Appreciating What You Have Been Through

            Several years ago, I attended a workshop led by a gifted poet, writer, teacher, friend and mentor, Marilyn McEntyre.  Among her many books is Make A List: How A Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives And Open Our Hearts.  Marilyn discovered that the value of making lists goes far beyond detailing what we need at the store – making lists can uncover important aspects of our inner life and creativity that may be hidden from us.

            One exercise we did at the workshop really hit home for me, and I later put it to good use when my wife and I observed our 40th wedding anniversary.  I’m sharing it in this post and encouraging you to try it.

            Let’s start with what we did at the workshop.

            We were asked to make two lists of ten items each.

            The first was to list difficult situations we’ve faced.  

            When we finished, she had us review what we’d written and share impressions. It was sobering to remember what it felt like to live through those challenges.

            Then she asked us to make a second list: significant blessings we’ve experienced.

            When finished, we again shared reactions.  It was a revelation.  I thought, “I’ve faced some hardships in my life,” I thought, “But look at all the graces I’ve received!”

            By doing the list of hardships first, the list of blessings became much more than pleasant memories of just positive thoughts.  Instead, it became a testimony to the fact that we can find blessings in the hardest of times.

            A few months later I decided to adapt the idea for our 40th anniversary and share them with our daughters at dinner.  (The original list included specific details about our personal lives known to our family, which I’m omitting here.)

First, I listed 40 challenges my wife and I have lived through. Here’s a sampling:

  1. Getting married when we were naïve and unprepared.
  2. At one point realizing we didn’t have $74 for a dentist visit for our five-year old.
  3. Experiencing my own depression at age 38 when I saw all my friends “getting ahead” – buying houses, vacationing in Hawaii, and going skiing when we could not afford any of that — and feeling I was a total failure.
  4. Raising kids and you realizing you can’t save them from potential harm. The many sleepless nights and ardent prayers. And realizing it doesn’t end when they turn 18.
  5. The sudden death of my mother and brothers.
  6. Caring for our aging and dying parents.
  7. 🚴‍♂️Family medical emergencies that involved ambulances and times in the ICU when we felt helpless and afraid.
  8. Several crises and conflicts in my career.
  9. The tragic death of people we loved over the years, including young mothers and teenagers.
  10. Watching our bodies age and how we could no longer do activities we had taken for granted.

Then I read my list of ”40 Graces.”  Here’s a sample:

  1. The amazing discovery of God in our lives.
  2. The way we were embraced and supported by the Point Loma, Santa Paula, Wapato, and Goleta congregations through 30 years.
  3. Looking into the eyes of each of our daughters when they were born and seeing them grow.
  4. The excitement of moving to New Jersey for seminary, even though all we arrived with was a rocking chair and Hoover vacuum cleaner.
  5. Moving to the Campbell Farm in rural Washington and discovering the richness of rural life.
  6. The abiding friendships we’ve developed every place we lived.
  7. The positive impact of the teen “Love Of God” program on each of our daughters.
  8. Holding each of our three grandsons in our arms and seeing them grow.
  9. The love and support we received from friends during emergencies and crises.
  10. The care our parents received at nursing homes from nurses and aides.

            Making a list like this is easier than you might think.  I encourage you to do something similar for special events, or as a simple way to review your life.  You can just start with lists of ten. Like I said, it’s a profound way to appreciate what you’ve gone through and the gifts you’ve received. And when you find yourself once again facing a serious challenge, it can be a reminder that grace is already close and waiting for you.

Photo credit: “Inspiration Point, Santa Barbara,” Brianne from Everyday Runaway

When I Fall

         In 1990, I attended a ceremony installing Bishop Francis George as the new bishop of Yakima, Washington.  It was a fancy event, but his personal remarks were brief.

         “I would like you to know,” he said, “that when I was young, I had polio.  As an adult, there are times when I lose my balance and fall.  If that happens and you are near me, don’t be alarmed.  Simply lend me a hand so I can get up, and we will go on.”

         He paused.

         “And as your bishop, there will be times when I may make a mistake performing my duties.  When that happens, don’t be alarmed. Simply lend me a hand so I can get up, and we will go on. Thank you.”

         I’ve thought of this often.  

