimately death itself.  It seems such a silly and obvious illusion, but look at history.  Look at the world around you.  Look at yourself.

In fact the Jesus sacrifice idea just seals the deal.  I can have my cake and eat it, too.  As long as I am marked by my faith in the redemptive Blood of the Lamb, that death thing is taken care of.  So the obvious course is to stay attached to the comfort path for now, and just let Jesus know – you know – you are so grateful he died for you.  Sometimes I imagine 75,000 Christians in a packed stadium.  It’s halftime at the Super Bowl and the ultimate show is Jesus headed for the cross on the fifty yard line while the ecstatic and screaming crowd rises to its feet and starts the perfect wave.

Not even Jesus believed this stuff.  He makes it clear in Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you.”  His call was the same as the Buddha’s, the same as all avatars and true saints in all times and places.  It was the call to grow up and, in essence, to choose the Tree of Life, to let go of attachment to the illusion of separation and the false security of power and wealth.  It was a call to claim the original truth of creation:  You already live forever.  This is just a growing phase.  Engage it and learn.  Meet the distractions. And then know and trust that you are created in the image of God.  You breathe the breath of God.  Your true spirit is one with Love.  Flow gently through your life, with compassion and joy, free from attraction and aversion, free from the illusion of avoidance and the very fear of death.

Whew!  Time for a scripture break!  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, beat poet of the late 50’s and early 60’s:

Christ Climbed Down

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck crèches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
Pennsylvania
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind published 2008 by New Directions

© Two Trees in the Garden

Free Will and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

You know, I think the name is truly apt:  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.   This tree in the garden was not itself good and evil; it was about knowing, becoming aware, feeling, sensing and distinguishing.  And what is the natural response to awareness?  It is, of course, just that – response.  The bite from the proverbial apple was no big deal.  The real event was our response to the flood of awareness that came with that taste:

  • I am a distinct individual.  Oh my God, I have to protect myself from extinction.
  • That feels good.  Oh my God, I want some more.
  • That hurts.  Oh my God, I want to avoid that at all costs.
  • I have no clothes.  Oh my God, how embarrassing.
  • There is only so much of that.  Oh my God, I need to hoard it.
  • I have power.  Oh my God, I have to control someone with it before they control me.
  • I am good.  Oh my God, I can never be good enough.
  • I am bad.  Oh my God, I must be horrible.
  • I am afraid!  Oh my God, I don’t want you to know because I’ll look weak!
  • Oh my God!

Becoming aware of me, the natural response was to think it was all about me.  I am autonomous.  True.  In my embodied state, I have a certain temporal sense of individuation.  Does that mean I am isolated?  Well, I can certainly choose to see it that way.  And therein lies the real issue:  the power to choose, or free will.

Our Creator made us aware.  And our Creator made us capable of response.  So where and how does free will kick in?  The traditional second millennial Christian view would say that we played our card – and make no mistake, the traditional view holds that the woman started it – we played our free will card in a defining way when we took the bite from the apple.  It was all over.  We chose to be fallen, and every baby born since that bite is a fallen human being, born of the sin of Adam and Eve.  And unless they make the free will choice to accept the redemptive blood of Jesus, they remain stuck in that fallen state and, sadly, bound for hell.

But I see it differently.  Free will is our Creator-bestowed power to choose, now and every day, our own response to the knowledge of good and evil that came with our Creator’s gift of human awareness.  Will we respond to all that comes to us in life from a separated, ego-centered perspective, or rather from a Spirit-connected, relationship-oriented place of generous and expansive trust?  On a daily basis, will we choose to be isolated in ego or to be bound together in love?

Fortunately, while the whole Adam and Eve saga was unfolding, the Creator was also talking on the other side of the world, unbeknownst to the authors of the Biblical text, about the concepts of attraction, aversion and attachment.  These concepts, originating in Buddhist writings, presented a different possible free will response to the knowledge of good and evil.

In this context, the knowledge of good and evil was granted, but things went a step further.  Somehow in the enlightenment of the Buddha, there came an awareness that our slavery was not to our inherent fallen nature, but rather to our own choice – to our everyday free will choice – to follow, to become attached to our attraction to desires and our aversion to pain and suffering.  We allowed ourselves to become slaves of our sensations in an effort to please and, we thought, protect our individuated selves, at any cost to ourselves and to those around us.

If you haven’t noticed, East and West begin to come together in this picture.  Ah, beware the heresy of syncretism!  Yes, yes, let’s let the blind ones describe the elephant at all costs.

