O Holy Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born in You this Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born in you this day.  Let it be.

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

Willingness vs. Willfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day of Non-Judgment

Check yourself when you wake up in the morning.  What’s that first feeling inside?  Is it angst about the things you have to do?  It might be worry about meeting with certain people or concern about the pile of unfinished tasks that lies ahead.  Or maybe it is relief that this is a day off, or excitement about an especially anticipated event – a birthday or the beginning of a long awaited journey.

Whatever the feeling, it is almost certainly one of prejudice – pre-judgment.  We are pretty sure that things will be this way or that way.  And we have pretty much decided that this way is good or that way is bad.

I am not an advocate of positive thinking, of trying to manipulate actions and outcomes by painting them bright yellow and giving them a spin to the left or to the right.  Positive thinking is only what it is – a veneer we try to paste on our muddy core of judgment.

Nor am I an advocate of denial of feelings.  Feelings are simply the natural reactions to reality as it is perceived and experienced by small “m” me, the me I discovered when I awoke to my surroundings under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The very name of the tree implies exactly what it is – the tree of judgment.

Waking up under that tree, we believe that our life task is to sort our pile of baby blocks just as quickly and effectively as we can.  This block is good . . . It goes in this pile.  This block is bad . . . It goes in that pile over there and I hope I can figure out a way to trash it so it never comes back.  And, oh my goodness, worst of all, I can’t decide about this one.  What will it become?  How do I know?  What should I do with it?  What will it do to me?

I think I will bury the feelings, maybe over here under positive thinking, so I don’t have to feel this way anymore.  Shit!  That didn’t work either!  And now I am late for my meeting!

Chill, baby “m”.  Let “Me” (big “S” Self) hold you and tell you that we are here together.  And we are not, as you believe, under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We are under the Tree of Life.

We are not our feelings.  We just experience them.  And our true response comes from the source of everything we need – the fruit of the Tree of Life and the living water of the river by which it is planted – the gifts of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source – our essence, breath and true being.

The essence of that water is love.  It nourishes the sustaining fruits of the tree, which are peace, true joy, patience and compassion.  Whether baby “we” know it or not, that is what we truly seek.  And when we open the eyes of our Spirit, on any given morning, we know that we have exactly what we need.  And we can offer it to our small “s” selves.  We can live it in all of our actions, in the touch of all whom we encounter.

Let’s hold that little fearful self for a moment to calm its terror about the day.  Let’s sit with it in joy and help it to let go of the angst that the things we have judged to be good might not work out.  We can tell it that all is well, that we can choose to be and to act, in each moment of each day, without judgment.  We can choose to be and to act as our true Self, the one that is fed and cared for – by and one with C/S/M/S – under the Tree of Life.

The practice of stillness, at one with the action of willingness, creates the doorway to non-judgment.  It is the practice of being the center of the spinning wheel – completely at rest and fully in motion.

Our focus and activity, in each moment and without judgment, is to drink the living water, which makes it possible for us to be the very fruit of the Tree of Life.  We offer this nourishing fruit, we offer Ourselves, in each moment and in each action.  We offer it first to the little one, the little self, crying in our arms.  We offer it to redeem and to transform the false vision of all who find themselves anxious and unhappy under the tree of judgment, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

A peach, for you and for me, together, under the Tree of Life.

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

Deep Wounds, Pure Hearts

About ten years ago I heard a bright young praise band at a church singing a love song imploring Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S) to “Break me, Lord.” I am sixty-one. I, and likely you, have been broken. At the time, I was pretty much shattered – not by the music, but by the events of my life. I actually felt anger as I listened to the song, and after the service I felt compelled, firmly, to address the unsuspecting singer. I looked the poor girl straight in the eye and said, “Don’t you ever ask God to break you. You will, indeed, be broken, whether you ask for it or not. And when that happens, you just pray your heart out that you live through it.”

Who knows, she had probably already been broken. She certainly did not deserve my hurt projection. I hope that she has forgiven me and, perhaps, that she even found, sometime or other, something useful in the experience.

We speak of a broken heart. But somehow I don’t think it is our hearts, really, that get broken. Our hearts are only found. And generally that takes some heavy duty cracking of shells and some serious excavation.

We get what we seek from our tree in the garden. Stuck in our perception of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we get a calcified hardness. Wounded as children and watching so much of life and relationship in the world around us, we paint ourselves with layer after layer of lies. Year after year, layer after layer, we build up our defense.

Mostly we try to create an image, a projection of something. Like Alice, we may make our images bigger or smaller. We may give the appearance of hardness, of knowing, of being aloof. We may project power, weakness or defense. We may paint ourselves servile or happy or the color of pity. We bake our colors on with fear, anger or greed.

