Birth and Rebirth: A True Story

Ginny, my former student,  had an amazing story to tell at the recent high school reunion. Ginny is one of the best and the brightest–everyone likes to be around her. She’s funny, a great storyteller, and on the whole, as cheery an individual as you could every hope to meet. But that hasn’t always been the case.   A few years back in the very month she graduated there was a terrible car accident and her best friend, Amy, was killed. Amy and Ginny had been inseparable all senior year.  They had just said goodbye for the summer, and were looking forward to being close to each other in neighboring colleges in the fall.  Then two weeks later, in the blink of an eye, Amy was gone forever.

Ginny told me she was devastated to the point of despair.   How could this be?   What does it mean, when life is so cruel that someone is snatched away in the prime of life? How can we begin to make sense of this?

Then Ginny got some more shocking news. Her mother was going to have a baby. She had been quite young when Ginny was born, and now wanted to start a family with her new husband.   Ginny was really upset. All she could think was, “How can you do this? How can you bring another child into this horrible world of pain and suffering, where you’re doomed to death the minute you are born?” She was so angry she could barely speak to her mother.

She started college but it didn’t work out.  Grief had taken over. Thoughts of Amy haunted her day and night.   She dropped out after a semester and didn’t know what to do with herself.   She was about as deep into the Slough of Despond as a person can get.

Then something happened.   Her baby sister was born. Ginny took one look at her and fell in love. “As soon as I saw this tiny little life, everything changed. My little sister is the joy of my life.   I love her so much, I can’t even find the words. And as she’s gotten older, it just gets better and better.” Here Ginny began to choke up. “ She drew me out of this dark place—I can’t even describe it.”

This is the Sacrament of Birth, that transcendent joy so deeply felt, so beyond words that you don’t even feel like you’re on Planet Earth any more. You’ve found a special connection with another human being and that makes life worth living.   The joy of those first moments can lift you out of the deepest depression, and as the child grows and begins to walk, talk, and laugh, the bonds only grow stronger.

Ginny says the birth of her sister was her salvation…

Is it too much to say that Ginny herself was born again?

 

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Christians Awake! Quit the Cult

The death of Tony Alamo in federal prison this week brought to mind all the damage done in the name of Jesus Christ by charlatans disguised as men of God. Here’s a guy who managed to convince hundreds if not thousands of people that he had a direct line to the Lord and if they would only turn over all their money and assets to the Church he created, they would be able to listen in and salvation would be theirs.

Presto! a cult is founded.

He had a TV ministry back in the late 70s and made a fortune selling, of all things, designer rhinestone jackets to pop stars, jackets that are still being sold online for a hefty sum. Shouldn’t that be a tip-off that all is not right in the New Jerusalem when your spiritual leader is selling both salvation and sequins?

Salvation: it’s what so many are looking for–a way out of the morass that their lives have become, or, perhaps they are just spiritual seekers, looking for a creed, a guru, floating around like chemical ions, waiting for that attraction, that pull that will create a bond to make their lives complete in a blinding flash, and I do mean blinding.

Alamo did a lot of sleazy things, but the worst was using salvation as a threat to get women and girls as young as 15 to sleep with him. He was on the run from the FBI for years and when they finally caught up with him, he ended up with a jail term of 175 years. At the sentencing Alamo is reported to have said “I’m glad I’m me and not the deceived people in the world.”

And there you have it. There are the Tony Alamos and there are the deceived.   But there are also the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, who (we can only hope) will eventually outnumber both groups and combat hubris and ignorance with Humanism.

You don’t need a guru, you need to recognize that the sacred is all around us and does not involve complete surrender to a charismatic leader.   We all feel the need to belong to something—that’s the Sacrament of the Group. We also need people to guide us through life. That’s the Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. But the Tony Alamos of the world represent the dark side of both of those sacraments, when greed, lust, and ego masquerade as Goodness.

It all boils down to this: don’t abandon reason in your search for the Spirit.

Restorative Justice:The Sacrament of Forgiveness

The BBC reports this morning that a select committee of the British Parliament is recommending a bill that would enshrine into law the right to restorative justice.   This would allow victims of crimes to contact the perpetrators after trial and sentencing, and either meet them face-to-face or send letters in an effort to get beyond the rage and guilt, the nightmares and fears that often result. Those who have committed crimes may also initiate the contact.

Two very articulate parents appeared on the Newshour to explain how it worked. Their two sons had been in a fight. One son was killed and the other sent to the hospital with serious injuries. The three teenagers who attacked them were convicted of murder and sent to prison.   After two years, one of the teens was still having nightmares in prison and asked to meet the parents of the victims.   The parents were so full of anger that at first they could hardly think about it, but after some training on how the meeting would work, they agreed to go through with it. They went to a room in the prison and waited. When the prisoner walked through the door the first thing he did was go to the father and hug him. He turned to the mother and said, “May I?” and hugged her too. They talked. They got it all off their chests. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty, but as the mother said, “it turned a monster into a human being.” In the end, instead of anger there was compassion. They eventually met all three of the prisoners. When they reported back to their surviving son and urged him to give it a try he said he didn’t think he could meet face-to-face, but he wrote a letter. In it, he talked about his brother, how he would never be the best man at his wedding, never have kids….and at the end he wrote: “But I forgive you.”   Sending the letter transformed him.   He felt like he had been liberated, that he had thrown off some terrible, crushing weight.

This is the Sacrament of Forgiveness. In my book I give other examples of restorative justice, notably Desmond Tutu’s work in South Africa.   It won’t work all the time, but it can work. Violent crimes rob us of our personhood, our free will.  We feel violated right down to the core of our being and the consequences can be terrible.   Restorative justice is actually the restoring of our souls. It makes us human again.

