The Weeds and Wheat Within

            Years ago, I was driving downtown to take my turn as a volunteer at the local soup kitchen.  On the way, I noticed the following thought appearing in my awareness: “You know, volunteering at the soup kitchen shows to you and everyone that you are a really good person.  People will notice and think highly of you.”

            Another voice spoke up, “What a tacky thing to think! You’re not going there today to show off.  You are going because you know in your heart this is simply the right thing to do.”

            Next thought: “What an amusing dialogue you are having, Steve.  Sounds like you got one voice that is selfish and another voice that might be decent.”

            I was tempted to think the second voice is the “real me” and the first is “not me.”  But, you know, I seem to have both voices within me all the time.  The first is always performing to impress my self with my self and hoping other people notice what a good guy I am. The second wants to just do the right thing for the right reason without any fanfare.

            41 years after being awarded a “Master of Divinity” degree, I am far from mastering the relentless and petty voice within.  

            I take heart from reading a recent “Daily Meditation” posting by Fr. Richard Rohr.[i]  He writes about the Gospel parable in which the field workers are concerned that weeds are growing in the same field as good grain.  The owner tells them not to worry – in the final harvest the weeds will be separated out, and the good grain will remain. Rohr says that, growing up, he felt the parable told him to be relentlessly looking for the “weeds” in his life and root them out.  But, over time, he sensed that was impossible and gave up. Then, as he matured, he saw the parable in a new way:

Jesus shows us an absolute realism. He says something that was never said to me when I was a young person: “Let the weeds and the wheat both grow together.” Wow! That’s risky. I can’t pretend to logically understand it, although I know it allows me to be compassionate with myself. After all, I’m also a field of weeds and wheat, just like you are, and just like everything is. Everything is a mixed bag, a combination of good and bad. We are not all weeds, but we are not all wheat, either. We have to learn, even now, to accept and forgive this mixed bag of reality in ourselves and in everybody else. If we don’t, we normally become very angry people. Our world is filled with a lot of angry people because they cannot accept their own weeds.

To accept this teaching doesn’t mean we can say, “It’s okay to be selfish, violent, and evil.” It simply means that we have some realism about ourselves and each other. We have to name the weed as a weed. We can’t just pretend it’s all wheat, all good, because it isn’t. We’re not perfect. Our countries are not perfect…. The project of learning how to love—which is our only life project—is quite simply learning to accept this. If you really love anybody, and I hope you all do, then you have learned to accept a person despite, and sometimes even because of, their faults.

            This has strong parallels with Buddhism, in which we avoid the folly of thinking we can block thoughts we don’t want to have. Instead, we learn to let them come into the open, and to observe and assess them. In that freedom, we become more compassionate with ourselves as “complicated” creatures, as well as more compassionate with our fellow human beings who live the same inner complexity.

            This perspective doesn’t mean we passively accept disappointing behavior in ourselves or others. But it does invite us to be realistic that to be human is to be a mixture of wheat and weeds. Constantly sorting out the inner voices is hard work and, like the peasants in the Brueghel painting, sometimes it’s OK to take a break. But it’s vital work, and I’m grateful to Father Richard for this liberating insight.

Image: The Harvesters, Brueghel, 1656


[i] https://cac.org/daily-meditations/the-weeds-and-the-wheat-2022-08-28/

Starstruck: The Relationship Between Awe and Caring

When we get away from city lights and look up to behold the fullness of the night sky, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe.  Awe reminds us how “small” we really are, yet, paradoxically, it’s exhilarating.  We feel better having been reminded that there is such an amazing world beyond us.  But I did not know there is a connection between experiences of awe and how we act towards other people.

In a recent column, Cal Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik cites several studies that explore this connection[i]:

One study found this: “When people gaze up at an awesome sight like an eclipse… they become more humble and caring when they look down at their Twitter feed.”

Here’s another: “…people were shown videos of earthbound awe-inspiring sights like a towering tree, a sublime landscape or an erupting volcano. Afterwards they felt less significant themselves and more caring toward others.”

And she cites another that includes spilled pens: “… researchers placed students in front of either the majestic Berkeley Eucalyptus Grove or a tall but boring campus building. A confederate then came by and dropped a bunch of pens on the ground, apparently by accident. The awe-struck students in the grove put more effort into helpfully collecting the dropped pens than did the students by the mundane building.”

