Pastor Kaye's Blog

A Plains Silence

(This is the third, and final, in a sermon series about modern-day mystics.)

Whether she defines herself as such or not, to me Kathleen Norris is a modern-day mystic. She is well-known for her spiritual writings, much of which germinated in the silence of the Great Plains of North and South Dakota. Her language to describe these experiences is decidedly mystical. She speaks of personal experiences of the Divine, of the interconnectedness of all things, she is not promoting a particular theology or doctrine, but supersedes those with a deeper inner spirituality.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris shares how living in the Great Plains impacted her life, her way of looking at the world, and her spirituality. I’ve distilled what I’ve read into three important lessons: silence, space and simplicity.

SILENCE

To even experience silence, true silence, is difficult these days – to get away from every manufactured or human sound. We can close our windows and doors, yet still hear the furnace kick in and the muffled street sounds. We can take a walk in the woods, yet still hear the traffic or planes overhead. Plus, we live in a culture that abhors silence. Many people seem to always need some noise, even if it is just the television or music on in the background. They won’t even leave their pets in silence! We have a rough time stopping, stilling ourselves, listening to the silence, waiting, seeking the face of God, and just being… it seems like doing nothing, but in essence we are doing something very important. We are finding our center. That quiet still place of calm within our souls needs to be cultivated, and it is much harder to do when we don’t have quiet in our outside world.

Norris grew up in Hawaii, went to college in Vermont, and then spent six years in New York City. From there she moved to her grandmother’s home in Lemmon, South Dakota (a town of about 1,200 people on the border of North and South Dakota and just outside of Standing Rock Indian Reservation). Can you imagine? New York City to rural South Dakota? I doubt many people could handle the switch!

Have you ever been to the Great Plains? Driven across North or South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas or Oklahoma? The Great Plains are actually even bigger than that, spanning the area west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. There is nothing for miles and miles and miles, but sweeping grassland. Yet, Norris learned to appreciate the “Plains silence” and the gifts it had to offer. She talks about the power the silence has to re-form you, to reconnect you to the cycles of the earth, and to teach you to wait and to hope, as the farmers wait and hope for rain. As she acclimated to her surroundings, she found that instead of lamenting the loss of urban life and stimulation, she sought more ways to quiet her life. She even stopped watching television and became an oblate, or associate member, of a monastery.

The amazing thing about cultivating that quiet calm place with in is that once that silence is absorbed into the depths of one’s soul, you carry it with you. Norris shared,

 [T]he Plains have changed me. I was a New Yorker for nearly six years and still love to visit my friends in the city. But now I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence within me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays.

Have you had the experience of walking into a chaotic situation, or crowded place, and yet it felt separate from you, as if it swirled around you, but it couldn’t disturb the groundedness and centeredness at your core. Silence is what cultivates this. It is sacred and healing.

SPACE

By space I mean physical separateness. Being removed from the distractions of daily life oddly enough seems to give us the ability to see more clearly, more lovingly. Norris found that the isolation and solitude of the Plains paradoxically made her feel more connected to others in a positive way. Perhaps it is the ability to see the forest instead of getting hung up on the trees.

Space grants us perspective.

In her return visits to New York City, Norris said she was able to watch the diverse people around her from a place of amazement and joy. She found herself recognizing that each person is “a treasure-bearer, carrying our souls like a great blessing through the world.” Having space in her life gifted Norris with the awareness that there are “no strangers” and that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”   In other words, we are all connected and access to the Divine is everywhere.

SIMPLICITY

Norris shares some of her experiences as the artist-in-residence for the North Dakota Arts Council, aKathleen Norris job that took her throughout the entire state to teach poetry. Many times she found herself in very small rural schools, in towns with no motels (where she’d stay with a family), or if there was a motel, it was often on its last legs, with a rusty shower stall, a paper bath mat and a pay phone in the parking lot. The more civilized motels, she said, had that red and black flocked velvet wallpaper making her feel like she stumbled into a New Orleans bordello.

But over time, she was able to change her perspective and began to see the gifts of these grim surroundings and flourish there. These rooms “became as monks’ cells for her, full of the gifts of silence and solitude where she could knit, write and do serious reading.”

Living more simply, she insisted, is not about denigrating the body, but “a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society – alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels – that aim to make us forget.”

Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t deprived enough. It’s when we don’t have something, or someone, that we learn to have gratitude for them and for the smaller things in life. We also learn how much we really don’t need. Every time I go camping I realize how much I can live without and wonder why I really need so much stuff! At night I’m grateful for a warm meal over the fire, for the stars in the sky, and a dry tent and sleeping bag. They are things I don’t even think about at home.

Norris tells a story about a monk who went to visit one of the desert fathers, Abba Moses, and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Silence, space and simplicity… these are the spiritual lessons of the Great Plains. For those of us who seek the face of God, it is important to find time to cultivate those things – even in small amounts – wherever we are. For it is in letting the silence soak into us that our souls become calmer and more peaceful; it is in finding space to be that we accept and treasure others more; and it is in living more simply that we live more in gratitude, lose some of our need for material things, and replace it with what is truly important: a deeper relationship with the Divine.

Blessings,

Kaye

Living a Balance

(This is the second in a three part sermon series on modern day mystics.)

Allow me to use the familiar Bible story of Mary and Martha to reflect on some of the writings of Evelyn Underhill. You’ll remember that this infamous story involves a visit of Jesus and his followers to the home of Mary and Martha where they are offered hospitality, something to eat and most likely a place to stay. However, as Martha is diligently caring for her guests needs, Mary simply seats herself at Jesus’ feet to absorb his teachings. Martha gets frustrated with her sister and implores Jesus to “Tell her to help me!” To which Jesus calmly replies, “Martha, Martha! You’re anxious and upset about so many things, but only a few things are necessary – really only one. Mary has chosen the better part, and she won’t be deprived of it.”

