Your Membership Card for the Spiritual Gymnasium

            Speaking at the Lobero Theater fifteen years ago was the great scholar of world religion, Huston Smith. Almost 90 years old, he had difficulty walking on stage. 

Once he reached the lectern and stabilized himself, he looked out at the audience, smiled, and said, “I’m going to make five statements tonight that I think you will disagree with.”  People shifted a bit in their seats. 

There’s no such thing as progress” was one of them. 

            He acknowledged that, of course, there have been significant improvements in our lives over the centuries.  Plumbing, for instance. Or scientific advances in many fields, including those that have improved health care, eliminated many deadly diseases, and reduced mortality rates.  Not many of us would argue with that.

            There’s been some progress in human rights, particularly regarding race and the status of women.

            But with all our material advances, have we resolved the problems that create human suffering?

            He finished by saying:

            “If you go through life feeling you must solve the problems facing humanity before you die, you are going to come to the end frustrated and discouraged.  But if instead you see life as a spiritual gymnasium – a place designed to learn timeless truths – you will find it’s perfectly equipped.”

In my twenties I realized how deeply embedded the illusion of progress is in our society – that every generation will make things “better.”   Clearly there’s been great material advances.  But would we say there has been “progress” in the arts? Has anyone “improved” on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis, the Beatles, Van Gogh, Aretha, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Marley?  New artists come along and delight us with their creativity, but that’s not “progress,” that’s just new expressions.  There is a timelessness to great art that is very different from a new washing machine model or a television with higher resolution.

            The same can be said about great spiritual teachings.  New insights and interpretations emerge, but core teachings endure. The importance of awe, wonder and gratitude.  The call to love and serve your neighbor and guard the inherent dignity of others.  To participate in a caring community. To treat the earth as a sacred gift.  These values are ageless, and life offers us endless opportunities to practice them.

I find this helpful to remember when events challenge my assumptions of how we should be able to “fix” things.

            When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many of us thought America might be entering a “post-racial” America.  We were wrong.

            Until the 2020 election, we took it for granted that a president who had clearly lost an election would never call it a “big lie” and encourage a violent attack on the Capitol. We were mistaken.

            Europe has  not seen large-scale armed conflict in 77 years and it seemed we were beyond such events. But Russia attacked Ukraine in February and millions of people have become refugees.

            Ten years ago, after the Sandy Hook shootings, many Americans were determined to do whatever it would take to prevent further tragedies.  Now we have this unfathomable event in Texas just days after the shootings in Buffalo.

            Human behavior, it seems, is not as easy to upgrade as a cell phone.

            But do we give up and disengage?  Absolutely not.

            First, we realize not everything that comes to us can be permanently solved, particularly when it involves human behavior and motivation.  But everything can be addressed and engaged with a desire to make a difference and sometimes advances are made.  That’s how social progress happen.s And it’s always a chance for a work-out in the spiritual gym. 

            One year I worked in inner city Philadelphia with an African American pastor who had grown up in the neighborhood. I once asked her how she kept going.  “We just keep on keeping on,” she said.

            Maybe it’s like practicing medicine.  You can be a faithful physician or nurse without believing every disease will be eliminated in your lifetime.  You just keep bringing your best efforts to every patient while hoping for new advances and better treatments.

At La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, we regularly welcomed people who were striving to make the world a better place. They often arrived discouraged, depleted, and burnt out.  They unplugged and spent a few days resting and reflecting amid the 26-acre natural sanctuary. They’d leave renewed. Father Richard Rohr describes the dynamic:

One of the reasons I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation was to give activists some grounding in spirituality so they could continue working for social change, but from a stance much different than vengeance, ideology, or willpower pressing against willpower. Most activists I knew loved Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on nonviolence. But it became clear to me that many of them had only an intellectual appreciation rather than a participation in the much deeper mystery. The ego was still in charge, and I often saw people creating victims of others who were not like them. It was still a power game, not the science of love as Jesus taught it.

            When we begin by connecting with our inner experience of communion rather than separation, our actions can become pure, clear, and firm. This kind of action, rooted in one’s True Self, comes from a deeper knowing of what is real, good, true, and beautiful, beyond labels and dualistic judgments of right or wrong. From this place, our energy is positive and has the most potential to create change for the good.[i]

Welcome to the spiritual gymnasium.  There’s no enrollment payment or monthly fees, and it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week. 

“Where do I get my membership card?” you might ask.

You’ve already got it – it was given to you at birth.

Photo: Huston Smith and me at Esalen, October 2010.  He was born May 31, 1919, in China and died in Berkeley in 2016 at age 97.  He continues to be an abiding inspiration in my life.

[i] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, “The Root of Violence,” May 1, 2022: – search/  Thank you to my long-time friend and La Casa colleague Juliet Spohn-Twomey for calling attention to this post.

What?? No WI-FI??

                      In my first college class, “Introduction to Psychology,” I was introduced to a popular concept of that era, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”:

                      The idea is simple. For human beings to become “self-actualized,” we first need to satisfy our basic needs. Each level going “up” assumes you’ve fulfilled the need that precedes it.  This can help explain why, for instance, it’s difficult to manage life if we’re experiencing hunger, trauma, or deprivation. It has a certain logic to it: what factors need to be in place for you to become your “best self”?[i]

                      Several years ago, I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker that suggested Maslow’s hierarchy needs to be updated. I couldn’t find the actual cartoon this week, but found a graphic that displays the cartoonist’s point[ii]:

                      What’s it like these days if your power is out?  Or your internet is down? Or your cellphone dies?

                      A few years ago, we were staying at a modest, funky hotel on Highway 1 south of Big Sur.  It was in a remote area where cell service was either spotty or nonexistent.  If you were a registered guest, you were given the WIFI password. But they had a policy of not giving the password to anyone who was just passing by because their small parking lot would become full of people stopping only to use their limited system.  I remember an anxious European couple coming into the tiny reception office and being told they would not be given the password since they were not registered guests.  They were aghast.  How does one travel without WIFI or cell service?