But back to free will and the problem of attachment to attraction and aversion.  Somehow, like Adam and Eve, we do not see the lie and the separation in this choice of attachment.  Well what to do, what to do?  There is an answer, a free will answer, but it’s different than the one of at least second millennial Christianity.  Check back next week.

© Two Trees in the Garden

Resurrection

In his life story, Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, the Hindu saint who brought Kriya Yoga to the West, recounts his experience with the resurrection appearance of his beloved Master, Sri Yukteswar:

     Sitting on my bed in the Bombay hotel at three o’clock in the afternoon of June 19, 1936 – one week after the vision of Krishna – I was roused from my meditation by a beatific light.  Before my open and astonished eyes, the whole room was transformed into a strange world, the sunlight transmuted into supernal splendor.

Waves of rapture engulfed me as I beheld the flesh and blood form of Sri Yukteswar!

“My son!”  Master spoke tenderly . . . .

“But is it you, Master, the same Lion of God?  Are you wearing a body like the one I buried beneath the cruel Puri Sands?”

     “Yes, my child, I am the same.  This is a flesh and blood body.  Though I see it as ethereal, to your sight it is physical.  From the cosmic atoms I created an entirely new body, exactly like that cosmic-dream physical body which you laid beneath the dream-sands at Puri in your dream-world.  I am in truth resurrected.”

The conversation continues, in great depth and length, covering matters about this world and others.  The truth is, we know from current physics that Sri Yukteswar’s description of the material world is pretty much the way things are.

Many Christians will find this account surprising or disturbing, so much so that they will find a thousand ways to discredit it.  Why should they?  In both Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist is quoted as saying, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  And Jesus himself raises people from the dead in the gospels.

Ever since Anselm, Easter has become such a mess.  Bloody atonement.  We are so horrible that God had to kill God in order to keep God from damning us to hell.  And that is where we get all tripped up in our view of scripture.  Who can really believe that sacrifice for appeasement, payment of a price, was ever the desire of God/Spirit/Mind/Source?  Even the Old Testament prophets consistently cried out that G/S/M/S wanted our hearts, our hearts, not our sacrifices.

I will tell you that the crucifixion on Good Friday (there was nothing good about it, friends) was about murder and the devil’s bargain, not about appeasing God’s disappointment, anger or twisted sense of purity.  And the biggest message of the day, beyond the truth that evil and lies create unspeakable pain and suffering, was the ripping of the curtain to the Holy of Holies – the most powerful symbol of our false and fearful human created separation from our Creator – from top to bottom at the moment of Jesus’s death as a resounding “Enough!”  Enough of death as the end, and of separation of any kind between humanity and our Creator.  It was never intended, it was our invention and the true saints and avatars of all time have called us urgently and persistently back, back to the garden.

The cross, folks, is the painful suffering of our illusory world, symbolized so powerfully by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The resurrection – of Lazarus, of Jesus, of Sri Yukteswar – is the truth and reality of the Tree of Life.  We are made, everlasting, in the image of God.  Rise up and follow.  Rise up and follow.

© Two Trees in the Garden

What is Scripture?

Whether we read or studied it or not, most of us grew up with a pretty clear picture of what was and what was not scripture.  For the majority of boomers in America, scripture was the Holy Bible, next question please.  And no matter what it said, in grand story or minute instruction, it was God’s Word, cut and dried, start to finish, take it or leave it.  If you worked hard enough, or trusted completely enough, you could wring some meaning out of every jot and tittle.

That works pretty well in a very small world, until you realize that for a Muslim, scripture is the Quran, for Latter Day Saints it includes the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, and, of course, the list goes on.  It’s easy to see where this leads.  Holy books, chock full of nuggets of truth and wisdom, are melted down and turned into bombs and swords, objects of division, judgment and violence rather than invitation, healing and peace.  Canon to cannon.  It’s a small sleight of hand.

Another key problem with this traditional understanding of scripture is precisely the canonical aspect.  We are never part of it.  It’s written and decided upon by holier people in holier times.  Somehow we judge ourselves less connected to God/Spirit/Mind/Source than those people in those times and places.  And we cede and seal that authority by Closing The Canon.   (Jesus died. Jesus rose. Constantine reigned. Canon closed. End times are just around the corner. You just repent and wait.)

I don’t buy it.  We are children of God, now, created in that image, as have been all people in all time.  Scripture is the Voice of God, written, as Jeremiah says, on our hearts (Jer 31: 33-34).  It’s not a voice that comes and goes.  It’s a voice that speaks and calls and comforts. It’s a voice that warns of danger and the consequences of ego and greed.  It is capital T Truth, now and evermore.  And it’s here and accessible whenever we choose to tune in.