Here’s more: “But what about in real life outside the lab and university? In the new study, the researchers cleverly took advantage of a natural experiment—the total solar eclipse of 2017 and the millions of people who tweeted about it. First, they analyzed over eight million tweets and compared people who were in the path of the total eclipse to those who were not. Unsurprisingly, people who experienced the eclipse expressed more awe than those who didn’t, using more words like “amazing” and “transcendent.

But they also used more words expressing social connection, like “care” “love” and “thanks,” and they expressed more humility and tentativeness, saying “maybe” or “perhaps.” They even said “I” less and “we” more than people outside the path. A further analysis showed that how social and humble people were depended on how much awe they expressed.

Isn’t that fascinating? Yet, somehow, it makes sense. 

I regret I have not spent more time at high elevations where the sky is at its most dazzling.  I remember being on a hike a few years ago in the Sierras, and before going into the tent late at night, looking up and being overwhelmed by the sight of the sky.  I long to go back to that spot and simply lie on my back, being absorbed by wonder.  It “humanizes” us – or, perhaps, “spiritualizes us. Or perhaps they are the same thing.

On the terrestrial plane I have felt something surprisingly similar during worship services.  I’ve led and attended many in my life, and some are certainly forgettable.  But some are transformative.  It happens often at a simple memorial service: you hear about some small act of kindnesses the person did, or how a challenge they faced gave someone courage to face their own hardships, or you hear their favorite song sung with care and love.  What’s remembered are moments when the person’s soul seemed to quietly connect with another.  It reminds me of how extraordinary life is. And as I mingle with others at the reception, we’ve been reminded of mortality as well as what endures, and it’s as if I’m seeing each person with more clarity and reverence than I did before the service.

Gopnik comments: These results might help to explain a rather puzzling fact about spiritual experiences in general, whether they are the result of organized religious practice, secular meditation or even psychedelic rituals. On the one hand, these experiences often involve a very personal and private experience of awe, a sense of transcendence. But at the same time, they seem to lead to very real and down-to-earth actions to help other people.

And she concludes: “The mystic’s ecstasy might seem far removed from the homeless shelter or soup kitchen, and marveling at a grove, cathedral or eclipse might seem to have little to do with saying ‘we’ or helping someone pick up their spilled pens. But our minds do link the two. The awesome natural world makes our petty egos seem smaller in comparison and makes our connection to other people loom larger. Gazing at the heavens may help us make a better world on earth.”

Our hard-working ego always wants to be front and center. When that is going on, we see everything, including night skies and other people, as only important insofar as they serve us.  But whenever the ego gets dethroned by something amazing beyond us – beholding the Milky Way, or watching a newborn child sleep, or holding the hand of someone about to take their last breath – the ego’s power dissipates. Out comes our spiritual self, which is always aware of our fundamental connection with nature and others.  Experiencing that connection is one of the greatest gifts we can receive.

Artwork: Cantique des oiseaux comète


[i] Humbled-by-looking-up-at-the-heavens, WSJ, August 28, 2022

Old Haunts, New Rivers

            In late July, my wife and I traveled north to Sacramento to visit cousins, then on to the Oregon Coast to visit friends.  I was surprised with what perceptions arose in each place, and how the two impressions ended up blending together.

            I had lived in Sacramento in the mid-70s after college, trying my hand at selling real estate.  I made many friends, and grew to appreciate the river, the parks, the Victorian houses, and the neighborhood I lived near the Capitol.  I had not been back since. As we drove up the I-5, a lot of fond memories came back to me.  

We had booked a hotel in Rancho Cordova to be close to where we were going to meet for dinner.  As we came into the city and headed east on Highway 50, I was amazed at how much the city has sprawled and grown.  Logically, I knew the population had tripled since I had lived and worked there and there would be changes. But I was surprised at how out of place I felt.  

Memories kept coming as I thought of the people I knew back then and I wondered if I could trace them down.  But as I remembered each person, I realized I’d lost touch with them and that most of them, no doubt, had died.  It became clear that the life I had known was gone.

            The next day we headed north to Oregon.

Our friends’ home is on the banks of the Siletz River at a point where the river flows into the sea.  It’s a large, impressive river.  I realized that, growing up in southern California, I was familiar with seasonal creeks but no real rivers

Soon I was mesmerized as I sat quietly and watched the river flow.  I thought of our countless ancestors who have watched rivers over the centuries, and who sensed they were watching the unending movement of time. Day-to-day, we live as if our lives are stable. But days, months, and years pass, and we realize life has always been quietly moving all around us, and our lives are part of that constant movement and change.  

            The melancholy feeling of loss I had visiting Sacramento came back, but I saw it in a new light. I understood it was just another example of life’s river flowing.