                      About the same time, I made a trip to New York to see some baseball games, music concerts and art exhibits. I was walking down a busy street in Manhattan when, out of habit, I checked to be sure my wallet was secure.  It was. But then it hit me — what would I do if I lost my iPhone? That was how I was communicating with my Airbnb hosts, hailing Uber rides, showing my tickets at events, finding my way through the city, checking on my flight details, and keeping in touch with my wife.  

                      Twenty years ago, I had a sabbatical to study how digital technology was beginning to reshape our lives.  My research included interviewing people in Silicon Valley and India and surveying a broad range of experts. I became acutely aware of how our lives and expectations were rapidly changing, often imperceptibly.[iii]

                      The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

When the first films were first made and shown, people could not believe images of real people could move across a flat surface.  Then came radio – voices traveling invisibly through the air for many miles – which seemed like another miracle. Black and white TV followed – now people speaking in real time could be seen in the privacy of our homes. Something better was always around the corner.  Color TV and The Wonderful World of Disney! Then VCRs — you can record The Wizard of Oz and watch it anytime you want! Then DVDs — you don’t have to rewind the movie when you’re done! Then unlimited channels with streaming content on the internet — including YouTube with 2 billion users, where you can watch some guy in his kitchen in Tennessee showing you how to unclog a drain in four minutes!  Each new stage truly seems like “magic.”

Then a few years later the miraculous device — the TV, the monitor, the laptop, the smartphone, the modem, or the router — is lying on a card table at a garage sale with a $5 price tag; when it doesn’t sell, it’s dropped off at an “E-waste” site.

                      In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari offers an overview of human history from the beginning of time to the present. He points that each time there is an “advance,” there is also some kind of loss. For instance, when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers they were highly attuned to their environment and lived entirely off what nature provided.  When they settled down to become farmers, they were able to create greater quantities of food but soon lost the subtle and detailed environmental knowledge that had taken their ancestors many generations to acquire.  When people moved from farms to cities, they lost the connection to the earth even more and, for many, the practical know-how of how to grow food, as well as create and fix things on their own.  We’ve now moved into the digital age and gained a whole new range of capabilities — but at what cost?  Are we more “self-actualized” or any wiser?

                      Cell phones, digital devices, the internet and WIFI have, in some ways, become as essential to modern life as food, water, warmth and rest. I appreciate all their beneficial uses.  But I’m concerned about how dependent we’ve become.

Featured image: Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, 1427

[i] There have been critiques of this concept, noting it’s very Western, male, and individualistic in its assumptions and completely ignores any spiritual dimensions.  But we’ll save that discussion for another day.


[iii] I published articles based on my research, including “Soul-Keeping in a Digital Age: The Role of Spiritual Practices and Traditions in a High-Tech World,’ which I presented at the “UNESCO Conference on Religious Pluralism” in Seattle in January 2005.  The paper is available at

Taken Your “Life-House” Out For A Walk Lately?

         Taken your life-house out for a walk lately?

         Hard to resist if it’s a nice spring day with a bright heaven-candle in the sky.

         Who knows? You might come upon a fresh masterpiece by a weaver-walker.

         Life-house, heaven-candle and weaver-walker are examples of “kenning,” a practice in OId English in which a “figurative phrase or compound noun stands in for a familiar word.”[i] Such words were created by our linguistic ancestors between 500 and 1200 AD. Life-house is a word for “body,” heaven-candle for “sun,” and weaver-walker for a “spider”.

         I think these words are delightful.

         “Body” is a boring word — one definition is simply “the physical aspect of a person.”[ii]  It doesn’t suggest what this “aspect” is really for.  But life-house tells me so much more. This is the “house” I received when I was born and where “I” have resided all these years.  It’s got some deferred maintenance issues, to be sure, and the older we get there are longer lists of things that need to cleaned, replaced, spruced up, covered up, and repainted, not to mention the possibility of discovering leaks as the pipes wear out. But there’s no down payment or mortgage to pay, no crazy real estate market to contend with – it’s a gift we’ve each been given.  Our body is where we live – our one and only life-house.

         “Sun” is defined by NASA as a “a hot ball of glowing gases at the heart of our solar system.”[iii]  Possible digestive and political jokes aside, that’s obviously a scientifically accurate way to put it.  But how much better a word is heaven-candle?  That glowing orb that illuminates the day is like a generous candle that fills the sky with welcome light every day, without which we would bump into all kinds of things.  Our heaven-candle never drips wax on the carpet and is expected to last for another two billion years without being replaced.

         “Spider”: “An eight-legged predatory arachnid with an unsegmented body consisting of a fused head and thorax and a rounded abdomen.”[iv]  Yuck.  “Unsegmented” sounds like somebody needs to make an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon; “fused head and thorax” sounds like they’ve already had at least one such procedure.  As to “rounded abdomen” – not sure what’s polite to say there. But as a description, it sounds depressing.  How much better is weaver-walker?  Doesn’t this word capture the miracle that this creature actually weaves while it walks?  (In spite of all its surgeries?) I’ve known some great knitters in my time, but not one that can do that while strolling down the sidewalk, let alone suspended in mid-air generating its own thread.

         These examples of “kenning” bring to mind words created when our children were young. 

I remember watching Monday Night Football once and a daughter walked in and said, “What are you watching, Daddy?  Catch-the-man?”  Sounds more accurate than “football,” a word which should be permanently released to the custody of soccer.

         Another time, one of the girls was very angry at someone and passionately declared, “They are a Dumbo-airplane!”  Years later, I’m still pondering how to visualize that, but have always appreciated the emotional force behind the phrase.