         I don’t know what it’s like to have had polio or any other challenges people face.  I do know I’ve been absent minded since I was young; I’ve often said most of my life has been an out-of-body experience. I work at it.  And I’ve made it a practice to tell co-workers that I may forget things.  If they see me deciding on an action and wonder if I’ve failed to take something into account, I’ve asked them to let me know.  I want to do things well and I can use the help. 

         In our current “gotcha” culture, people are quick to make judgments about those who make mistakes.  To be sure, many times people need to be held accountable for their harmful actions; various politicians, sports figures, corporate executives, and entertainers quickly come to mind.  But if we make an innocent error, what a gift it is to have someone close to us not be alarmed and, instead, smile and offer us a hand.  We can recover and correct it. And we can go on together.

Art work: “Hands of Emperor Maximillian I,” Albrecht Durer, 1506

Seeing People Through a Spiritual Lens

            There is ample evidence from evolutionary psychology and brain science that we are wired to make quick assumptions about people based on our culture, perceptions, and experience.  This can be particularly true in our current political climate.

            The spiritual traditions have offered us alternative ways of seeing people, aimed at encouraging us to not judge by outer appearances, but assuming every person has inherent worth.

            Quakers have held that every human has an “inner light” worthy of respect. This core belief led them to oppose slavery long before others in Europe and America.

            In the eastern traditions, a common practice is to bow to others with hands pressed together near our heart and say “Namaste,” meaning we acknowledge the sacred presence in the other.

            Fifteen centuries ago, St. Benedict created a book of precepts to guide the life of the monks. Rule 53:1 reads: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35)” This rule is still followed at Benedictine monasteries and has been adopted by many in the Catholic tradition.

            With this in mind, I appreciated the following piece by Mike Kerrigan, a lawyer in North Carolina.  He has been distraught by the “rancor” that is characterizing our culture and sought out a mentor from his past who might help him approach others in a better way:

            I reconnected recently with an old friend and Jesuit priest, Daniel Sweeney, with the intention of asking him.

            In the 1980s, Father Sweeney taught world history at Georgetown Prep, the high school in North Bethesda, Md., where I was a student. He’s now an assistant professor of political science at the University of Scranton.

            Surely my clerical companion, whether drawing on his priestly or academic vocation, could offer the customary good counsel to which I’d grown accustomed in adolescence. Still teaching by anecdote, Father Sweeney didn’t disappoint.

            He recalled a time he’d repaired from the hurly-burly of instructing adolescent males to the tranquility of a faculty lounge. Seated beside him was another Jesuit faculty member, James A.P. Byrne, a priest known for saintly serenity and heroic patience.

            Their peace was interrupted by an obscenely loud knock on the door. It was the kind of gratuitous pounding both men instantly knew had been delivered by the sort of student from whom they’d sought respite. Father Byrne got up, exchanged words with the impertinent young man, and returned to his seat.

            “Who was at the door?” Father Sweeney asked. “It was just our Lord,” Father Byrne replied serenely, his Irish eyes twinkling, “in one of his most unrecognizable forms.” [1]

            I hope to remember that description and use it when needed.

Image: “My Portrait Surrounded by Masks,” James Ensor, 1899

[1] “A Priest Finds Serenity in Humor,” by Mike. Kerrigan, WSJ, August 3, 2021

Claiming the Power of Serpents and Doves

Many Biblical quotes are presented as if they were created for a Hallmark card — pleasant, sunny words of advice that can help us be good people and do nice things. But not all of them.  I’ve always been struck by the words Jesus gives to his disciples in Matthew 10:16:

“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Over the years, I’ve grown to love the audacity and practical wisdom in this saying. I believe it can have great value in our personal and professional lives. It presents two personal qualities that can seem, at first, mutually exclusive, and asks us to hold them together.

            Let’s start with “wise as serpents.”

            When hearing this, people will often say, “What a minute… ‘Be wise as a serpent?’… don’t snakes represent evil in the Biblical tradition?”  That is a popular belief, going back to the writings of St. Paul in which the snake in the Garden of Eden story represents evil.  But that’s not what the original story suggests, nor how I think Jesus intended the reference to be understood.

Genesis 3 begins “Now the serpent was more clever than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made…” Other translations use “subtle,” “shrewd,” “cunning” or “wise.” Traditional cultures sensed various animals had qualities that can be respected, admired, and emulated. Many sensed something particularly mysterious in snakes, and some even worshipped them. But in the original text, the serpent doesn’t have an evil intent; its role is to communicate possibilities in thinking that expanded the imagination of the human characters in the story. The dialogue between the serpent and Eve engages her curiosity and she begins to think for herself.