            A verse from a 3-century old hymn began singing itself in my mind: “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.”  The hymn is based on a song of Israel, Psalm 90, which is itself 2,500 years old.  That sense of being part of “an ever-flowing stream” is an ancient awareness.

            A new thought arose: my time in Sacramento may have passed long ago, but many new people have come into that community with most of their lives are in front of them.  New lives have replaced mine and all who are no longer there.  And this is good.

            I kept watching the Siletz River. I could look eastward and imagine, at the headwaters of every tributary, the water’s journey just beginning. Then I could look westward and see the waters finding their way to the sea. The waters will evaporate, form clouds, and bring rain, and the river will replenish itself.  And this is good.

            I’m grateful for what I have seen and what I can still see. And knowing what endures is not me but the river itself.

Top Image: Siletz River looking eastward; image below: the river as it merges with the sea. Photo credit: R. Ellsworth

Playing in Life’s Jazz Orchestra

            A seminary professor once ended a class by offering a memorable metaphor for the spiritual life.

            Life, he said, is like playing in a jazz orchestra where the Divine One is both composer and conductor.  We’ve all been given a score for our life to play, as well as the freedom to play it as we want.  The composer’s aim to use every one of us to create an inclusive and beautiful work of music. 

At times, we may play notes not in the score. Maybe we do so by mistake because we are tired or confused. Or maybe we do so willfully, because we like to strike out on our own, regardless of the consequences for us or others.

 If this was a classical score, playing the wrong notes might ruin the piece.  But it’s a jazz score, always open to improvisation and the unexpected.  The Divine Composer takes whatever notes we have played and instantly rewrites the entire score to incorporate what we’ve done into something new, both for ourselves and others. And, as the composer is also the conductor, we are all invited to play our part in this newly revised score. In this light, no “mistake” is beyond an ultimate redeeming use.  The score is constantly evolving, but the divine intent – to use us all to create something new and beautiful – is unwavering. 

In this orchestra, none of us are mindless robots. All of us experience both the freedom to play as we want and the invitation to make something extraordinary when we follow the conductor’s lead and collaborate with others.

As we learn to trust the notes set before us day by day, we find a deep satisfaction in playing our life score as best we can, both for our own sake and the sake of the larger composition.  Of course, accidentally missed or intentionally misplayed notes can keep appearing, but never are beyond being incorporated into something wonderful.

One thing I like about his metaphor is that it assumes we have free will.  Other models seem to assume there is one, fixed, preordained plan for your life, which is a challenge to understand if we have free will. 

Another point: if we make some poor decisions and play off-key, we’re not thrown out of the group.  Every moment, every day, we are offered a fresh beginning and new music to play.

This model is not coercive.  We are not being commanded to perform or threatened with punishment if we refuse.  If we play it, it’s because we have decided we want to do so. We want to have our life count for something that includes a personal sense of satisfaction but goes beyond us.  Musicians often talk about what a thrill it is to make music with others, creating something exciting that’s more than the sum of the parts.  This is the key to a fulfilling life.

            It could be that the basic teachings of the great traditions – loving God, loving neighbors, caring for the earth, seeking justice, and lifting up those on the margins of life – are like musical scales and keys that are the foundation of every score.  But the genius of the composer is to use these in ever new ways while giving everyone an important part to play in bringing the music to its full potential.

Arguably the greatest jazz composer, arranger and conductor of all time was Duke Ellington.  Here’s a sampling of his wisdom that seems to fit well with I’ve described:

“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”

“The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he (or she) knows how to listen.”

“Everyone prays in their own language, and there is no language that God does not understand.”

This metaphor for spiritual life may not be perfect, but it’s as good as any other I’ve encountered.

Photo Credit: Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Blue Note, Tokyo

How Vin Scully Endured Personal Tragedies

            Many people are writing tributes to the sports announcer Vin Scully, who died this week at 94.  He was the “voice of God” for me and many kids with transistor radios when we were growing up — he was omnipresent, trustworthy, forgiving and always positive. His endless tales of players’ backgrounds were told with reverence and affection.  He was a constant in my life over six decades.  Beyond the famous baseball moments he was part of, I have several other enduring memories.

In 2010, I was in Phoenix for spring training.  After the game, I was exiting behind the stands and happened to see him walking alone as he headed toward his car. He was dressed in a well-worn suit, and I remember thinking he looked older in person than he did on television. 

In 2016, my youngest daughter, her fiancé and I made a pilgrimage to “Vin Scully Day” at Dodger Stadium where we heard him sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” to his wife and 54,000 reverent and faithful fans.