         Less poetic but similarly useful was a word we created, “birthday-cereal.”  The origins can be traced to taking young kids to the market and walking down the cereal aisle.  Attracted by the graphic images for Fruit Loops, Sugar Crisp, and Cap’n Crunch, they’d constantly beg me to buy one of these nutritional disasters.  It was exasperating.  One day I issued the following edict: they could have any cereal they wanted on their birthday, but on all other days, we would only buy cereal with less than 10 grams of sugar in it per serving.  Not only did the haggling disappear, but it improved their literary and math competency as they became experts at silently rushing from box to box down the aisle, carefully examining the chart of nutritional data on every one like Sherlock Holmes.

         So “catch-the-man,” “Dumbo-airplane,” and “birthday-cereal” were “kenning” creations in our family – I’m guessing every family has their own.

         Let’s turn back one more time to savor a few more of these Old English gems.

         After we’ve taken our life-house out for a walk under the heaven-candle while keeping an eye out for weaver-walkers, we could take a trip to gaze at the wave-path. You know, the sail-road? Ok, I’ll try one more word for it: the whale-way.  Got it? The ocean! “The entire body of salt water that covers more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface”[v] is the dull way to put it.  Wave-path, sail-road, and whale-way are words that help me see movement and life on the sea.

         Finally, after our enlightened walk and time spent gazing from the shore, we should have a dust-viewing.  That’s the Old English description for “visit to a grave.”  After all, that’s where our life-houses will end up.  But we’re not there yet.  And right now, today, we have this divine opportunity to give thanks for the miracles of the heaven-candle, the weaver-walkers, and the endless creativity of our species.  Let’s not let that opportunity dissolve into the dust just yet.

Image: “Spider Web Glowing in the Morning Sun,” Erica Maxine Price

Got some “kenning” examples of your own? Share them in the “Comments” section.

[i] “Here Be Dragons,” book review of The Wordhord, by Hana Videen, WSJ, May 9,2022




[v] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

One reader, who is not able to post comments on this site, writes this:

Hi Steve,

I so enjoyed your sharing of, “Life-House.” Once again, since my comments are not possible to add on-line, I will share them with via email.

When my children were young they very disliked eating broccoli. We changed the name to “Green Trees” which they took pride in that they were eating a tree.

One of my granddaughters would only eat chicken when she was young. I told her that salmon was pink chicken, she ate it, and even likes it to this day, but embarrassed if I tell anybody she use to call it pink chicken.

In my classroom, I had a small picture frame with a label at the top, “HOT NEWS.” If a child came to school with a heavy or joyful heart from something that recently happened in his life, he/she would have troubling focusing on the work or verbal exchange during the day. Some examples would be, “my goldfish died last night, Grandma & Grandpa are coming today, Mom is going to have a baby, my dog/cat is in the hospital, etc” The advantage of the HOT NEWS is that once the child shared with his friends in the classroom and teacher he/she had the ability to have better focusing skills. The disadvantage is that the Hot News might be information being shared which was a family secret. Examples, Dad said mom is not with her girlfriends this week, but is having nose surgery. The child’s comment “I don’t know if she is getting a shorter or longer nose, but I will tell you later when she comes back home.” Now 25 children know the mom is having a nose job, which they will share with their mom, a top secret the Mom did not want to advertise.

One of my son’s said his teacher was as “dumb as a rock.”

I always told my children and students that they were responsible for answering their body telephone and no one else can. This might mean they need to use the restroom soon, they were not feeling well and needed to go home from school, etc.

To discount the different colors of people, I told my granddaughters and sons when they were young that how they looked was just God’s wrapping paper, but inside we are all the same, except how we share from our heart.

Thank you for letting me share with you some of my favorite examples of words with unique meaning.

I always appreciate and enjoy your words of wisdom and interpretations of life’s experiences.

What Jayber Crow Understood

            For the first 25 years of my life, the idea of becoming a pastor was inconceivable to me.  I had not been raised in a church and had no interest in organized religion.  But life has a way of surprising us, it seems, and here I am, 41 years after my ordination. 

            It’s hard to explain why I have found it so meaningful; I often feel like I have never really fit in.  But one day I picked up Jayber Crow, a novel by Wendell Berry.  Jayber is a seeker, a barber, a grave-digger, and a church custodian in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky.  I came across this passage, where he is sitting at the rear of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning:

            The sermons mostly were preached on the same theme I had heard over and over… we must lay up treasures in heaven and not be lured and seduced by this world’s pretty and tasty things that do not last but are like the flower that is cut down. The preachers were always young students from the seminary who wore, you might say, the mantle of power but not the mantle of knowledge.  They wouldn’t stay long enough to know where they were, for one thing.  Some were wise and some were foolish, but none, so far as Port William knew, was ever old. They seemed to have come from some never Never-Never Land where the professionally devout were forever young. They were not going to school to learn where they were, let alone the pleasures and the pains of being there, or what ought to be said there. You couldn’t learn those things in a school.  They went to school, apparently, to learn to say over and over again, regardless of where they were, what had already been said too often. They learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works — although they could tell you that this world had been made by God Himself.

            What they didn’t see was that it is beautiful, and that some of the greatest beauties are the briefest. They had imagined the church, which is an organization, but not the world which is an order and a mystery. To them the church did not exist in the world where people earn their living and have their being, but rather in the world where they fear death and Hell, which is not much of a world.  To them, the soul was something dark and musty, stuck away for later. In their brief passage through or over it, most of the young preachers knew Port William only as it theoretically was (“lost”) and as it theoretically might be (“saved”) and they wanted us all to do our part to spread this bad news to others who had not heard it — the Catholics, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, and others — or else they (and maybe we) would go to Hell. I did not believe it. They made me see how cut off I was. Even when I was sitting in the church, I was a man outside.