(For the full video of this message, click here.) 

This scripture has been used – primarily – to extol the virtues of Mary’s dedication to Jesus. And, as we’re talking about mystics and contemplatives, too often they have become synonymous with withdrawing from the world and normal everyday life to pursue a constant, quiet, communion with the Divine. While Underhill, in what I have read, spends a great deal of time helping the reader to find the path to Oneness with the Divine, this isn’t the end of the line.

As spiritual beings we can experience unity with God, but as physical beings we Evelyn Underhill 1are also constrained to, as she calls it, our this-world life. Being all spiritual and close with God is not a pass from living in this world. In fact, she says, it actually signs us up for more responsibility.  The mystical life “is not a life of comfortable piety, or the enjoyment of the delicious sensations of the armchair mystic.”  There are terms to this new awareness, and these terms tell us that we don’t get to just slide through life doing less than our best. Nor are we relieved from making difficult choices, now we have even more difficult choices to make. The spiritual life “demands… immensely generous compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, gentleness, radiant purity, self-forgetting zeal.”

It seems to me that Underhill is calling us to a balance between Mary and Martha, between all-encompassing study, prayer and worship and a life of service. Each must feed the other.

Certainly, for Underhill, the contemplative (or Mary) part of one’s spiritual life is exceedingly important. In fact, her instructions for a deeper awareness and Oneness with the Absolute echo some of the same language that we heard from Thomas Merton last week.

One of the first things we must do, she says, is change our attention, which will enable us to see a truer universe. We must learn to experience life at a sensory level, beyond the labels we assign to things – “to escape the terrible museum-like world of daily life, where everything is classified and labeled” (Practical Mystic p. 17). When we see something or someone, we see it primarily with our minds as we jump immediately to the name (label) we’ve given it that will include our pre-judgments, analysis and critiques. This is not reality, this is an illusion we’ve created for ourselves to live in.

The mystic lives a life in which the emphasis lies on sensation rather than on thought. It is a “state of pure receptivity, of perfect correspondence with the essence of things.” It is moving beyond apprehension of thought to pure truth.

This difference in living is like the story she tells of “No-Eyes” and “Eyes”:

The old story of Eyes and No-Eyes is really the story of the mystical and unmystical types. “No-Eyes” has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own movement along the road; a movement which he intends to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of the light which they reflect. “Eyes” takes the walk too: and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich world through which he moves lies in the fore-ground of his consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step. “No-Eyes,” when told of his adventures, usually refuses to believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself. (A Practical Mysticism, A Little Book for Normal People, p.11)

Underhill calls us to train our faculties and our consciousness to feel and experience. This she calls ordinary contemplation.

What keeps us from experiencing the world with our senses? The mystics seem to unanimously agree. We are. She answers: “Thought, convention, self-interest. We throw a mist of thought between ourselves and the external world: and through this we discern, as in a glass darkly, that which we have arranged to see. We see it in the way in which our neighbors see it; sometimes through a pink veil, sometimes through a grey. Religion, indigestion, priggishness, or discontent may drape the panes. The prismatic colors of a fashionable school of art may stain them.  Inevitably, too, we see the narrow world our windows show us, not “in itself,” but in relation to our own needs, moods, and preferences…”

Once again, we are told that union with God can only be a union of love, a “self-mergence in the universal life, a giving oneself up to, a dying into or melting into the Whole.” Unity is not something to acquire, claim or hold, but to become.

So, if we can do these things… experience with the senses and recognize the illusion that we’ve created to be our world, we have begun to open ourselves to a point where Ultimate Reality can enter in.

The practice of meditation is also essential for Underhill’s path to unity with God. She explains that this helps us to recollect who we really are. Though she knows this is not easy and admits that the first 15 minutes of meditation is like “a time of warfare which will simply convince us of how unruly our attention and will are, and how far we are from the mastery of our own souls. But sticking with it will bring us to a place where we know the real us which is distinct from the world in which we live.”

Through these practices of ordinary contemplation and meditation, slowly but surely we will experience changes. We will be moved to get rid of old habits, old ideas, old prejudices, and have less of a need for material things. Plus, she says, one’s demeanor will change. There will be a quiet certitude and trust in the Eternal Love.

And this brings us full circle to Mary and Martha. Diligently practicing and exploring our spiritual sides, meditating, letting go of judgment and ego… all of these things take time and energy. It would be great if we could sit at the feet of the Master and work on these things all day, but the reality is that we live in this world. There is dinner to make, work to do, kids to attend to, oppression to fight, the poor to care for, and the sick to visit. We can’t just sit there basking in the glow we’ve discovered. We must continue to take the growth that we experience and merge it with our “this-world” life.

In Underhill’s opinion, our goal is not to create for ourselves the comfy mystical armchair where we can sit in cozy communion with the Fire of Love (I love all the ways she describes God, by the way). No, there must be a balance between work, prayer, self-discipline and social service… a balance between contact with the “present living world of time, and due renunciation of it.”

Both Mary and Martha’s positions have value and worth, but the practical mystic seeks balance.

Contemplation is not an end in itself. It is real only when it impels you to action. By our very existence then, in unity with the Eternal Essence, we bring to each moment the love, compassion, light, beauty, intensity, justice and hope of God.

Love & Light!

Kaye

Realm of Contemplation

Perhaps you have heard of some of the more famous Christian mystics from the Middle Ages, many of whom have now been sainted by the Catholic Church… Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckart, Hildegard of Bingen? We rarely consider, or hear about, more recent and equally influential mystics in our midst, but I assure you that they have and do exist.

I’ve chosen just three to delve into –  Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and Kathleen Norris – but there are many others.