So I encourage you to do a little creative thinking about what the Word of God is in your life.  Here, to stimulate your imagination, is a quick and very incomplete list of things that come to mind today for me.

Scripture is:

  • The snow on the Colorado Blue Spruce and Ponderosa Pines outside my window this morning
  • The voice of Leonor as we talk about our grandchildren
  • The wisdom of egoless Self in the verses of the Upanishads, passed down for perhaps 5,000 years with authorship attributed to no one in particular
  • The love and comfort of Psalm 23
  • The environmental Truth and wakeup call of hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and the devastation of the High Park fire
  • Aleppo, the slums of Mumbai, the sweat shop in China and the Arab Spring
  • Jackson Browne singing “Don’t You Want to Be There”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOfOh1AtJo4
  • JD Martin’s “One Heart” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9q5ia2jUeqc
  • Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching
  • Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables
  • Our friend Lourdes pulling the perfect shot to make that café cortadito down at The Red Cup

You get the picture.  Ease up.  God is speaking.  Tune in.  Listen for the voice of compassion, egoless Self, relationship and healing.  Listen for the warnings about the pitfalls of the path of greed and defense.  True scripture, the very Voice of God, is all around you, in every moment; a gift to nourish, to comfort, to strengthen and connect you, to connect us.

It is stories about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  It invites us, always, to the Tree of Life.

Two Trees in the Garden.

Fallen or in the Image of God?

I get confused when I hear Christians talk about the human condition.  I hear them tell their teens, “God didn’t make no trash.”  And then I hear them say over and over that they themselves are worthless but for the grace of God.  That does not compute.  The problem goes right back to the two very different creation stories presented in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.  We need to get over it.

Let’s get back to the garden – actually a little before the garden, in the first round of the creation story in Genesis 1, which is obviously a different story than the one written about the garden by a different author in chapter 2.  The culmination of story 1 is God’s thought to “make humankind in our (plural – hmmmm) image, according to our likeness.”  And so, the story continues, God did exactly that, on that sixth day of creation and concluded that, indeed, it was very good.  If God says it was very good, it must have been, must now be, must forever be very very good.  And it’s not that the author modifies the story in chapter 2.  It’s that someone else came along and wrote a different story.  There is truth in both, certainly.   But bottom line, in the culmination of story 1, we are created in God’s image and it is very good.

And now the garden story, the two-treed garden story.  Recall that, in chapter 2, we ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we got scared and we ran.  In essence, we experienced what we call sin.  I don’t like the word, not because I don’t think the condition exists, but because I don’t judge it with the load of guilt and shame that Christendom has piled on for millennia.  It is separation and nothing more.  That’s enough, isn’t it, to be separated from love beyond imagination?  It leads directly to, fear, greed, blame and violence – all the things an isolated ego does to try to care for, criticize or punish its poor vulnerable and lonely self in its terrified vision of a universe of competition and scarcity.  Who needs more suffering than that?  Create the devil and pile judgment on top and it’s no wonder we started killing and burning animals to try to appease the gods!

I assert, however, that the experience of separation was not the unexpected and horrible fall of humankind we have made it out to be.  It was, rather, simply part of the plan, part of the process of being created fully in God’s image.  Metaphorically, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a part of God creating us in God’s image.  We must know both connection and separation, individuation and the whole in order to be complete.

God took a huge risk in granting that awareness.  God risked losing us – or at least having patiently to spend millennia calling us back – in that act.   We got scared.  We separated.  We ran.  We murdered.  We hoarded.  We hid.  We played power games, coerced and enslaved.  We formed co-dependencies and took on addictions.  OK, yes, yes, we sinned!  But have a little compassion, here, on yourself and everyone else.  This was quite a shock, this individuation, this self-awareness, this sudden knowledge of our capacity for good and evil.

And contrary to the way the books of the law and some parts of the New Testament tell it, God didn’t set up a system of blood sacrifice until God could figure out a better way.  The prophets make that clear over and over and over again.  I’ll take Amos 5 over Deuteronomy any day:  “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon . . . . But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The call has always and ever been to continue to grow into that full image of God in which we were – and still are – created; to eat from the first tree and to move on to the second; to know the depth and breadth of our potential for individuation and separation, indeed, to know suffering; and then, with that knowledge in hand, to turn with compassion, to abandon ego and to choose life, to move on to the Tree of Life.  Moses, in his final address, implored the people to “choose life.”