            In Port William, more than any place I had ever been, this religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I don’t think anybody believed it. I still don’t think so. Those world condemning sermons were preached to people who, on Sunday mornings, would be wearing their prettiest clothes. Even the old widows in their dark dresses would be pleasing to look at. By dressing up on the one day when most of them had leisure to do it, they signified their wish to present themselves to one another and to Heaven looking their best. The people who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; most of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couple sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of the children. And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken, it might be, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And their preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, having just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish.

            “I declare Miss Pauline,” said Brother Preston, who was having Sunday dinner with the Gibbses, “those certainly are good biscuits. I can’t remember how many I’ve eaten.”

            “Preacher,” said Uncle Stanley, “That’s making eight.” (160-161)

            …The people didn’t really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that sooner or later the world would deprive them of all it had given them, but they still liked it.  What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope and experience of love surpassing death, and their gratitude. (162-163)

            I thought of the people and congregations I’ve served.  Like Jayber, I never believed those kinds of sermons. I do believe in the “beauty and goodness of this world,” the sanctity of the ordinary people I’ve known, “cherry pie,” “good biscuits,” our “wish…to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven,” the “hope and experience of love surpassing death,” and gratitude.

            “…. for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:21, RSV)

Wendell Berry, age 88; Credit: New Yorker Magazine


  1. For a recent profile of Wendell Berry in the New Yorker, go to
  2. I had the privilege of seeing Wendell Berry in person twice in my life. The first was in the 1980s at the Campbell Farm in Wapato, Washington, where he spoke on land stewardship and rural values. The second was at Campbell Hall at UCSB in the 90s, as part of an “Environmental Poets” series. A very shy man, he was wearing overalls and a John Deere hat that night – clothing one doesn’t often see in Santa Barbara. That night he read from Jayber Crow. In the Q and A, someone asked him if, given his lifelong advocacy for sustainable agriculture, he would endorse requiring a gardening class in high schools.  After a long pause, he said, “No, I think young people should be required to read Homer and the Bible, so they will know the problems they are facing are not new.” The “educated” crowd seemed bewildered by his statement.

Hasn’t Life Been Given to Us to Become Rich in Our Hearts?


  A friend of Van Gogh’s asked if he thought this piece was “beautiful:”

Jean Alexandre Joseph Falguiere, Phyrene

He wrote to his brother:

My dear Theo,

C.M. asked me if I didn’t find the Phryné by Gérôme  beautiful, and I said I would much rather see an ugly woman by Israëls or Millet or a little old woman by E. Frère, for what does a beautiful body such as Phryné’s really matter? Animals have that too, perhaps more so than people…hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts, even if our appearance suffers from it?  — Letter from Van Gogh to his brother, Amsterdam, January 9, 1878

         Here in Santa Barbara our local museum currently has a very popular exhibit, “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources.”  The focus is not so much on any one work of his, but examples of the art works and writings of others that influenced him.  The passage from the letter was displayed on the plaque next to “Phryné, and these words intrigued me: “…hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts, even if our appearance suffers from it?”

         Adjacent to “Phryné” is a piece Van Gogh admired, The Miner by a graphic artist named Matthew Ridley:

Ridley, The Miner

The plaque for “The Miner” notes Van Gogh owned this exact print.

         Which of these two works expresses “beauty” for you?

         Our brains seem wired to quickly assess others by their outward appearance, comparing what we see to whatever standards our culture has created for us.  As we know, print and digital media draws on this tendency to capture our attention and motivate us to feel an ongoing need to modify or improve our appearance.  

         When I see “fashion” magazines, I’m often puzzled why the models’ facial expressions often reflect boredom.  When I see the people Van Gogh paints, they seem much more interesting.

          “…hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts…?”

         Two stories come to mind.

         I had a parishioner, K., who was very conscious and diligent about her fitness and appearance. She and her husband attended a niece’s wedding in Ohio.  She hadn’t seen her niece for several years When she first saw her at the wedding, she was taken aback by how much weight her niece had gained.  The groom was “big” as well, and K. confessed their appearance made her uneasy. At the reception, the time came for the bride and groom to dance.  As they did, K saw how much in love they were and was transfixed by their deep mutual affection.  She saw beyond the surface to the reality that was within.

         I heard the second story at a week-long seminar I attended years ago with the Biblical scholar Marcus Borg in Berkeley.  Borg was an excellent writer and presenter…well-organized, calm, reasonable, always writing and speaking with humility and conviction. Towards the end of the week one of the students asked him if he had ever had a “spiritual” experience. He seemed reluctant to share. But the student pressed him, and he recounted what he’d experienced once on an airplane flight.

         He and his wife were returning from Israel. As they boarded the plane, Marcus remembered settling into his assigned seat and assessing his surroundings.  He noticed how sterile the plane’s interior seemed.  He looked at the back of the seat in front of him and thought how lifeless the plastic fabric appeared.  He watched people stepping into the aisle and noticed one man who had particularly unattractive facial features.  All these observations seemed routine and trivial.

         The plane took off and passengers settled into their activities. 

         A little later, something unusual began happening. Light began filling the airplane cabin. In this light, everything was transformed.  The back of the seat in front of him now looked beautiful in its sheer existence.  The same was true for the entire interior of the plane. Ordinary people were illuminated with a light that made them fascinating to look at.  And the man whose appearance had caught his attention earlier happened to stand up: the man was radiating an inner dignity that made his outer appearance irrelevant.

         Marcus’s wife noticed something was happening to him and asked if he was Ok. He nodded to assure her but didn’t speak. A few minutes later, the experience began to fade, and everything appeared as it had before.  But he never forgot what he saw.

         We might say “he came back to reality.” But which “reality”? The one we create based on surface appearances, cultural standards, and personal prejudices?  Or something deep, mysterious, and grand that lies all around us, particularly within the faces of people whose appearance may not reflect some sterile “perfection” but that of living souls which have endured great hardship?   