            The way Genesis and Jesus portray it, the serpent can be respected for its cleverness and wisdom, and we can benefit from its example.

            So, we are encouraged to be wise and creative.  But that raises a question: to what purpose? Are we going to use creative thinking for our selfish agendas, which may be deceptive and manipulative?  Or are we going to use our “smarts” for a greater good, something that serves, uplifts, and liberates others?

            Jesus pairs “wise as serpents” with “innocent as doves.”  Doves were seen as symbols of the divine spirit, a spirit which only works for the enhancement of life, not its exploitation.  If we are to be “innocent as doves,” we will use our intelligence for the higher good.

When I think of people who have used natural intelligence for noble purposes, several come to mind.

            When I was serving the Goleta congregation, we had an ambitious capital campaign.  It began with the intention of creating a new, contemporary sanctuary.  As it evolved, it included collaborating with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation to build 13 units of low-income, special needs housing, as well as the ecological restoration of the adjacent creek.  People brought their “best game” to the project.  One such person was Edith Newman, a retired businesswoman from Philadelphia.  Edith loved getting the best return for any money entrusted to her, and she was our campaign treasurer.  In the pre-internet era, every day she would check the CD rates at the local banks. If she found a better return somewhere, she’d get in her car and move our money from one bank to the next.  Several years later, when our project was completed, one of the finance committee members looked over the records.  “Do you know,” he said, “When I added it up, Edith’s account management earned us more than $100,000?”  That was twenty years ago, and a lot of money for us.  And it was because Edith was a wise money manager and used that gift for a higher purpose.

I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln for the fourth time. It shows how complicated issues of race were in that period, even for Lincoln himself. But it also shows how crafty and brilliant Lincoln was as a politician. Without those skills, the 14th Amendment ending slavery would not have passed.

As a sports fan, it’s always exciting to see someone use creative and strategic intelligence in a game. A favorite memory involves the Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux. In 2008, he was 42 years old and far beyond his best years. The Dodgers signed him, and he played a total of 7 games for them that year. He’d been a crafty pitcher, but a poor hitter and runner. I was watching one game when, much to the surprise of everyone, he got on first base. When he got there, he was chatting with the first baseman, and they seemed to be joking about the fact he’d made it that far. Everyone, including the first baseman, expected him to stay put at first base. But Maddux sensed the other team’s guard was down. Suddenly he took off for second base and arrived safely before the other team realized what was happening. He stood there smiling. What he’d done was fair play and he did it to help his team. I still smile every time I think about it.

            A core value in spiritual life is to cultivate a purity of purpose – to be “innocent as doves.” But that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with a lazy, passive, or naive mind.  The world will be a better place if we take some of the smarts we have and get the job done.

Honey and Other Things: Exploring Our Inner Selves

            Years ago, I heard a presentation by Tom Boyd, a philosophy professor from the University of Oklahoma. As a boy he spent summers with his grandfather on a ranch in Texas. One chore was to help harvest honey.   After collecting, they would filter it and pour it into jars, then apply a label, “Pure Honey.” 

            One time a particle had gotten past the filter.  Young Tom didn’t want to put it through the filter again. He told his grandfather they shouldn’t worry about it and sell it as is.

            “We can’t do that, Tom,” he said.  “Because then we’d have to make a new label: “Honey and Other Things.” 

            Tom said he never forgot that.

            Years ago, I was driving downtown on my way to volunteer at the local soup kitchen.  As I was driving, I remember a voice saying, “You know, going to serve the poor means you are a really good person. Other people will think that when they see you. It will add to your reputation.” 

            Another voice was shocked. “How self-centered can you get? That’s not why you’re doing it. You’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not at all about showing off.”

            It was only me in the car, so I had to own both voices.

            The genuine voice within me I’m going to think of as the honey. And the self-centered voice will be “other things.”  

            There are endless ideas about how many “selves” or personas we have within us.  Philosophy, theology, and psychology have all explored this question.  I’m going to work with just these two.

            Honey can be the divine presence in us that goes by many names: soul, higher self, inner light, Self, divine spark, etc.  And “other things” can represent our less-than-lofty aspect: the ego, self-centeredness, etc.