Meister Eckart said, “Theologians may quarrel, but mystics of the world speak the same language.” This is how we know the mystics. They speak the same language… they tell us that God is unconditional, universal, unbounded, untethered Love, they speak of metaphors, poetry, symbols and mystery, they lean heavily on experience rather than rules and dogma, and they proclaim our Oneness with the Divine and the connectedness of all things.  When I think of influential modern-day mystics I think of John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, John O’Donohue, Joyce Rupp, Sue Monk Kidd, Joan Chittester, Matthew Fox… and many others. They may not have claimed or been given the description of mystic, but they speak the language. I think we speak the language here at Sacred Journeys.

THOMAS MERTON

As a brief overview of Merton’s life, he was born in France in 1915, mertonwas educated at Cambridge and Columbia Universities where a number of Christian writers had a profound influence upon him. He converted to Catholicism and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1938. Shortly thereafter he became a Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. He became a prolific spiritual writer and speaker. At the age of 50, he became the monastery’s first hermit and sadly died young, at 53, of electrocution. Still, Merton was a best-selling international author, mystic, monk and priest, and had considerable influence on the evolution of Christian spirituality in the 20th century.

It seems as difficult to explain or describe the practice of contemplation as it is to describe the Divine. Merton describes it this way:

“Contemplation is the highest expression of [one’s] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)

Contemplation is full awareness – complete knowing – of the reality of the abundant Source. It supersedes scripture, liturgy, words, music, art and any other ways our limited intellect and vocabulary has to understand God. Contemplation goes beyond.

In fact, it goes so far beyond this world and our egos that, Merton says, all other things must “die” – all other experiences must be momentarily lost – before they can be known from a higher viewpoint or a deeper level.

Perhaps we could consider looking at it like this… it is like walking a path up a mountain and you pass beautiful trees, waterfalls, rivers, lakes. You spend some time sitting and enjoying the view, but then realize you must let them go to continue your hike. Moving further up the path, you lose sight of those things, they are temporarily lost to you (metaphorically died to you) as you continue your journey. Then you emerge at a point so much higher that you can see everywhere you’ve been, including all the vistas you enjoyed before, but from a new perspective, with new awareness of how they are all connected.

And, yet, this metaphor falls somewhat short. Merton tells us that contemplation is about more than a new view or a new clarity about God where we can now hold God within a new box. Contemplation is being carried away by God, beyond boundaries and rules, into God’s freedom, mystery and creative love. Perhaps we need to be swept off the mountain path by a great wind that carries us far beyond anything we have ever known, to experience a freedom we never knew existed as gravity held us firmly rooted to the ground.

What keeps us from being fully awake, fully active, fully aware?  What keeps us from living a life of contemplation? What keeps us from experiencing spiritual wonder and spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life?  What keeps us from knowing our Oneness with the Source?

Merton says the obstacle that hinders our oneness is our self – “the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. But this is merely our outward and “false” self which keeps us alienated from the reality of God. Then the false self becomes our god and we do everything for the sake of this self.”

The dying, therefore, that must occur is attachment to this false self. Detachment in order to achieve union with God is not about detaching from things, but from ourselves.

This is one of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes:

When we have escaped the “prison of our own false self” and enter by love into union with the “Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our souls” we will know true joy.

Love. We enter into union with God by love. And we can’t just love God without learning to love others. 1 John says, “Those who claim to be in the light but hate their neighbors are still living in the dark. But those who love their neighbors are living in the light and need not be afraid of stumbling.” One of the paradoxes of the mystical life, Merton claims, is that “one cannot enter into the deepest center of oneself and pass through that center into God unless one is able to pass entirely out of oneself and empty themselves and give themselves to other people in the purity of a selfless love… In God there can be no selfishness.

Merton is sensible enough to ponder whether there might be even twenty people in the whole world who love perfectly, who have entered into union with the Divine perfectly through this love, who are constantly aware of the reality of the Source. In the end, he admits “I don’t believe that there are twenty such [people] alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.”

Clearly he acknowledges to live in the realm of contemplation at all times is nearly impossible. But if what we strive for is union with the Divine, then we need to stay on the path and keep moving forward, keep practicing awareness of the Divine, recognizing a realm beyond ourselves.

A complete knowing and Oneness with God is achieved when we “die” to ourselves and the things of this world, when we recognize that our ego is merely our false self, and that clinging to and desiring the things of this world are not of God.  Letting go feels scary, if not impossible, but grants a freedom that we occasionally get glimpses of. It is a freedom that manifests in a love of all things and all people.

Love & Light!

Kaye

 

Epiphanies: Music

This is the third week in a sermon series on Epiphanies.

Epiphanies are moments of “aha!” and moments of connection with the presence of the Divine. In the past when I’ve asked people to tell me times when they’ve felt the Spirit I’ve often gotten blank stares. “What do you mean feel the spirit? I just go to church and sing and pray… am I supposed to feel something?”

In my humble opinion, we’ve all felt the touch of God, we’ve all plugged into that spiritual electricity, people just don’t necessarily know that’s what it is. My hope was that this series would help people identify the presence of God through real experiences – creativity, art, music and poetry. The more conscious we are of the paths that the Spirit can take to touch us, and the more conscious we are of God in our lives on a daily basis, the more in tune we will be with the Divine and the more that will manifest itself in our lives in positive, healing ways.

Music is a part of almost every spiritual tradition… from Native American chanting, to Jewish cantors, to Gregorian chants and Taize music, there are the whirling dervishes of the Sufi, choirs and bell choirs, Kirtan music of the Hindus, orchestras and bands. In every age, every culture and every religion, music has been deeply woven into our spiritual lives.

You may or may not know that the chapters in the book we call Psalms were hymns; songs of praise as well as songs of lament. They were poetry that was sung or perhaps chanted. The Hebrew word Selah occurs 71 times in 39 of the Psalms and was most likely a musical direction of some sort. And the Psalms themselves call us to make music.

In fact, the Bible is full of stories of music.