         There are many kinds of beauty in this life, and we can celebrate all of them.  But I want to remember Van Gogh’s question:

         “Hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts?”

Grandpa and the Wooden Bowl

            There once was a family that lived in a cabin: a man and his wife, their son and daughter, and the man’s father.  They ate dinner together every night.

            As grandfather got older, he had difficulty at the table. Some of his food would fall to the floor and he’d occasionally break a dish. The father grew frustrated, and admonished grandpa to be more careful.  Grandpa continued to struggle.

            One day the boy went into the work shed and noticed his father was carving something out of wood.  He asked his father what he was making.

            “A bowl and a spoon for grandfather,” he said.  “I’m tired of him making a mess at the table.  I’m going to have him sit in the corner to eat his dinner, using these.”

            That night, the man told grandpa the new arrangement. He showed him the bowl and spoon, put his dinner portion in the bowl, and led him over to the corner of the room where he’d set a small table and chair.  The family ate dinner that night in peace.

            A few days later, the father noticed his son in the work shed. He walked in and saw the son with the carving knife working on a piece of wood. 

            “What are you making?” he asked.

            “A bowl and spoon for you when you are older,” the son said.


            I heard this story decades ago and I’ve never forgotten it.

            Clearly, the story illustrates how caring for older people can become a challenge, testing our patience as we focus on our own lives.  And if we live long enough, what will it feel like to be a burden and potentially be placed “out of the way?”

            For me the story raises complicated issues that I think many of us encounter.

            My mother had a severe stroke at age 75.  She lingered for ten days. Her sudden death was a shock. But we all knew she would have preferred it to spending months or years being frail and confined.

            Dad lived to be 91.  He spent 89 of those years in Redlands and San Bernardino.  When he was no longer able to live on his own, we were able to get him into an Assisted Living unit in Redlands for several years. At first it worked well, as friends and former associates would stop by to visit. But in time they became infirm themselves, or forgot about him, or died. 

            I drove down one day to visit him. They told me he was in the dining room finishing his lunch. I went and saw he was the last one there, sitting by himself and using a fork as best he could to eat two fish sticks.

            My sisters and I transferred him to a well-respected nursing home in Santa Barbara so we could all be closer. He endeared himself to the staff with his wit, irreverence, and stories from World War 2. He appreciated seeing us more often.  But he had always been an independent man, propelling his Oldsmobile 88 around town and favoring restaurants where waitresses greeted him by name as he came through the door.  He never wanted to live a restricted life or be a burden to anyone. He had been a “somebody”, and now that identity was gone, and he was dependent on others.

            We brought him to our houses for meals and holidays.  But it became harder and harder to transfer him in and out of a car. 

            One Sunday I was leaving after a visit.  He looked at me and said, “Get me out of here.”  I told him I couldn’t.  He followed me down the hall in his wheelchair, and after I closed the glass door behind me, he kicked it several times.  I will always remember that sound.

            As death approached, we took turns at this bedside.  He died knowing we loved him and were proud of him.

            We had his memorial service back in San Bernardino, where he’d been a prominent and active citizen.  If he’d died ten or fifteen years earlier, there might have been a big crowd. But, outside of family, there were less than a dozen people.

            Does this sound like anything you’ve experienced or are facing?

            Did I, at some point, hand dad his wooden bowl and spoon?  Is that what our society does to our seniors?  Is that will happen to us if we live that long?

            While longevity is something to be prized, we know it often comes with some serious challenges.  So many parishioners I’ve known make it to old age and are publicly celebrated.  But in private, they confide they are “done,” and “don’t know why the Lord is keeping me here.”

            I’m haunted by the loneliness I’ve seen.

            So, what do we do?

            I’m guessing we all are inclined to honor and show respect to “older people” wherever we encounter them — in our neighborhoods, in stores, in public gatherings – anywhere our paths cross.  They deserve it. 

            I have the privilege of leading a monthly worship service at a local retirement home. As has always been my experience, the people I meet there have lived amazing lives.

            No one wants to become a burden to their family, and there are many steps we can take to insure that doesn’t happen – estate planning, honest discussions with our family about what we want and don’t want and being realistic about our hopes and limitations.

            I searched the internet for any other versions of this story and found one. It has a different ending. After the son tells the father what he is carving, the father brings grandpa back to the table, and they live happily ever after. Nicer ending. Too nice, I think. I believe the story I remember stuck with me because the challenge it poses is what I need to hear.

            What thoughts and feelings arise for you when you read “Grandpa and the Wooden Bowl?”

Image: “Wooden Bowl and Spoon,”

Two prior blog posts are related to today’s theme: , a) for a simple list of meaningful themes to talk about with someone nearing the end of their life — “Six Things that Matter Most,” go to:; b) for a Buddhist perspective on visiting nursing homes, go to

The Gift Of Walking: Everyday Problems, Electric Toothbrushes, and an Easter Surprise

Have you ever been stuck on a problem and went for a walk – and a solution appears?

            I’ve been reading a book that explains why this happens: In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration by Shane O’Mara, Professor of Brain Research at Trinity College, Dublin.  A firm believer in the power of walking in helping us find creative solutions to various issues, he gives a scientific account of why taking walks can be so valuable.

            Here are some key points:

            “…the brain has two essential work modes: an active, executive mode, and a default mode. The active mode involves focused attention and processing details.  The default mode involves mind-wandering, the repeated interrogation of autobiographical memory, and a focus of attention away from the immediate environment.”[i]

            The “executive mode” is active when we are focusing on something that has a logical, straight-forward solution. How about doing taxes? My W-2 and 1099 forms have specific numbers that I need to enter into specific boxes on the 1040 – no room for creativity. 

            The “default” or “mind-wandering mode” is useful when there may be more than one solution to a problem, and we may need to engage a variety of mental and imaginative processes to find what we need.