            Until my early 20s, I don’t think I was aware of two voices within.  I went day by day reacting to the world as I encountered it.

            After a mystical, transformative experience, I realized how incredibly self-centered I’d been. It had been all about me, and I’d made a mess of my life. But my soul had woken up.  There was now a small drop of honey within, not of my creation. It was a divine gift, it was grace and it became a guiding light.

            As I began to explore Christian spirituality, I often heard the assumption that we must be relentlessly focused on our “sinful nature.”  “You are selfish through and through. You don’t deserve grace. You’ve got to beg for it every day,” was the idea.

            I tried to extinguish that selfishness; I wanted to be pure honey. But in time I realized it was futile.  I concluded my ego wasn’t bad…it was simply trying to protect me. 

            Sometime after that, I was on a long drive on the freeway (apparently a good place for epiphanies).  I visualized standing apart from my ego self.  It was alone and cringing, frightened at being exposed. I walked over, put my arm around it, and said, “Hey, I know you are trying to do the best for me.  I appreciate how hard you work.  But I don’t want you to be in control all the time; you’re a better servant than master. Let’s collaborate instead of compete.” My ego passively accepted my embrace.

            I believe selfishness is a product of our evolutionary past. We do many things to survive, protect ourselves, get what we need, etc.  The “other things” are our biological inheritance. But if we are on a spiritual journey, we’ve decided we don’t want to be stuck there. We want to find something more, a higher good for ourselves and others.

            When I was at Hospice, a group of us attended a 5-day training at the Metta Institute in Marin County on “Cultivating Presence.”  We practiced Zen meditation several times a day, discussed how to care for the dying and heard a variety of speakers.  One of them was Ram Dass, a popular figure from the 60s who had turned from drugs to an Eastern spiritual practice. I’d read some of his work and seen him in person once, but never felt a connection.  One afternoon at the retreat, we had a video linkup with Ram Dass from his home in Maui.  He was talking in general terms and responding to questions in a relaxed and light-hearted way. But at one point, he paused, looked very serious — almost like he was in a trance — and said to us, “You are not a collection of your thoughts. You are loving awareness.”  Then his face relaxed and he continued his talk.

            I’m not sure what was going on, but I honestly felt a pulse of energy at that moment. I have not forgotten that feeling or those words.  Maybe deep within, beyond all the “other things,” we are pure honey … pure loving awareness.

            I don’t know what young Tom and his grandfather saw in that jar…was it a twig? A piece of grass?  Whatever it was, it came from the same blessed earth as the honey. It wasn’t inherently bad. It was just out of place.

            I have been blessed to know some people who seem like they are “Pure Honey.”  But I think most of us are “Honey and Other Things.” And that’s ok. We can accept the “other things” as part of who we are.  We can keep a filter handy. And we can be grateful for any “honey” we find as we go on our way.

The Gift of Disillusionment

            It’s a hard word to hear…disillusionment.

            In our relationships: Someone we’ve trusted does something that hurts or disappoints us.  We feel deflated, confused, betrayed.  

            At work: The organization we are working for makes a decision that shocks or upsets us. We realize we’ve been trusting the organization to act a certain way, but it makes a decision that betrays its stated values.  

            In politics and public life:   A leader or group performs in a way that seems to be counter to basic principles we thought everyone shared.

            In our spiritual journeys: Something happens in our life we thought would not happen if we are being faithful, responsible and caring. 

            “I’ve become so disillusioned…” someone says and describes what’s happened.  And we hear tones of sadness, detachment or even depression.

            But there’s another way to hear it.

            Parker Palmer, a writer who has been a mentor for me and many others over the years, has a surprising perspective on this word.  As he said in an interview with Krista Tippet:

            When a friend says, “I’m so disillusioned!” about this or that, why do we say, “I’m so sorry! How can I help?” We ought to say, “Congratulations! You’ve just lost an illusion! That means you’ve moved that much closer to reality, the only place where it’s safe to stand!”[i]

            This insight has been very useful for me. 

            Let’s start with personal relationships.

            I remember hearing a radio program with a noted marriage and family therapist.  He was talking about the need for all couples to use marital counseling to truly get to know each other.

            “But we got to know each other when we were dating,” people had told him.