  • After the Israelites left Egypt, Moses and the people all sang a song of triumph and praise to Yahweh. (Ex. 15:1-18)
  • Again, after the flight from Egypt, Miriam (Aaron’s sister) gathered up the women who then danced and played tambourines while Miriam sang (Ex. 15: 20-21)
  • David played his harp or lyre to King Saul to soothe him (1 Sam 16:23)
  • David and all the people celebrated with songs, harps, lyres, tambourines, rattles and cymbals (2 Sam. 6:5)
  • In Matthew, after Jesus has shared the bread and wine with his disciples, they sang a song before going out to the Mt. of Olives (26:30)
  • In the NT, Paul exhorts us to sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs

And this is just a small sampling!

Music helps us to feel. It is an emotional language, and as such links us to the depths of ourselves and has the ability to link us to something greater than ourselves.

While playing music, or listening to music alone, can be wonderful, it adds so much more to be playing as part of a band (or orchestra), or singing as part of a choir or part of a congregation or audience.

Playing with a band, as I have on and off for 10 years now, has often been an amazingly spiritual experience. There are times when the music comes together, the harmonies meld and flow, and the boundaries between one another become permeable. For a few moments separateness disappears and we are one with each other. The same thing happens when an audience is swept up in the swells of a great piece of music.

In both cases our vibrational energy increases, the group is brought to a higher level of awareness and spiritual experience. It is a spiritual high. It doesn’t matter if it is an upbeat piece of music, or a sorrowful one, something about the melodies and harmonies, and probably the heart of the musicians, draw the pieces of our lives together to a deeper place. Some of us experience this as goosebumps, some as tears, some as awe or euphoria. Whatever the case, I’d call it a Divine epiphany… we are no longer individuals, we are more, or one, or all.

The church has had its opinion about the type of music that “should” be played in worship… it had to be “sacred” music… something that sang about God, or was felt to be “appropriate” to play for the Divine. Hymns about God, or classical music, or chanting. In the 1950s most churches condemned rock ‘n roll and dancing as being of the devil. It wasn’t until Vatican 2 (1965) that the Catholic Church revised their stance on music and allowed guitars and more folksy music in the mass.

In my opinion, if music lifts our hearts and souls, if it connects us on a level of joy and celebration – even if it doesn’t mention God – then it is sacred and filled with the Spirit. If music has deep meaning, makes us stop and think, connects us to deeper feelings that are more mellow or even sad, and draws us together in that deeper emotional place – even if it doesn’t specifically talk about God – we are experiencing the Divine as our connection to one another. The music draws us out of our egos and into a deeper place.

Yes, secular music can speak to us in a spiritual way!

And then there is the ability of music to heal. Music can lift us out of a bad mood, or help us to mourn, express sadness or celebrate with joy. In 1 Samuel, David played his harp to help King Saul with depression, making him a music therapist!

Music therapy includes creating singing, moving to, and/or listening to music to help with healing, cognition, and communication. It is used in many different settings for many different reasons including: hospitals, schools, hospice care, for people fighting cancer, for kids with autism, for Alzheimer’s patients and women giving birth.

Julia Cameron, in The Vein of Gold, says, “Music speaks to the wounds we have no words for. It heals where all else fails.”

 

Here’s another thought… we may not be able to play a musical instrument, or sing a note, but our voices are still our instruments. Our words carry vibrations and energy that are positive or negative. We are all capable of sending out healing words to others and the world. Or not.

Music is sacred. It is a window to the soul and a window to the Divine. It provides us with epiphanies – transcendent experiences of connection to God. I encourage you to recognize the spirit that is present when your heart is touched through music. And I encourage you to use music to heal and energize yourself and others.

Love & Light!

Kaye

 

 

 

 

Epiphanies: Art

(This is the second in a sermon series on Epiphanies.)

Art seems to be a neglected topic in the churches. Sure our churches are filled with all art 3manner of art – stained glass windows, music, sculpture, murals, paintings, poetic liturgy and even some liturgical dance. But, have you ever heard a sermon preached on the in-breaking of God through art, or the potential art has for facilitating epiphanies in our spiritual lives? I’d bet a month’s salary you haven’t (not that I’m a betting person). To be fair, I haven’t preached it either, until now.

(For the full video version, click here.)

I think this neglect has at least something to do with the lack of scripture on the topic.  In addition, I think it also has to do with the fact that art and the connection it gives us to the Divine and to others takes us into the realm of the mystical. Frankly, the church doesn’t deal with that realm very well. It’s too personal, too experiential, it opens the door to different interpretations, and deep feelings, and a one-on-one connection to God. The institution is far safer and more in control when people rely only upon worship and priests/pastors for that connection.

So, let’s talk about art. Here are some of the big questions around art and religion: Can art be a way to God?  Is art in the life of faith a luxury … or a necessity?

Now, I’m not an artist, though I must admit I’m envious of those who have that gift… upon whom the Holy Spirit has breathed creativity, imagination and skill. And, yet, even artists have struggled with the question of whether their commitment to the world is simply superfluous. It’s not feeding the poor, advocating for justice or visiting the prisoner. Is art important? Is it a way to experience God? Does it matter for spiritual growth or society, for that matter? Seems when our schools are forced to make budget cuts and they immediately choose to cut art and music that, sadly, the message is that these things are unimportant or unnecessary.

And yet, art is not simply visual beauty and enjoyment or creative expression… it is universal communication. The language of art is symbol and image; it is the language of the Spirit and of dreams. It is wordless and so transcends words and language barriers to the sensual and the experiential. It is perhaps a better means for conveying the sacred as it is less limited than our spoken words. As N.T. Wright stated in Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense,

“The point is this. The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are the highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way.”

Art has a great capacity to help us transcend this world to touch that Something More that we all yearn for, because art is an act of the soul. And creating art is an act of vulnerability and risk because it enables us a glimpse into another’s soul… that is sacred in and of itself.