            We all knew he was a very private man.  I vaguely knew his first wife had died and he had remarried, but I never heard him discuss it.

            The one exception came in 2008, when he was interviewed on KCET along with UCLA Coach John Wooden.  At one point, the interviewer changed the topic from sports to personal challenges. He noted that Scully’s first wife had died suddenly at age 35, leaving him with three children.  He’d remarried Sandra, a woman with two children of her own, and together they had one more child.  Later his oldest son died in a helicopter crash at age 32.  Vin was asked how he had gotten through it all.

He said creating a new family after the death of his wife while working full-time was very hard – not the amusing experience of blended families being portrayed on the “Brady Bunch” TV show at the time.  He didn’t go into the loss of his son.  But he concluded by saying the only way he got through it all was to “stop asking why.”

Asking “Why?” is a perennial human question.

“Why did that person have to die when they did?” we ask.  The answers people find are varied. Some attribute it to the intentional act of an inscrutable God.  Others theorize it must be “karma,” a kind of moral accounting system in which we inherit debits and credits from past lives that shape our personal fate.  In modern times, we may look to causes that can be objectively verified, such as family history or the actions of viruses, bacteria, and natural forces.  We may find fault in the way a car is designed or blame a toxin in our food supply. 

We are curious, intelligent creatures, and we yearn to find answers for personal losses and tragedies.  Sometimes we find them. Such answers may bring some peace, and we are reassured that the universe isn’t chaotic after all.

But satisfying answers don’t always come.

Vin’s first wife died of an accidental medical overdose. That’s explainable on one level – simple chemistry. But that doesn’t take away the heartbreak, sorrow, and unfathomable reality that one day a young wife and mother of three is alive and well and the next day she is gone.

His son died working as a helicopter pilot, which may be attributable to a simple error in judgment of a person up in the air at the helm of a large and complex machine.  But the harsh reality that a remarkable young man whom you’ve loved since birth is here one day and absent the next – that will always be a shock.

Vin did, at times, talk about the importance of faith and prayer. He was raised a devout Irish Catholic and remained one his entire life.  His immersion in that faith made a difference in how he endured and how he lived. But he never claimed that any of his prayers helped him find an answer to the question that apparently haunted him in the early days of his grief — why did death come to these two beloved people in such an untimely way?  Vin — the gracious, wise, humane, and compassionate observer of so many human encounters — said the key for him to going on with his life was to “stop asking why.”  I will remember that.  And I will also remember what a joy it was to turn on a radio and hear him invite us all to pull up a chair “wherever we may be” and listen to a master storyteller at work.

Photo credit: “Dodgersway”

“Beholding” as a Spritual Practice

            Last week I attended a leadership conference featuring David Brooks, PBS commentator and columnist for the New York Times.  He covered many issues in his three talks, and one I want to share with you concerns the attention we give other people.

David said he recently was working alone at home one evening when his wife came in the front door. He looked up to see her and realized she hadn’t yet noticed him sitting at his desk in the adjacent room.  He decided to simply watch her for a minute.  After she closed the door behind her, she put her things down, and paused.  The house was quiet. She then turned and walked into the kitchen.  In that unplanned moment of simply observing her, he realized how much he loved her. He said the experience of seeing her this way was not just a visual act, but something more: he felt as if he was beholding her.

He contrasted this moment with what we experience often in modern life — looking at each other without really seeing each other.  When we meet someone, we quickly form assumptions about them before they even speak and filter whatever they say through our assumptions.  When someone we know is talking – even someone we know well – our busy mind often isn’t listening carefully to them, but instead preparing what we are going to say in response.  “We are not good at “reading” others,” he said, which has created “an epidemic of social blindness.”  The quality of attention we bring to someone else is a moral act.  If we are truly paying attention with humility and genuine respect, we are granting that person dignity.   We are beholding them.

I looked up the origin of the word.  In Old English, the word bihaldan meant “give regard to, hold in view.”  Modern definitions include, “To hold by, keep, observe, regard, look” and “To look upon, view, consider as (something); to consider or hold in a certain capacity.” If I was to add my own definition, it would be “to give reverent attention to a particular person or experience.” I kept turning the word around in my imagination and was intrigued with the possibility that to “behold” someone could be to “hold” that person’s “being” with a particular sense of awe and care.  We are not looking at them with our “busy mind” but opening ourselves to the mystery and wonder of their living presence.