            If we are sitting at a desk, our brain is limited to just one area of processing.  But if we go for out for a walk, our circulation increases to other areas of the brain, and they begin to combine their efforts.  In technical language, it’s a way to experience “extended hippocampal function” in which we can access personal memory and imagination while navigating our walk.  This gives us a chance to “combine ideas in some form of novel association.”[ii]   

            We need both modes: “Mind-wandering allows the collision of ideas, whilst mind focusing allows you to test whether it’s nonsensical or interesting and new.”[iii]

            In 1843, Sir William Rowan Hamilton found himself stuck as he “…grappled with devising a new mathematical theory – ‘quaternions’, which extend the mathematical theory of complex numbers to three-dimensional space.”[iv]  He was an avid walker, and on one of those walks the solution appeared to him.  He took a penknife and inscribed this message into the Broom Bridge:

I haven’t studied math since Led Zeppelin’s first album was released. I have no clue why this formula is important, but apparently, it’s a big deal: it has “…many contemporary uses in physics as well as in computer gaming, animation, and graphics, and even in the design of electric toothbrushes.”[v]  Mathematicians from around the world gather on the bridge every October 16th to celebrate this discovery. And it did not come to Mr. Hamilton until he was immersed in a two-hour walk.

            Without knowing any of the science, I found taking walks to be essential to my work. If I had a sermon to create, I would first choose, analyze, and study a passage, gathering as many facts as possible to understand what I was reading. But I wouldn’t know what to focus on, or how to describe it, or what stories could illustrate it. So, I’d get up and walk in the neighborhood for an hour or so. Almost every time, I’d have an “aha” moment and know what direction to take, words to use, or examples to give.  I’d go back to my desk with fresh energy.

            What is true for walking on our own is also true for walking with a friend — that “extended hippocampal function” is working for both of us. 

            All this brings to mind the fascinating New Testament story known as “The Road to Emmaus” (Luke 24: 13 – 35).   The story begins on Easter afternoon. “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.”  As they walk, they are deep in conversation. A third person joins them and asks what they are discussing.  They tell him it’s about a prophet who has appeared recently, raising their hopes that something new and life-changing is happening in the world. But the prophet has been executed by the Romans, leaving them in despair.  Some women reported earlier in the day they had an experience that led them to believe he is alive after all. But these two friends don’t know what to believe. The stranger begins to explain how all this might be true and they begin a long discussion.  They arrive at Emmaus and invite the stranger to stay with them for dinner. He accepts. As they sit at table, the stranger takes the bread, blesses, and breaks it, and they suddenly realize the stranger is the risen Jesus.  He disappears.  Looking back on their conversation, they realize this person was indeed helping them see everything in a new way, leading them from despair to excitement and new hope.  They go back to Jerusalem to share their story.

            I can affirm it only takes one experience of feeling someone’s unexpected “presence” in the room with us to open our mind to such new possibilities.

            Cynthia Bourgeault writes this about the Emmaus story: “…the decisive breakthrough is not what they see but how they see.  They have come to understand that their attuned hearts are the instruments of recognition and these same attuned hearts will bind them to their Risen Lord moment by moment forever. They have finally located their inner homing beacon.”

            From Jerusalem to Emmaus is seven miles, and it takes about two hours to walk seven miles – the same amount of time it took Mr. Hamilton to find the solution to his perplexing problem. This time the problem is not mathematical, but spiritual.  Just sitting in a chair worrying about it was not going to solve it, because the usual ways of rational thinking are too limiting. But on long walks, portals within us can open and expand our understanding of what’s real and what’s possible, allowing new and unexpected light to shine.

            Want to go for a walk?

The “Camino” in Spain

[i] O’Mara, pg. 148

[ii] Ibid., pg. 150

[iii]Ibid., pg. 150

[iv] Ibid., pg. 152

[v] Ibid., pg. 152

Lead image source: pixabay

Balancing Your Freedom and The Needs of the Tribe

Several years ago, I read Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger.  Two stories made a lasting impression. The first involves the intersection of Native American and European culture in Colonial America:

         “’When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs,’ Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1753, ‘… if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.’”

         On the other hand, Franklin continued, white captives who came back to colonial society after spending time with the Indians were almost impossible to keep home “‘…and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.’”[i]

         Junger tells of one colonial woman who was captured by Native people and lived with them, learning their language and customs, before being returned to her husband on his farm. With the native people, she had spent her day in shared labor and activity with the other women, cooperating for the benefit of the community. Back on their farm, she was alone all day in their cabin as her husband, also alone, worked the land.  She sank into depression.

         The second involves the experience of Londoners during the bombing “Blitz” in World War 2:

         “Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people, but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down. Emergency services in London reported an average of only two cases of ‘bomb neuroses’ a week.  Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.”[ii]  Crime rates decreased dramatically, as did suicide.  People in bomb shelters began to form self-regulating and egalitarian societies; class status was largely ignored.  Even after being bombed for months, the spirit of the people remained resolute, united, and determined.

         Junger had seen this dynamic as a war correspondent, first in Bosnia and later embedded in an Army platoon in Afghanistan (documented in the film, Retrepo).  After returning home, he sought to understand why so many vets were having difficulty adapting to civilian life. He concluded that a leading factor was the loss of the intense social bond and shared purpose they had experienced.  Back in the U.S., most people were consumed with their own individual lives which seemed shallow by comparison.

         What these stories have in common is the power of human community to form bonds of mutual care and respect that become more important than individual accomplishment or status, particularly in times of great challenge.  (This is a dynamic we see clearly in the resilience and courage of the Ukrainian people, an inspirational example for us all.)

         Last week I wrote about the difference between the words “religion” and “spirituality”, noting the root of the first is ligia, from which the word “ligament” comes from.  In our age, the freedom to pursue our own spirituality and the seeming lack of relevance in many religious institutions has led us away from those “ligaments” which once created bonds of shared purpose and belonging.  This shift extends to many social institutions.[iii] We are free, but disconnected.