But more than that, art points beyond itself. It leads us into the emotional, experiential world where we are drawn into sadness, joy, despair, hope and so much more. Art has the capacity to connect us with our hearts, which is where we find our connection to the Divine. Marcus Borg, in his book “The God We Never Knew” explains,

Spirituality is thus for the hatching of the heart. Whatever helps to open our hearts to the reality of the sacred is what we should be engaged in.”

Spirituality is far beyond the judgmental, finger-pointing God that many people grew up with. Spirituality is even beyond the prayers, hymns, and liturgy of the church. Spirituality is about opening the heart to God. It is about epiphanies, the aha moments when we recognize the presence of the Divine here and now.

The Yale Divinity School magazine, Reflections, published an issue in 2015 focusing on questions of art and religion.  They invited some of their graduate students, who also had, or were working on, degrees in the arts to contribute their thoughts. There were three that struck a chord for me.

Megan Mitchell, a master’s student in religion and the arts spent time helping to create public murals not only in the U.S., but also in Africa and Haiti. What she discovered is that art opens a space for listening and attention. She comments, “That’s what the world needs now: space to take notice of each other, our own souls, and the still small voice of [God]…”

Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold, a master’s student in religion and the visual arts and material culture, spoke of watching people who came to visit the art Gallery at Yale where he worked. Religious and non-religious groups alike “venerate their favorite artists and works. They uplift the art museum space as “sacred,” comporting themselves with religious-like postures. They hush and clasp their hands before dimly lit images. The works seem to elicit awe and reverence.”

And Meredith Jane Day, a Master’s of Divinity student and a member of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music related a story of preparing for Advent that year. She and a small group of 20 people all gathered for eight hours in a library in New York City to spend time in silence, wonder and discussion about the season. To facilitate the day, the group was shown photos of famous paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meredith commented that, “The room was full of brilliant seminarians, clergy, and academics, but it was the art that gave us something we could not have offered on our own. It provided a spiritual avenue for confronting our humanity, at the same time assuring us of a mysterious glory within.”

To bring us full circle and answer some of the questions we started with…

Clearly, yes, art can be a way to experience the Divine. It can provide the potential for epiphanies … unexpected, potent moments where the Spirit breaks in. Art can facilitate a deeper listening and attention to God, but also to one another, and oneself. Art draws us into a space of reverence, awe and a sense of the holy. And, art helps us to delve into aspects of our shared humanity, while drawing us deeper into the ineffable presence of God within.

Church and life without the arts would be significantly lessened, and our ways to the Divine curtailed, were we to omit art as too secular, or too sensuous, or too frivolous.

Perhaps in the strictest sense, art in the life of faith is a luxury (certainly we can exist without it… unlike food, water and shelter). But who would want to? Truly we are so blessed by the artists in our midst – the painters, writers, sculptors, dancers, photographers, and so many others – how can their gifts not be of God? So, if the gift of art, done with heart, is a gift of the soul and a gift of the Divine, if it helps us transcend this plane of existence and experience Something More, then perhaps, by design, it is necessary.

Peace,

Kaye

Epiphanies: Creativity

We celebrated Epiphany yesterday with the traditional reading of the story of the magi. Symbolically, the magi represent the larger world – they come from afar, they are not Israelites, they know nothing of prophecies, but they have seen in the heavens that something in the world has changed. A new king has been born, but he is a king unlike any that anyone expects. This child shall be for all nations, all people.

(For the full video version, click here.)

An epiphany is an “aha” moment, and in religious language an epiphany is an “aha” moment when we recognize the presence of the Divine. The magi story is an “Aha!” from the world that God has broken into life in a new, creative way.

For the next three weeks, I’d like to explore epiphanies… ways that God breakscreative into the world that we don’t talk about because they aren’t exactly named in Scripture. We’ll begin with creativity, how each act of creative energy – large or small is an in-breaking of God into our own lives, a channeling of the Divine, a connection to the Source. In the weeks to come, we’ll talk about other tangible ways that the Divine breaks in: art, music and poetry.

So, let’s start with creativity. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron states,

“I have come to believe that creativity is our true nature, that blocks are an unnatural thwarting of a process at once as normal and as miraculous as the blossoming of a flower at the end of a slender green stem… In a sense, your creativity is like your blood. Just as blood is a fact of your physical body and nothing you invented, creativity is a fact of your spiritual body and nothing that you must invent.”

The ways that one can be creative are endless. These are only some of the ways we express our creativity that we named yesterday:

  • Art, music, poetry
  • Gardening, landscaping,
  • Home decorating, setting a table (think Martha Stewart)
  • Quilting, knitting, scrapbooking, coloring
  • What you wear, how you style your hair, do your make up
  • Cooking, baking
  • Problem-solving and brainstorming
  • Interacting with people
  • Raising children, teaching

Basically, I think that one can approach just about anything in life creatively. And yet, I don’t know how many times people have said to me, “Oh, I’m not very creative.”

And I’m thinking, “Why not? Are you sure? Says who?”

What if I told you that I truly believe the inability to be creative is hooey? It’s NOT that some people were born creative and others weren’t. We all have creativity within us, it may just not be the same type of creativity. Creativity is part of our spirituality, or our spiritual body, as Cameron says. It is an innate part of every person.

So, consider this…  Cameron tells us that learning to live a more creative life is a spiritual quest! Our creative juices will be limited and dry up quickly if we try to create solely drawing from our own personal resources, experience and ideas.  To live a more creative life we must open ourselves up to the spiritual energy of the universe. She encourages everyone to connect with what she calls spiritual electricity. She says you don’t have to have a specific name for it (though some use God, Source, Goddess, Universe, Energy), and you don’t have to understand how it works. In the same way you don’t need to understand electricity to use it either. All we need to do is find ways to make the connection and open the doors to the flow.