            “No, dating is about deception,” he said. “It’s about you wanting to see the best in the other person, just as you are working hard to show them your best side. But after a while, you might start to see each other as you really are.  That’s a good time to begin to really get to know each other.”

            Instead of dis-illusionment leading to despair, it can lead to increased clarity.

            In the workplace, I’ve been on both sides of disillusionment.

            As a nonprofit executive director, from time to time I had to terminate employees. I was restricted by labor law and HR policies from giving a satisfying explanation to the other employees.  We’d talked often about “being a family” together, and abrupt terminations led people to say, “What’s going on? I thought we were a family. Are we just a heartless business?” 

            When that happened at Hospice of Santa Barbara, I thought about it for several weeks, trying to figure out how to describe what kind of entity we were.  I had an idea and made a presentation at a staff meeting. First, I listed the ways in which we were a business – our financial practices, our legal limitations, etc.  Then I listed ways in which we could be caring and supportive of each other within those boundaries.

            “Without meeting the requirements of a good business,” I said, “We would not exist.  But within those restrictions, we will try to be like a family when we can. So, let’s think of ourselves as a “Biz-imly” – a business first, and like a family when possible.”  That seemed to reframe it in a way that people found useful, and employees would quote that back to me as time went on.

            I’ve also been on the employee side – seeing “upper management” make decisions that to me were clearly contrary to their espoused values.  It helped for me to say to myself, “The idea that they would live up to their values has been an illusion.  It’s been “dissed. I won’t make that mistake again.”

            Disillusionment is something we can easily experience in political life. That what George Washington felt when he left office. He had hoped the leaders of the new country would be dedicated to personal humility and public virtue, which he had modeled so well. He was disheartened to see them falling into factions and cynical politics.  But James Madison was more realistic about human nature. He helped shape the constitution in a way that would accommodate selfish partisanship by a series of checks and balances.  Washington’s (hopeful) illusion led to his despair; Madison’s clarity led to a constitution that has, for the most part, endured.  I see leaders like Barack Obama and John Lewis as people who have always held on to the highest hopes and ideals, but also had a realistic understanding of human behavior and political realities.

            Disillusionment in our spiritual journeys can take many forms and are almost always a result of assumptions we have made.

            In Buddhism, it’s a given that our human nature is prone to see permanence where there is no permanence.  The path, then, is to be always vigilant about our illusions with the goal of seeing how things “really are.”  A well-known quote from the Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide captures how truth can follow loss: “Barn’s burnt down / Now I can see the moon.”

            In the Biblical traditions, it can be complicated.  There are passages that suggest people of faith will be protected from harm and disappointment.  Other verses are more realistic. Jesus staked his life on the belief that the one enduring reality is the love and justice of God.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – meaning those who have been emptied of false hopes and illusions — “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

            One qualification: I don’t offer this perspective on disillusionment as some glib, “tea-bag wisdom” that assumes dealing with disappointments is easy. There are losses in life that cut very deep into our souls and won’t vanish with a clever word play.

            But I invite you to give it a try. Next time you feel “disillusioned,” ask yourself if you’ve come closer to reality.  And don’t give up.

[i] (

“Barns Burnt Down,” fiber art by Rebecca Mezoff

Love As Care and Confrontation

Years ago, a wise therapist said: “Steve, remember– love is a combination of care and confrontation.” That came as a shock. I had assumed “love” only meant “care.” But over the years I’ve reflected on this insight many times.

         This week I will explore how this perspective on love is reflected in our spiritual journeys. I am going to let Rembrandt’s understanding of Jesus do most of the work by considering one of his masterpieces, “The Hundred Guilder Print” from 1650.

         If you look at the full picture, what do you see? At first glance, it may look like just a pleasant portrayal of Jesus amid a crowd.  It’s easy to identify him – he’s at the center, with rays of light shining from his face.  But a closer look reveals it’s a not just a visual dose of religious saccharine, but a multifaceted masterpiece.

         Rembrandt took Chapter 19 from the Gospel of Matthew and imagined how Jesus was interacting with each character in the story.

People Seeking Healing

         Let’s start with the right half of the picture, illustrating verses 1-2: “…large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.”  Rembrandt imagines the various sicknesses and disabilities of the time and uses a variety of facial expressions and postures to show each person as they hope for healing.  The compassion he showed such people is what I think of as “caring.”