            In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor described the factors that led her to leave parish ministry. One reason was that she had become weary of people wanting her to tell them what they were supposed to believe.  She said her spiritual journey had not been so much about believing the right thing but inviting others into experiences of beholding —“beholding life on earth in all its glorious and terrible reality.”

            Being with someone when they die can often evoke a feeling there’s something sacred in the room. I remember my sisters and I spending time at our deceased father’s bedside before the mortuary arrived.  We weren’t just looking at dad, we were beholding him.

            And I recall what it’s like raising young children.  You’re busy all day long with them – talking, listening, dressing, negotiating, feeding, bathing, reading a story — and it’s a big accomplishment to finally get them into bed. A little while later you come back to their room to check on them.  You carefully, quietly open the door and see if they’ve fallen asleep. Seeing they are, you sometimes stand there and keep looking at them. You now “see” them for the miracles they are. You may even think, “When they are asleep they look like angels.” In those moments, you’re not just looking at them – you are beholding them

            Maybe we can try beholding one person today and see what we experience.

Imgage: Sleeping Child Covered With a Blanket, Henry Moore, 1942

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

[ii] Wordnik.com

[iii] https://www.nasa.gov/sun

[iv] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/spider

[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.

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,” folksy.com

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: https://wordpress.com/post/drjsb.com/357; b) for a Buddhist perspective on visiting nursing homes, go to https://drjsb.com/2020/12/17/siddhartha-visits-a-nursing-home/

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.

Living on the Back Side of the Tapestry

            Years ago, the great sage and scholar of all things spiritual, Huston Smith, spoke at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara.  He announced he had five talking points that evening – statements that the Santa Barbara audience might disagree with.  But, with a smile, he encouraged everyone to consider them.

            Each of the five points was provocative and memorable, and today I will comment on the fifth: “In the end, absolute perfection reigns.”

            He said he knew many people would think this is naive.  With so much suffering in the world, how can anyone believe perfection will emerge in the end?  But he stated it’s one principle all the major wisdom traditions agree on.  He also offered a metaphor to appreciate the concept: tapestries. 

            When you look at a tapestry from behind, it seems like a chaotic scramble of dangling bits of yarn and crossed threads. But if you walk around and see it from the front, you realize it’s actually an integrated, inspiring work of art.

            As we live our lives, he said, we can feel like we are creating something that looks like the back of that tapestry. We may go through days and seasons where we feel things aren’t working out the way we hoped, and our life has become a mess.  But in time – perhaps, as we keep going, or after we have left this life – the strands we felt were mistakes can be rewoven and incorporated into a larger fabric, and they will form something grand.

            I think about my family history.  I try to appreciate all that my ancestors went through, and that includes some dangling threads of tragedy, disappointment, and hardship. I want to live my life in a way that honors their accomplishments and also has compassion for what they may have felt were their failings.  It’s like I’m picking up pieces of thread from their lives and trying to give it new meaning as I find ways to weave their experiences into my own.

            I think about all the suffering people have endured due to race, gender and injustice.  I can’t do anything about the past.  But I can try to honor those sufferings and work towards a more just and humane world.

            I don’t know when my time on earth will be up. I go day by day, weaving my strands as best I can, assuming I’ll die with some left undone.  I hope those who follow me can pick those strands up and incorporate them into the lives they live, creating something good out of what I’ve done and from what I left unresolved.

            And if all humanity is doing that – if we are learning from the past while doing the best we can –that big tapestry is constantly evolving, and all the strands will ultimately find a place in the bigger work of art.

            And if there is a divine force in this world, present in all of nature and within each one of us, and if it’s endlessly at work helping us endure and learn and heal and create and serve – then we are not alone.  As we seek divine guidance and direction, we’ll find there’s a master artist at work alongside us, encouraging our creativity and leading us into new and novel patterns of meaning.

            As I say this, a skeptical voice within me speaks up. It tells me this is all wishful thinking. “We live, we die, life goes on and that’s it.”  I reply, “If that is the way it is, that’s OK…I’m grateful to have lived as long as I have, and to see all I’ve seen, and to have done the best I can.”

            But another voice in me thinks Huston Smith — and so many mystics — may be right. In the end, it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us, and that big, evolving, living tapestry we are all part of.  Maybe, just maybe, led, inspired, and sustained by divine grace, it will be true: “Absolute perfection reigns.”

Top Image: Jacquard paisley shawl (detail of front and reverse sides), Scotland, 19th century. Laura Foster Nicholson at https://lfntextiles.comtps://lfntextiles.com https://lfntextiles.com