She has two books of exercises that have been derived from her class notes on connecting with our creativity. The three most effective ways to connect the well of universal creativity she says are:

  • Morning pages –  every morning hand-write three pages of whatever you want. Follow the writing wherever it wants to go. This is time between you and God.  Re-read them occasionally. They will open one to the flow where one will start to see creative changes in one’s life and work.
  • Weekly dates with yourself – each week do something with yourself only! Take a long walk on the beach, go bowling, watch an old movie, visit an art gallery or museum or zoo. Fill oneself with sights and sounds and new experiences. The intent is to create intimacy with oneself.
  • Filling the well – the world drains us, and being creative can drain us. We need to take time to “fill the well” by replenishing our creative energy. She says, “Think magic, think delight, think mystery. Follow your curiosity, ask questions, be lured into the new of something.” There are other ways to fill the well… listening to music that lifts you up or gets you dancing. Anything with a repetitive movement can be meditative and fill you with energy – chopping vegetables for dinner, taking a shower, swimming, scrubbing, and driving. Walking has been my “go to” tool for filling the well whenever I’m out of ideas and banging my head against the proverbial wall.

I admit that I’m terrible at being disciplined at anything, much less writing daily and having weekly dates. Sorry, Julia. But I can greatly appreciate the principles behind these three points. I use journaling and time alone to help me replenish my creativity. And I’m clear that I’m tapping into Something More when I do them. The creative zone happens when we completely let go of our judgments and fears of failure and consciously invite the Universe into the process.

As a teacher of how to reclaim one’s creative powers, Cameron said the transformation of students is amazing. It is truly an enlightenment, in the literal sense. Students take on a glow as they begin to contact their creative energies.

The Divine works constantly in this world in wildly creative ways, why is it so hard to believe that – created in that image, having the Divine spark in each of us – we too can be wildly creative?  Because we are… we need to begin to believe this, and then to put ourselves in the path of that creative flow, open our hearts and minds and time to it. Risk and dream, explore and experiment, let go of inhibitions and fears of failure or foolishness… live our inheritance of creativity.

Love & Light!

Kaye

 

Miracle of True Love

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a child was born. We don’t really know the day the child was born, or the year, or the place. But that child grew up to be a spiritual leader who would transform many, many people’s lives and understandings of God. That child grew into  a man who effused love, compassion, justice and peace. love-came-down-at-christmasThat child came into the world at a dark time in history (though perhaps every time is a dark time) and shone a light of hope into the shadows of oppression, inequality, poverty, and fear. Because he was such a beacon of light for the world, and because we continue to need such a beacon, we celebrate the day he was born just after the winter solstice when the physical darkness has been the longest and the hours of daylight slowly push back the night. We do this year after year because we don’t want to forget the impact one person can have. And we do this year after year to bring hope into the dark places of our lives and to push back the despair of darkness that sometimes seems ready to overwhelm us.

(To view the full video version of this message, click here.)

It takes courage to open oneself up and love, to be vulnerable. And it especially takes courage when the world has become jaded and prejudiced; when power and greed have taken center stage. Into that kind of world, Jesus had the courage to love, and to share and witness to a God of love. A God who met enemies with love. A God who embraced the outcast with love. A God who transcended laws with love. A God who conquered hate with love. A God who extended forgiveness with love. It is hard to believe in this kind of deep, unconditional love because our own love can feel so fragile and so dependent on our own self-interest. But somehow the magic of this time of year helps us to believe it might be possible.

Small miracles happen at this time of year… the friendly conversation I had with an African American grandmother as our “boys” tried on clothes at Kohls, the two men who pulled over in their pick-up trucks to help when a friend got stuck pulling out of the dog park on Hwy 38, the doors that are held open, the gifts that are given… pin-pricks of light in a blanket of darkness. So many pin-pricks, in fact, that we begin to have hope for the world again.

I once read a quote from a 5-year-old little boy named Bobby who said, “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” Stop and listen, love is not just in the room, it is in your heart and soul. It is the Divine dwelling within you, just as it dwelt so fully in the child Jesus.

Christmastime reminds us that we were born to love. To live true to ourselves we must meet hatred with love. We must meet prejudice with love. We must meet fear with love. This is the lesson of the child born in a manger.

Christmas Blessings,

Kaye

Doing Enough

This is the final sermon in a three-week series based on Wayne Muller’s book, a life of being, having and doing enough.

Doing enough… it seems to be a concept that is completely out of vogue. Companies don’t seem to understand it… they fire employees and don’t hire new ones, just distribute their work load to already overloaded employees. Families don’t seem to understand it… we over-schedule our kids so that they don’t miss out on anything. We ask ourselves what more could we be doing to improve at our jobs, to stay more connected to our friends, to take better care of our parents, to take care of the house, etc. But we rarely ask what we can let go of. And if we do say no or try to cut back we feel guilty.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

Wayne Muller makes the point that we’re all trying to “get caught up.” Have you said that? I know I have. Thing is, I’m not sure it ever happens. Once I’ve caught up by crossing off the things on my to-do list I’ve added ten more things that I now have to catch up on! It is the proverbial hamster wheel.

Going and going and going eventually results in burning out. Burnout occurs when we try to give that which we don’t have to give.

Burnout can manifest in a number of different ways: irritability, grumpy, frustrated, overwhelmed, anxious, over-emotional, short-tempered, distracted, depressed and exhausted. It’s important to recognize the signs that tell us we’re doing too much and reaching burnout, because then we can try to do something about it instead of just getting sucked under.

Can you imagine what the stories about Jesus would have looked like if he’d let himself burnt out? Instead of a calm, centered, peace-filled prophet we’d have a stressed out, frustrated, ready-to-pull-his-hair-out prophet. But he never let it get to that stage, because he took time apart to relax, regenerate, renew. Luke 5:16 says, “But Jesus often withdrew to some place where he could be alone and pray.” It is how he took care of himself and kept up his spiritual energy.