         But the mood changes as we shift to the left side. In verses 3-12, Pharisees pose a hard question about marriage and divorce.  Jesus gives them a provocative response and they are discussing it.  Loving these people meant challenging their beliefs.

Peter, Women, Children

         In verses 13-15, a woman brings her child for a blessing. The disciples “speak sternly to her” implying a woman with a child shouldn’t bother Jesus.  But he contradicts his disciples, putting his right hand in front of Peter (personifying the disciples) to silence him.  Peter gets “the back of his hand,” but the palm of that same hand opens to welcome the woman.  Behind her is a woman who has a baby in her arms; a second child is tugging on her sleeve, encouraging her to also accept the invitation.  In this one hand gesture, Jesus is rebutting Peter and welcoming the women and children – confronting and caring at the same time.  (As one feminist scholar has pointed out, this is a common dynamic in the Gospels – in scenes where both women and men are present, Jesus often speaks and acts in a way that humbles men and affirms women.)

The Rich Young Man

         We now focus on a character described as a “rich young man” (verses 16-22).  He asks what he needs to do to deepen his spiritual life.   Jesus first cites the Ten Commandments, assuming that is sufficient. The young man says he has done that but still feels something is lacking. I imagine Jesus pauses and looks more deeply into the man’s eyes before telling him he needs to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him.  “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  Rembrandt pictures the young man in deep introspection before leaving. His conversation with this young man – confrontation? Or care?  Or both?

         In many traditional religious paintings, every character is depicted as being in adoring rapture, surrounded by heavenly shafts of light. Not for Rembrandt.  Other people in the scene are doing things ordinary people do. Some are listening to him, but others aren’t paying attention at all and are talking among themselves.  A scrawny dog is hoping for scraps of food at the feet of the woman with children.  On the far right, a camel driver looks bored and tired as he rests his head on the camel.  The point: sometimes when a gifted teacher is speaking, some people are paying attention, but others are not.

         Coming back to our theme: if Jesus channels the “love of God,” it’s not a one-size-fits-all warm and gentle feeling, like we have when we see a photo of a puppy. Far from it.  For the characters in this etching, the love of God is customized for each person, directed at what they need in that moment in their life. For some it’s healing, comfort and blessing. For others, it’s challenging righteous assumptions, posing provocative questions, or causing them to discern their true motivations.   

         Looking back on my life, this expresses how I’ve experienced divine love and leading.  

         Many times, I’ve reached out in a time of need and been given “a peace that surpasses all understanding.”  Sometimes that came right away, sometimes it came later in the day, sometimes several days later. But when it came, I felt cared for.  I know many others have this experience.

         Other times I’ve reached out for guidance, I was really hoping I’d find some pleasant reassurance or an easy way out.  And instead, I was given something better.  

         In 1986, my wife and I had spent a year as volunteers at The Campbell Farm, an apple farm and retreat center within the Yakima Reservation in rural Washington. I had never lived in an area with a high poverty rate. I thought we’d be there for a short time, then move on to some setting where life was easier. The local church had offered me a position as pastor, but I was reluctant to stay. I prayed for guidance.  One afternoon, I was out in the alfalfa field changing irrigation lines.  These words appeared in my awareness: “Instead of being served, think of serving.”  After a moment of reflection, I knew what that meant.  I didn’t like it. But I sensed I needed to trust that message.  I accepted the call. We ended up staying for six years. It was not an easy time, but a rich and rewarding time as I learned about myself and rural communities and served as best I could. I’m forever grateful my ego was confronted rather than appeased.  Looking back, it was a message I needed to hear.

         Divine love can be a combination of care and confrontation. That’s one of the many reasons grace is amazing.

— Steve

(For a full view of the 100 Guilder Print, go to

Disciple Dog’s Mother’s Day Card

         In my life and career, I’ve listened to many people describe their family life.  I learned many people have had deeply nurturing relationships with their mothers.  I know others whose relationships have been painful.  And I know the experience can also be a complicated mix.

         I can affirm being a parent is not an easy task.

         Over the years, I also learned to appreciate the power of being in spiritual communities, where people of many ages and life experiences come together to care for and support one another.  These spiritual families can become like an extended family.