What might that look like, to eat from the Tree of Life, to own our complete nature as beings created in the image of God?  I think, perhaps, the Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, present a clearer picture of that than does traditional Christianity.  The Judeo –Christian tradition became too stuck in the games of blaming and judging.

Buddhism does not see suffering as something created by the fall of humankind (the blame game).  Buddhism sees suffering as, well, suffering.  There is no value judgment.  It is just a basic condition of life.  If we were to try to understand that from a Biblical creation perspective, asking ourselves what God was up to by including suffering in the package, I think we would have to admit that it is hard to know anything without knowing fully its opposite.  God, in full respect for us as beings created in God’s image, honored us with knowledge of the full spectrum of conditions and possibilities.  We threw in the value judgments and got stuck with the blame game of burden and shame attached to our picture of sin.

Buddhism advocates responding to life with compassion rather than judgment, thereby transcending suffering.  This is a practice, not a belief, although I suppose all of our practices are based at least to some extent on the things we believe.

But it is precisely this nonjudgmental and compassionate acceptance and response to all that comes from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – the pain and suffering of life – it is this response that transcends suffering and moves us to the healing home of the Tree of Life.  The Tree of Life, in fact, might even be seen as the very same tree, viewed through the lens of healing and compassion.  Perhaps that is why it is the only tree that remains in the concluding tale in the Book of Revelation, there with its leaves for the healing of the nations.

Whatever the case, compassion and healing are an active choice, a necessary choice on the path of our growing into that complete image of God, our intended and completed form of creation.  They have nothing to do with fear or bloody sacrifice and everything to do with relinquishing ego, isolation, separation, judgment and blame.  Compassion and healing are the choices God sets before us in the transformative path from the knowledge of good and evil to the full knowledge of life.  Choose life.  Life as intended in the image of God.

What is Two Trees in the Garden?

Two Trees in the Garden is a fresh way of looking at scripture and spirituality.  The basic premise is that scripture was made for humanity and not the other way around.  Recall Jesus’s comments on the Sabbath as he casually plucked grain and enjoyed it to the consternation of the uptight religious elite.  Little acts of clarity that eventually got him nailed to a tree.  But still we are afraid.  Well perhaps there is reason, but into the woods!

Let’s start at the very beginning.  Somehow our underlying orientation to Judeo-Christian scripture has been fear.  Ask yourself, for instance, how many special trees there were in the Garden of Eden.  The fast answer for almost all of us is that there was one: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And that devil serpent tempted the Woman and she succumbed and bit that apple.  Yes.  She did.  And who can blame the Man for following and it all unfolds from there.  A male God, with a little male Husband hiding behind His holy robe and not quite as much to blame, but still banished from paradise because the Wife just did what came natural — I mean come on, she took a bite from — Hey, wait a minute.  She took a bite from the fruit of one of TWO trees planted as crown jewels at the center of the garden of paradise.  There wasn’t just one.

But that is where someone chose to turn the story down an ugly path of sin, fear, despair, blood sacrifice and never good enough.  And friends, it is just that — a story.  A story some human wrote about their human experience of the Divine.  And like all stories, it is full of capital T Truth.  But you’ve got to let yourself get drunk with Spirit before you can begin to see it.  So here’s a glass.  Here’s a bottle.  Sit down.  Let’s enjoy some time together.

There were two trees in the Garden of Eden, planted as the crown jewels of creation: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life, side by side at the center of the garden.  Creation was very good, and I don’t believe for a minute that it was anything other than the intention of God/Spirit/Mind/Source/The Universe/The Creator (GSMSUC), metaphorically, that we eat our fill from both.  The problem is, in this story, we ate from just one.  And then we got scared and ran lickety-split out of the garden, full of guilt, fear, shame, ego, separation and the awareness that we were someday going to die.  Yes indeed.  We woke up to our humanity, the complete knowledge of good and evil.  And the author of this book left us stuck and running for cover.  True enough, I guess.  But I think it’s time for another look at the garden.

Softly and tenderly, folks, softly and tenderly, GSMSUC has been calling us in all times and all places, now that we are awake to our full nature, to come on back, to take those few steps over to the Tree of Life.  Eat and be filled.  Eat and be healed.  Eat and be reunited.

It’s there, after all, at the end of the book, where we moved appropriately from a garden to a beautiful city, with the River of Life, bright as crystal, running through its center.  And on either side of the river (Rev 22:2) is planted the Tree of Life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, for every month, and its leaves for the healing of the nations.  Come back, come back.  Eat your fill.