What do we do to keep from getting burnt out and keep up our spiritual energy? What do we do to care for ourselves? When I asked this during the message yesterday people said: meditate, exercise, music, nature, quiet time. Here are ten more ways to slow down I found in an article last week:

  1. Do less
  2. Be present
  3. Focus on people
  4. Appreciate nature
  5. Eat slower
  6. Drive slower
  7. Find pleasure in anything
  8. Single-task
  9. Breathe

In order to maintain a healthy balance of doing enough and caring for ourselves in our lives we have to set boundaries. I admit this is not one of my strong suits… unless I’m setting a boundary to keep the rabbits out of my garden. By golly, then I’ll fortify it like Fort Knox… trench the fence, line the weak spots with bricks, sprinkle anti-rodent pellets around the perimeter (which didn’t work), surround it with marigolds (which really didn’t work either, but they looked pretty). My neighbor doesn’t use a fence, but he has a gun. Just can’t go there.

But here’s the point. I want the things in my garden to grow, so I put up a boundary to keep them safe. If I want certain aspects of my life to find nourishment and grow – my spiritual life, my relationships, my work, my health, my sanity – I may have to set limitations on myself and others so that, as Muller says, “the endless demands for time, money and energy don’t sabotage what is valuable, precious and necessary for me to thrive.”

I’m going to give you a gift. Three gifts, actually. I’m giving you three “nos” that can be used on yourself or others. They come without regret, guilt or need for explanation. When you feel something threatening to push you over the edge of reason and sanity, use one. When you feel an obligation to do something that is not going to be nourishing and may simply stress you out, use one. When you just need a break for an afternoon, use one. I can always get you some more! Blame me if you have to, I don’t mind.

The teacher in Ecclesiastes had it right, I think. There is nothing better on this earth than to eat, drink and take pleasure in all you do. Doing more, or doing faster, doesn’t really make our lives richer. Quality time with friends, slowing down to enjoy the world, people, food and life, being with people to listen and enjoy who they are, nurturing your spiritual journey, often finding time for prayer as Jesus did… these are the things that bring us to wholeness.

Muller says, “Do what you can and have mercy… mercy on yourself.” You can apply that to trying to solve world hunger, or trying to get everything you want done for the holidays. Do what you can and have mercy. And don’t sacrifice life or the journey for the doing.

Advent blessings,

Kaye

 

Having Enough

This is the second in a three-week sermon series based on Wayne Muller’s book, a life of being, having and doing enough.

On Thanksgiving Day I found a lump in my breast. Two appointments and a week later we learned it was actually three lumps; two were definitely simple cysts that would be no problem. The third was a little suspicious. I had all three aspirated on Tuesday and everything is fine. Nothing to be worried about. But I spent two weeks with a very active imagination, and a history of a mother who died of breast cancer.

I couldn’t help but think to myself that Christmas was coming up, and, should this turn out to be very negative, there was no need to ask for any material things whatsoever. In fact, it was a really good exercise in remembering what was truly important. In this very spiritual, introspective state, what did I want for Christmas?

  • I wanted my friends and family to be happy.
  • I wanted any issues we were having to be resolved, because they paled in comparison to the importance of love and support and relationship.
  • I wanted to give memories and love.
  • I wanted my kids around me.
  • I wanted to give special gifts for people to remember me by.
  • I wanted our Christmas Eve service to be sacred and magical and holy and beautiful and touch hearts.
  • I wanted to laugh and cry and play and sing and live every moment to its fullest.

Well, since it turns out that I’m fine, I suppose I’ll go along with receiving material things for Christmas… I wouldn’t want to deny anyone that fun, would I? But (and I know many of you have probably been here), it puts a whole different spin on life.

(For the full video version, click here.)

Disclaimer: Before we go further in exploring the concept of having enough, it’s appropriateyou-have-enough-2 to recognize how privileged we are to be able to have this conversation in the first place. We all have a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food on our shelves, while billions of people around the world do not. Perhaps when we find the balance of “enough” in our lives, we will be better suited to help the world.

As it is, we approach this concept from where we are and ask ourselves: What is true wealth? What might it feel like? And how much is enough? These are some of the answers I received when I asked our community:

  • Love of family and friends
  • Spiritual wealth
  • Inner peace
  • Enough is being happy with what you have
  • To feel that your life has had meaning
  • Health and security

This isn’t rocket science and, basically, we already know all of this. Yet, I’d like to raise two issues that contribute to our feeling of not having enough:

  1. The first goes back to our sermon from last week on Being Enough… most of us have a hard time believing that we ARE enough and so having more (love, money, time, stuff, accolades) than, or better (love, money, time, stuff, accolades) than, others helps us feel like we’re enough. Or receiving nice things from people helps us to feel loved.
  2. We’re bombarded with messages from the media that encourage us to believe that we need more stuff to be fulfilled and experience a life of enough.

Wayne Muller points out that the world is more than happy to try to tell you what is enough and what will make you happy. It is the job of marketing people everywhere to make you believe that you can’t live without something… a new car, a dream vacation, fancy clothes and a Martha Stewart decorated house… more of this and some of that. As long as we buy into this, we will never have enough because there is always something we won’t have!

I used the parable of the yeast and bread today (Matthew 13:33) because it spoke to me of enough. The kindom (yes, I left out the “g” on purpose, using the Inclusive Bible translation) of heaven is not a physical place, it’s a spiritual state of being. The kindom of heaven is within, Jesus tells us. We experience it when we experience oneness with the Divine, peace, deep abiding joy, love, compassion, hope. In this parable, the kindom of heaven is like yeast that leavens a really big batch of bread (like 60 pounds). With yeast, though, you need only enough… not less and not more. It is a balance – too little yeast and the bread won’t rise, too much and the consistency of the bread is wrong. The kindom of heaven is enough, it is balance.