         Last May I was serving as interim pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.  My mentor and friend, Disciple Dog, shared some personal thoughts with the congregation on Mother’s Day. This week, he gave me permission to share it with you:

         DD named some specific people in his spiritual “pack.”  On this Mother’s Day weekend, he suggested I encourage all of us to do the same.  Who comes to mind for you?

Time to Go Vertical?

Today’s piece begins with a quiz. This photograph is:

  1. My grandson reaching out of our trailer’s skylight to see what it feels like.
  2. A visual metaphor for prayer.
  3. All the above.

            If you answered “c” you are correct.

            Last week’s entry on enlightenment included an homage to Huston Smith. No writer or thinker has inspired me more.  He consistently drew on a lifetime of scholarship and personal experience to make memorable, useful and simple statements.  The statement for today is: “When you find yourself in a difficult place, go vertical.”

            Huston believed that spiritual traditions are based on higher truths.  We live much of our lives “horizontally” – going through the day with routines, assumptions and interactions that serve us well.  But sometimes we run into situations – tragedies, difficult decisions, illnesses, crises — when ordinary ways of thinking don’t help. In those moments we can turn to spiritual truths, passed on to us from people who have transcended ordinary reality to see the bigger picture.  That’s going “vertical.”

            I’m going to share some experiences of “going vertical,” but first I will address concerns thoughtful people may have about “going vertical.” 

            “’Isn’t this an outmoded way of thinking with the divine being “up there” and us “down here?’” It’s a reasonable question.  Many ancient people did believe the divine was too pure or holy to be down in the muck with us.  God must be up at the top of that mountain, far away and safely removed.  Most of us would agree that’s not the way we think anymore.

             If someone asks me, “Where is God?” I would say “everywhere.”  Within each cell of every living creature, as well as all creation, as well as far beyond what we can see or know.  As Psalm 139 puts it:

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.
(New Revised Standard Version)

            Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is not far away, but within us and amongst us.  People experienced his stunning presence right where they lived – they did not have to ascend a mountain.  Buddha was asked where the authority for his teaching came from; he touched the ground and said, “Let the earth be my witness.”  Muhammed taught that Allah is closer to us than our own jugular vein.

            So, we don’t have to go up a mountain to find the divine.    

            But I believe it’s still useful to use metaphors that suggest we “go up” for spiritual truth.

            When your airplane lifts off and you see your town from a higher altitude, you can see where you live with greater perspective.

             “Inspiration Point “is a favorite hiking destination in Santa Barbara.   When you get to the top you have a stunning vista over the town and coastline. It’s in-spir-ing, as in “in-Spirit-ing.”

            So, it’s useful to consider spiritual truths as “Higher” because when we grasp them, many other things come into perspective.

            The trajectory of my life was changed in my early 20s when I was in a personal crisis. I’d been self-absorbed, skeptical of any truth beyond my own reasoning.  But at a moment when I felt my life was going to pieces, I reached out into the unknown and “went vertical:” I prayed for the first time. I’m not even sure what I said. But metaphorically my hand was reaching out into the unknown hoping something “up there” or “out there” might help me.  Three days later, I realized something had changed – at my very center, instead of darkness and fear, there seemed to be a tangible point of light.  I was stunned. I was grateful. It took me a long time to integrate the experience, but my life was literally saved when I “went vertical.”  It was my first experience of grace.

            Ministry is all about helping people “go vertical.”  

            For example, people would make an appointment with me and say, “I think my wife is having an affair with someone at work and I’m worried our marriage may be in danger.”

            I would ask for more background. If appropriate, I would say:

            “One of the most important things you can do is to deepen your spiritual life. This will make you stronger for whatever happens.  If reconciliation is possible, you will have a better sense of who you are and how to repair the relationship.  And if your partner does leave, faith will be a lifeline to take with you into the unknown.”

            In January of 2020, I flew to Vienna on my own for two weeks.  For the first several nights, jet lag kept me awake for hours.  I “went vertical,” spending much of the time reciting the 23rd Psalm in a careful, contemplative way.  I not only got through the night but sensed a kinship with all the people I know who live alone.

            When COVID came, prayer and meditation became even more important.  The divine presence is not threatened by a virus.  I am grateful for the daily renewal I felt in those early months, “going vertical” instead of being shut in by fear.

            There are many issues to explore regarding how we pray and what to expect. But I never regret a moment when I find myself afraid or uncertain and “go vertical,” reaching out for what I cannot see.

            Have you had such experiences?