         During the two years of the COVID pandemic, our instincts for facing challenges together were activated.  We had to be disciplined about when we went shopping.  We had to cut down on travel and in-person gatherings.  We became reluctant but capable Zoom-sters. Spontaneous networks of mutual care arose in many neighborhoods and people who had lived alone were often cared for.  Like most of us, I didn’t like the restrictions but understood why they were necessary; the fact that we were all in this together gave the sacrifices meaning. 

         In the fall of 1986, I had just become the solo pastor of a small congregation in Wapato, Washington, population 3,000. I was told they put on a turkey dinner for the community every November.  The event went back to the Depression years when the church needed a new roof and raised the funds with the help of neighbors. The tradition had continued ever since with the proceeds benefitting local projects.  They often served hundreds of people in one night.  The church had an ample kitchen but not large enough for the demand, so the members cooked the turkeys and dessert in their own homes.

         I remember Jeannie, the woman in charge that year, approaching me saying she’d be giving me the directions for cooking the turkey and making the apple crisp desert.      

         “Sure, I’ll get back to you and let you know if we can do that,” I said.

         “No, Steve,” she said with a smile. “This is not optional. Everyone participates.”

         I was a suburban guy, accustomed to my freedom, and stunned to be told what to do. But, like everyone else, we cooked our turkey and the apple crisp — strictly following the provided recipes — and delivered them at the appointed time.  Later that evening, I completed my duties doing dishes, the entry-level position for new pastors. 

         We served 800 people that night.  And when we gathered on Sunday there was a palpable sense of joy, pride, and connection.  We’d been bound, and it was good.

         As we know, many of our former social bonds have disappeared.  They’ve been replaced, to some degree, by social media groups. These have the advantage of being able to respond instantly to a crisis or need – but don’t require the same discipline.

         Strong social bonds can have a shadow side: stifling individual freedom and nurturing a narrow kind of tribalism that exalts our own group and demonizes others.  We need to be thoughtful about our allegiances and their consequences.

         But we also need to appreciate the power within us to form bonds of mutual care and respect that become more important than individual accomplishment or status, particularly in times of great challenge.  These are the times that can bring out the best in us.

Image: Model of Biological System created by the Integrative Computational Network Biology Project, Barcelona Supercomputing Center

[i] Junger, Sebastian; Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging; pg. 3

[ii] Junger, pg. 47

[iii] The classic study is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam, 2001

Spiritual or Religious? A Guide for the Perplexed

“Are you religious?”

         “No, I’m spiritual.”

         Over recent decades, fewer and fewer Americans describe themselves as “religious.” Many say they are “spiritual.” What does this mean?

         I’ve been reflecting on those two words for 35 years.  I’m going to offer one way to understand the difference between them.

         “Religion” is a word that combines “re“ with “ligio.”  “Ligio” is the root for the word “ligament,” which means a binding.  So re-ligio means “bound again.” A religion binds someone to a set of beliefs, traditions, and practices. When I was a kid, every Friday the cafeteria served fish sticks. Why? Because Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Friday. If I’m an Orthodox Jew, I’ll only eat kosher food. If I’m a practicing Muslim, you can expect me to be praying five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan.  

         “Spiritual” is very different. Let’s go back in time to appreciate its origins.

         In the Hebrew Scriptures, the common word for “spirit” is “ruah.” Here’s a famous passage:

         In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters.[i] Did you notice the footnote, (b)? The footnote says: “Orwhile the spirit of God orwhile a mighty wind.” Spirit is synonymous with wind and breath.

         The New Testament was written in Greek.  Just like Hebrew, the original word pneuma (as in pneumatic tire, pneumonia, etc.) can mean spirit, wind, breath. Here’s an example:

              The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.[ii]  The footnote for “wind” reads: “The same Greek word means both wind and spirit.”

         So “religion” implies a binding, a strong and secure connection.  “Spiritual” implies something more elusive and mysterious, but real. You can’t attach a ligament to the wind; a breeze can be felt but doesn’t bind you. 

         For centuries many people were bound to religious traditions.  But in the 60s, people started questioning authority.  Many began leaving such traditions altogether or picking and choosing which beliefs and practices they’d embrace and which they’d ignore.  A steady decline in membership and influence of religious communities began and continues – the ligaments became weak or were never developed.

         Being cut loose from such restrictive bonds can be exhilarating.  We can begin finding for ourselves what is true and authentic.

         As we’re searching, we may have moments when we sense there is something important beyond everyday reality. Maybe we come upon something in nature that fills us with wonder.  Maybe we are awe-struck as we look into the eyes of a newborn child. Maybe we sense something transcendent in a piece of music.  Maybe we go through a personal crisis and feel we’re being led by something beyond ourselves. Maybe we’re in recovery and find the value of a higher power.  Or, maybe we experiment with ancient Eastern techniques of inner exploration, such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or Tai-chi and find an inner peace, strength, and serenity that we never experienced in one of those liga-mented institutions.

         We certainly don’t believe there is an old bearded white guy in the sky in charge of everything. But what about “… an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi explains to Luke Skywalker.[iii] This “Force” gives us courage, helps us do what is right, connects us to others and calls us to fight against forces of repression.

         If any of these experiences resonate, we might say we are “spiritual.” We sense something, believe something, feel something that is of great personal importance. And no external authority will control how we experience it or what it means.

         So much of this speaks to me personally.  I don’t believe in something just because someone tells me to. I am curious about every kind of journey people are on and learn new things whenever I can.  I’m fascinated by all things “spiritual.”

         And yet there’s something lost when we have no ligaments.

         Last spring, I was feeling discomfort in my right upper arm while doing yoga. One day, I was playing golf and noticed it was swelling dramatically and my arm was turning purple. I went to Urgent Care. They diagnosed it as a torn ligament, which leads to a swelling known as a “Popeye arm” along with contusions.  Apparently, we have two ligaments connecting shoulders to elbows, and one of mine had become disconnected.  They told me they couldn’t repair it and referred me to physical therapy to begin strengthening the surrounding muscles to compensate.