How do we find this balance? It’s not as easy as following a recipe and getting the right amount of yeast in the bread.

Wayne Muller directs us inward. He suggests that we step back and seek the experience of our bodies to know what is enough. “But our most reliable experience of enough begins within our own visceral experience; it is a sufficiency tasted first through intimate conversation between our own fully incarnated spirit and flesh. We feel this sacramental sufficiency most reliably in the body – in the heart, chest, and belly.” Don’t trust what others tell you – advertisers, the Joneses next door – what does your heart and gut tell you. Does it really tell you that you need another pair of shoes? A bigger television? A new car? More lights on your house?

Now, I’m not telling you to turn down all your Christmas gifts, that simply denies others the blessing of giving. But our happiness does not, at the end of the day, have anything to do with how much we have. Our happiness depends on our perspective. The prospect of dying changed my perspective and restored an inner sense of balance about what was truly important in my life. Perhaps that’s why, as folks get older, they begin to simplify and downsize, they spend more time with kids and grandkids, and they want fewer things, but crave interaction and relationship.

Despite what you may have imagined this message would be about, it was not about lecturing you to clean out your closets and give things to Goodwill, or to give to charity instead of giving gifts, or to give all you own to the poor. My intent was simply to ask all of us to examine our hearts and souls in two ways. First, to work on recognizing our own enough-ness deep inside, so that we don’t live under the fallacy that something acquired or given will finally help us feel like enough. Second, to be aware of what resonates with enough in our physical bodies, and then to honor that.

Advent Blessings,

Kaye

Being Enough

This week begins a three-week sermon series based on Wayne Muller’s book, a life of being, having and doing enough.

Why is it that we can achieve, create, build, fix, help, serve and give with every ounce of our energy and still not feel like we’ve made a difference? That somehow, no matter what we do, we feel like it will never be enough? It seems that just about everyone has felt this way at one time or another. But, why?

Don Miguel Ruiz in his book “The Voice of Knowledge” talks about the lie of imperfection. He believes that we have all bought into the great lie that we are imperfect. You see, when we were young children we were completely authentic, and never pretended to be who or what we are not. When we felt love, we expressed love (welcoming mom or dad home), when we felt uncomfortable with someone, we didn’t go close to them, when we were sad, we cried.  The greatest freedom was to run around naked and not care (though it is probably a good thing we don’t do this anymore). Then when we started to understand language the people around us told us what we were and we believed them, even though they may be contradictory. We were told that if we behaved in certain ways we were good boys and girls, and we understood that we were bad if we don’t behave that way.We were told that if we wanted to be successful and be somebody, we had to work hard. But we heard the underlying message that at that moment we were clearly nobody. For some of us, our churches told us that we were inherently bad and sinful and only through the death of a beautiful human being could God even begin to accept us again. By listening to all these opinions, we learned that we must not be good enough as we were, which is why we needed to be told how to behave to be good enough.Why would our parent’s not tell the truth? Or our teachers? Or the church? Eventually, Ruiz says, we feel not only not good enough for others, but not good enough for ourselves. Hence, we try to prove that we are good enough by getting straight As, being a sports star, working long hours, getting degrees and promotions; however, we are no longer making decisions based on our highest good and our truest self, but on what others think. And so we have bought into the lie of imperfection. It has become a cellular part of ourselves and now feels inherently true.

In Matthew 4:15-16, Jesus is speaking to crowds of ordinary people – not saints, not pillars of the synagogue – and he is telling them that they are the light of the world. We usually think about Jesus being light for the world, especially at this time of the year. We talk about how, at Christmas time, light is born into the darkness. But in this passage Jesus says that we are all the light of the world. We ARE the light, not “can be” or “could be” if only we did everything right. Muller points out that Jesus’ teachings did not come with any fine print, disclaimers or exclusions. He didn’t say, “You are the light of the world, but only if you are straight, or go to church every week, or give 10% of your income to the poor, or never screw up, or solve world hunger.” Instead he told all these regular folks that they are the light of the world and needed to stop hiding their light under the bushel baskets of not enough, of baggage, of fears, of the lie of imperfection.

Wayne Dyer, in his book, The Sacred Self, reminds us that “the Divine created being-enoughus in perfect love that is changeless and eternal. Our bodies change and our minds change… we are not our bodies and our minds. We are much more than bodies and minds, we are spirit, a spark of the Divine fire, pure love. Enough.”

If we are looking for a universal truth, this is about as close as we can come. All the great religions teach the same thing:

  • Buddha taught that we have wholeness within us, our Buddha-nature.
  • In the Torah (Old Testament for Christians), Yahweh, God of the Jews, declared that the most essential of life’s truths were inscribed on their hearts… in other words were a part of each person deep inside.
  • Native Americans speak of the Great Spirit who infuses all creation with the same sacred life force.
  • For Hindus, the Atman, or soul of the world, is everywhere.
  • All the mystical traditions – Sufism, the Gnostic gospels, the Kabbalah – all declare that the journey to the Divine is the journey inward to the true self where we are whole, where we are enough.

We are always seeking to be enough, but the truth is that we already have what we seek. We are enough. We just have to realize it. Then we have to own it. We have to claim it as our truth over and over again,  so that it replaces the lie of imperfection, that cellular knowing that we aren’t enough.

If we remain convinced that we are imperfect, damaged goods, defective or incomplete, we will live our lives and make our decisions out of this wrong belief. Then we make choices based on our feelings shame, guilt, unworthiness, failure… maybe even a belief that we should be punished.

But what if we believed in the goodness of our own souls? Believed that we have within us all that we need to be complete and whole? Believed in our own inner strength and wisdom? Believed that regardless of where we’ve come from, what we’ve done, what people have said to us, that we could carry this knowing into every situation with confidence? What decisions would we make? What would our lives look like? How might we respond differently to the world each day?

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Because this is truth… you are the light and you are enough.

Peace,

Kaye