            “The winds of grace are always blowing, but it is you who must raise the sails.” (Tagore)

“How Do You Know If Someone Is Enlightened?”

            Huston Smith has been a guiding light in my life. 

            I first encountered him in the 80s. I was teaching comparative religion in a small college and used his book, The Religions of the World, which students from diverse backgrounds always found engaging. In 1996, PBS broadcast a series of interviews of Huston with Bill Moyers, The Wisdom of Faith.  I saw him speak in Santa Barbara several times at the Lobero Theater and always left with a clear mind and full heart.  

            If you lined up to have him sign a book, he’d ask you to write down your name on a piece of paper because he was wanted to spell it correctly. He would carefully inscribe a greeting and hand you the book. Then he’d look into your eyes and smile.  A bright, warm light illuminated his face.

            In 2010, I spent four days with him and a group of 30 retreatants at Esalen Institute in Big Sur (where this photo was taken.)  He’d been teaching there for 50 years, and this turned out to be his last retreat.

            He was 90. He entered the small seminar room slowly on the arm of his daughter, who helped him to his seat.  His clothes were well-worn, and his yellow windbreaker was stained around the cuffs; it must have been a favorite.

            After he was seated, his daughter welcomed us. She noted her father was now very hard of hearing, so we should direct questions to her and she would relay them through his good ear.

            She nodded to him that we were ready.  

            When he began to speak, the wide smile emerged, and that light came to the surface.  His told us his plan for the week was to tell stories about the people he had met over his life: Aldous Huxley, the Dalai Lama (before he was known in the West), Martin Luther King, Jr., Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Bishop Tutu, Suzuki Roshi, Native American elders, Joseph Campbell and a long list of writers, thinkers and spiritual leaders.  He encouraged us to ask questions at any time.

            In my blog I’ll be sharing memorable statements Huston Smith made.  The first one has to do with enlightenment.

            “How do you know if someone is enlightened?” a woman asked, and his daughter conveyed the question to him.

            He paused for a moment.

            “If they tell you they are enlightened, they are not,” he said with a grin.  “Truly enlightened people don’t think about it; they don’t care.”  He illustrated the point with a story of his first meeting with the Dalai Lama.

            Over my career people have asked me who my favorite theologians are.  I’ve often named Wendell Berry, Bach and Rembrandt.  But I also point to the older people I’ve known in my congregations.  They have lived through many hardships but are at peace with who they are and always looking for quiet ways to serve others.

            I remember one such man, Walt Eby.  Walt was a retired engineer from the Midwest who had come to Santa Barbara as part of a job transfer from Wisconsin.  Walt was soft-spoken. He never served on a committee or spoke at an event.  But at coffee hour, he would stand on the patio and scan for any new people who might benefit from a word of welcome.  He would walk towards them holding his Styrofoam cup of coffee and introduce himself.  Soon you’d see the visitor smiling, relaxing and conversing.  If appropriate, Walt might introduce them to someone else on the patio with a similar interest or background.  He did this every Sunday. His ability of sensing who might need such care was uncanny.

            Walt had a particular gift for connecting with teenagers.  One young man appeared with his mom at our service.  Walt went over and introduced himself and began a conversation.  When they came back the next Sunday, Walt was there again with his friendly, low-key presence.  In time he discovered the family was going through a divorce and took a special interest in the young man.  Walt would call and invite the young man to hit some golf balls or perform some simple job around the church, like mowing the lawn.  He took him to serve the homeless at a soup kitchen. Later, the young man joined our youth group and helped build houses for the poor.  Walt showed him how to serve others and had a profound influence on the young man’s life as he did on many of us.

            The young man’s mother later told me how much Walt’s care and concern meant to both her and her son…it was a steady, loving connection in a difficult time.

            This was his way of being.

            If I had said, “Walt I think you are enlightened,” he would not know what I was talking about. Such words were irrelevant to him. It was just the way he was.

            When I was Director at La Casa de Maria, we annually hosted 200 groups from every spiritual path imaginable, as well as many nonprofits.  I was asked to review the application of a group that had come before. They were a growing group from LA focused on a charismatic leader. I asked the staff for any comments concerning their previous visit.  I was told the leader had once become frustrated, and publicly berated a staff member.  I gave instructions to deny the request.

            “If they tell you they are enlightened, they are not.”