         A year later, I’m still doing the exercises and feeling fine. But I’ve learned what it’s like to be “de-ligamented.”

         I’ve been around congregations for many years.  Communities that worship and serve together week after week are like bodies that are consistently forming strong ligaments of connection. In a tragedy – a death, a disaster, an urgent social need — those bodies are ready to act decisively.  And they do.

         We can see this principle at work in the war in Ukraine.  After World War 2, NATO was formed, creating voluntary bonds of commitment between participating nations to defend each other against aggression. Some recent politicians wanted our country to be free from our NATO commitment. But we now see those ligaments in action as thirty nations quickly united to oppose Russian aggression.

         I rejoice in the freedom spirituality provides to find what is authentic. I can also sing the old hymn “Blest Be The Tie That Binds” when I see social bonds being used to inspire, strengthen and protect the human family.

[i] Genesis 1: 1-2, New Revised Standard Version

[ii] John 3:8, New Revised Standard Version

[iii] Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope

Image: Fall Colors at Kebler Pass, Colorado USA.JPG; aspen groves are now understood to not be individual trees, but one unified biological entity.

Blessing of the Feet

            “I want you to join me in a ritual for one of my patients,” M. said.

            M. was a smart, insightful, and creative social worker at Hospice of Santa Barbara.  My job there was largely administrative, and only rarely was I asked to participate in patient care.  But I trusted M.’s professional skill, her instincts, and her chutzpah, and told her I would do whatever she needed.

            One of our guiding principles was, “The family is the unit of care.” Was it a cohesive and caring family unit?  Or would long-standing tensions come to the fore as they were about to lose a loved one?  The family dynamics would play a large role in the experience of the patient in the dying process and how that family would evolve after the death has occurred.

            M. gave me the background.  The patient was a woman in her 80s whose husband had died some years before. Two adult daughters were caring for her.  There had been some issues between them, and M. wanted to do something that might bring them together. The mother was not responsive at this point, but “still here.” M. felt she could create a simple ritual to bless the mother as she came close to dying.  She introduced the idea to the daughters. They would dress mom up in nice clothes, fix her hair, put make-up on, and give her a pedicure and a manicure, talking to her as they worked.  At the appointed time, M. and I would come to the house. M. would stand at the head of mom’s bed and lead us with a daughter on each side, and me at the feet.

            M. and I met at the house at 7 PM. M. introduced me, noting I was a pastor as well as Hospice Director.  Mom’s bed was in the living room, and had been elevated enough that we could each standby it.  M. praised the daughters for how classy mom looked.  Lights in the room were dimmed and candles lit.  She told us each to take our position and explained what would unfold. 

            After a moment of silence, M. began with words of affirmation to the mother, reminding her of all she had accomplished in her life, telling her who was present in the room and what we would be doing.  Each daughter then took a turn, holding one of mom’s hands and telling her how much she had meant to them.

            I remember thinking, “I have no idea what I’m going to say. They didn’t teach how to do this in seminary.”

            When the second daughter finished, I looked at the woman’s bare feet visible past the bottom edge of the blanket. The nail polish was bright red.

            I placed my hands under her feet and raised them a few inches.

            My mind began imagining what these feet had experienced.

            “These feet were part of you when you were a toddler learning how to walk. They were with you in childhood, running out the door at your command to play in the neighborhood and rush to school.  They grew with you as you became a teenager, then a young woman. They enabled you to have your first dance, to walk next to the man you fell in love with, to process down the aisle at your wedding.  After you gave birth to your daughters, it was these feet that carried you as you carried them, pacing back and forth at night comforting them.  In all the years that followed, these feet did as you wished, faithfully supporting you through your challenges and joys. They have been loyal and faithful servants.  We give gratitude to God for them, for you, for your family, for your many years, and for all the love that is in this room with you now.”

            I lowered the feet back on the bed.

            M. spoke to mom, summarizing what each of us had said and closed with a final blessing for her and her daughters.

            I felt Presence in the room.

            Mom’s eyes remained closed, her breathing steady.

            We began to bring our awareness back to “ordinary time.” I thanked the daughters and the mother for the gift of being with them and said good night. M. remained, explaining what would be occurring as their mother approached her last hours.

            The next day, M. called to tell me the mother had died later that night in the living room.  She felt what we had done was already helping the daughters heal past hurts and come together.

            Two days later I realized this had happened on a day known in the Christian tradition as “Maundy Thursday,” when many communities re-enact Jesus washing his disciples’ feet the night before he died.

            The experience left a profound impact on me. This was partly due to the privilege I felt participating in such a sacred moment with this family.  But, for the first time, I realized how extraordinary it is for us to have what we call “feet” that are truly with us throughout all our days, enabling us to do so many things through every stage of life.  Maybe we notice them when we accidently drop something on them, or any time they are a source of discomfort.  But most of the time we take them for granted.  Hour by hour, day by day, year by year, they are our silent servants.

            Feet are the point of contact between our living presence and the solid earth.

            Thich Nhat Hanh, who died two months ago at age 95, famously taught, “People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle. The earth is a miracle, each step is a miracle.”

            May we all be aware of the blessing our humble feet are for us, now, when we have breath to do so.

Art work: Feet, Vincent Van Gogh, 1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Postscript: Preparing a body for burial is a common practice in many traditions (e.g., chesed shel emet in Judaism) and has been reemerging in contemporary times, including in secular health care settings.  One study at our local hospital found it not only gave families a significant sense of closure, but also helped with morale and burn-out among nursing staffs.  Blessing the body when the person is close to death, as described in this story, can also be a powerful and positive experience.  There are many ways of doing it that can be customized to fit a family’s values.