And after a while, we actually begin to believe in what we have created – to believe, in fact, that we are what we have created. Our belief becomes the motor and wheels that move our bigger than life image around under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We meet and confront other images. We create alliances and do battle. We bully and jockey for position, seeking protection through both defense and offense, wheeling around in our armor, busy being the thing we have made of ourselves.

Sometime, some place, our illusion is shattered. The bigger we become, of course, the harder we fall. Hitler, Qaddafi, the various empires that have come and gone, Elvis – any one of us, or any communal collection of us, can only push this thing so far.

Let’s bring it home. Whether it is in a violent, surprising or dull demise, whatever it is we have created comes to its end, at some point, under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We die, and while we may have done some damage, the illusion we have created is gone. The shells fall away and turn to dust.

Our shell is shattered in the relational, institutional and political pile ups we engineer on the autobahn we have built around the base of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If we are fortunate enough to walk away from the wreckage with breath and years ahead of us, we have a choice. It’s the same choice, of course, we had before we painted on the layers. It is the choice between willingness and willfulness, the choice between experiencing the giving tree in our garden as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or the Tree of Life.

Our hearts are not broken. It is only our shells that shatter. Our hearts are pure and supple and everlasting. Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa all knew this. To the extent that they were able to set aside ego and fear, they expressed their true selves, their pure hearts. They chose the fruit of the Tree of Life.

None can avoid the end, or protect themselves from the hazards of mingling with all in this life. The little hard-shelled knights with their wheels and motors of fear and greed shot Gandhi and King to get them off the road. Jesus got nailed to a tree. Mother Teresa, well, I think she pretty much died every day she went to work.

But when we are open, when we are open and willing, we stop painting on the layers, and the layers get stripped away, and away, and away. They crinkle, break and roll off. They peel and are rinsed until all that is left is our heart, the one we were given from the start. All that is left is the undefended. All that is left is kindness, regard and compassion. All that is left is true creativity, a creativity that gives and receives, rather than forces and grasps.

All that is left is what always is, the heart and breath of C/S/M/S that we truly are, under the Tree of Life.

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

Redemption

Redemption is the follow-on act to forgiveness in the transformative process that moves us from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life.   It is the action that makes our human experience useful for a life of spiritual growth and compassionate service.

Recall, again, that we are journeying from attachment and revulsion, to detachment from the controlling power of both our desires and also the burdens and pains of our human experience.  Detachment, in this context, is not disengagement from life.  Rather, it is a choice about control.  We detach by deciding that neither our desires nor our fears will have authority over who and how we are.  That authority comes from a different place and will be the topic for another week.

For the person engaged fully in this journey between the trees, forgiveness – relinquishing control – and redemption – accepting back as useful – are the paired constant tasks of life.  They are no more nor less than breathing in and breathing out.

Remember our experiential list from last week:

  • Desires that we chase, never to complete satisfaction
  • Fears and discomforts that we avoid
  • Wrongs that we inflict on others
  • Wounds and injustices that we receive

Forgiveness is the act of letting go of these things, of stepping off the merry-go-round, of no longer chasing our tail in our mad dash around the trunk of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Redemption is when all these things we have chased or run from, and now release, come back to us as useful tools for life.  Notice that I say tools.  We do not have to use them.  We do not have to go back to them.  Some we may choose never to touch again in any way.  Some traumas are too deep and the healing too long and painful to be picked up and put into active use as personal tools for the healing of others.  And I would never imply some kind of cosmic purpose dictated by the learnings from a horrible accident, for instance.

But at the very least, redemption is an action of sufficient personal healing to make it possible to move forward in life.  Perhaps, in fact, it is that very act of moving forward once we have been able to forgive and relinquish:

  • When I have let go of my attachment to a desire, I may choose to experience that pleasure when it is available if I know that it will not harm me or another, no longer controlled by my attachment to it. Or I may know that the possibility of reattachment holds too much risk for me.  In that case, I might choose to live my life without touching that experience again, while neither despising nor praising it.  I have experienced forgiveness.  I move on through redemption.
  • When we have let go of a fear we have long carried, we may simply move forward without it.  Or perhaps we will be comfortable enough with what we have learned that we can, in turn, help others on the path to name and to release similar fears.  Redemption is the move forward.  Redemption is also the new tool we have in service of others if we choose to use it.
  • When we have been able to give and to receive forgiveness for things we have done or for wounds we have received, redemption makes it possible for us to remind ourselves, with humility, when we might become critical or judgmental of others.  Or it may help us to empathize, to hear and to participate in the healing of another who has experienced a wound similar to our own.  In either case, it clears the path for us to move more freely and openly toward the Tree of Life, where all people experience and share healing.

Redemption touches and heals memory.  It does not take memory away, but it can make memory our teacher.  Redemption is our constant companion, if we are listening for it on the path, conversing with us, drawing wisdom and understanding from our experience.  If we allow it, redemption opens the ear of our hearts so that we can hear others with compassion.  It is the gift we become for each other on our journey to the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  All rights reserved.