The Power of Death

Amid the trivialities of our day-to-day life comes that force that slices through it all, grabs you by the throat and brings you to your knees—Death.

With the passing of one of my dearest friends, the power of Death once again overwhelms the Everyday, leaving that gaping hole in the universe.  The mind spins uncontrollably… lost…..gone… Grief floods our very being and saps our strength.  What now?… How can we come to terms with it? …The finality of existence, that feeling of despair slipping into hopelessness… How do we stand up to Death’s power?

The Church has an answer. The Stoics have another. The Hindu sages take refuge in maya—it’s all illusion.

Believe what you can, as Darwin told us. But what’s important is the Universal, that in its extreme sorrow, Death brings us to the same place as extreme joy– the transcendent dimension of existence where we can connect with the Divine.  Through meditation, through prayer if you like, by connecting with others through rituals, the madness of Death becomes something sacred. We circle the wagons, link arms with survivors and feed on the memories of those we loved.  We find our humanity in loss.

But it’s still hard.

 

Pope Francis on Islam: Is He Delusional?

Pope Francis recently said that he can’t condemn the brutal murder of the Norman priest, Father Jacques, as Islamic terrorism because “It’s not right to identify Islam with violence. It’s not right and it’s not true.”

This unleashed a furor.   On the Daily Express website for example, swarms of furious readers wrote in that the Pope was “blind”, “deluded”, “a nutter”, “an old fool”, “brain-damaged”, “an imposter”, “the antichrist”, “pure evil” “ a “Satinist”… Strong stuff!

So let’s unpack this.

Is it right to “identify” Islam with violence?

Bad choice of words.  What do we mean by “identify with”—that’s a confusing verb for this discussion. Let’s rephrase it:

Do some people who claim to be Muslims resort to violence to enforce their religious views?

Yes, undeniably.

Are they justifying their actions by pointing to what their religion teaches them?

Yes, absolutely.   In the holy books of Islam there are passages that unequivocally support violent acts to further their goals, including killing infidels to spread Islam. See link.

Does that mean that Islam is a religion that encourages violent and terroristic acts? Yes and no.

Yes, if you are someone who believes and teaches others that you must follow every word of the Quran. That is what we mean by fundamentalism: follow the holy text. There are from 1 to 5 % of Muslims in Middle Eastern countries who support the fundamentalism of ISIS.

No, if you believe that you can ignore certain parts of the Quran as outdated. See link.

This brings us to the most important part of the Pope’s recent statements: “Nearly all religions” have a “small group of fundamentalists” so don’t tar Islam with that brush.

Holy Cow! What the Pope is saying here is we have to beware of fundamentalism in any religion, including Roman Catholicism. Wow! What that would mean is exactly what Seven Sacraments for Everyone is getting at: we have to get beyond the slavish adherence to texts written thousands of years ago and to traditional practices that developed over centuries.   What we should be doing is “editing” those texts, looking into our hearts, looking at human experience to search for those transcendent moments that lead us to the Divine, that point us on our way to the Greater Good.   Killing innocent people in cold blood is the antithesis of this path.

Once again, two cheers for Francis!!   But he could have been clearer in his condemnation of terrorism under the guise of religion.

 

Pope Francis on Marriage: Get it Together, People!

Pope Francis is in hot water with conservative Catholics.   He recently responded to a question on marriage by saying that most (later changed to “many”) marriages were invalid because the couple didn’t understand the sacrament of marriage. They did not, he said, fully comprehend what they had agreed to as they exchanged those vows. His antagonists began piling on, saying that he was making the entire Catholic community wonder if their marriages were legit, and “muddying the waters” of the Roman Church even more than he already has with his liberal attitudes towards gays, divorcees, and others living beyond the pale (their pale, that is). You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as they proceeded to excoriate the Pontiff, as if he were an ordinary Joe off the street instead of the Vicar of Christ.

But Francis is on to something important.   Marriage doesn’t mean as much as it used to. It’s been plutoed. The Pope’s point is that those contemplating marriage are not being prepared properly for its demands, and that’s why there are so many seeking annulments (the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce).   They are too willing to call it a day and go on to the next partner on their dance card.

There are two things going on here. The first is the need to recognize that there are going to inevitably be some bad marriages and those people need to split up.   Maybe it’s nobody’s fault, maybe you can lay the blame at somebody’s feet, but every marriage is not going to be forever. People change. They get married too soon, too young, too unaware, blinded by passion and then one day they open up their eyes to a different person than the one they thought they knew.  They should be able to go their separate ways and start over.

But the second point jives with what Francis is trying to tell us. There is a sanctity in marriage, and not just for the Christian Faithful, but for everyone. Our partners in life, those with whom we beget our children should be our best beloved, and in that deep, ineffable affection and the intimacy of sexual union we find the Divine.  Call it God, call it whatever you want, it’s sacred.  Marriage should  ideally be for the long haul. But we live in a world of refunds, retooling, redecorating, and regifting. We have even invented the word “trial marriage”, an irritating phrase if ever there was one.

Forget for a moment the annoyance you may feel at celibate men of the Church ordering you around in this realm of intimacy and domesticity.  The world would be a better place if marriage were viewed as a sacrament instead of a tax benefit. The Pope is doubtlessly correct that many of us are woefully unprepared to be good spouses. But what is sacramental about the union of two souls, is not what happens in front of an altar as a priest utters some magic words. The sacrament lies deep in the heart of the bride and groom if they really care about each other and are willing to make sacrifices for each other and work together to make the marriage more important than either of their own individual lives. It is that depth of feeling that unites them, and makes them married in a spiritual sense. It is Divine. But you have to work at it.

 

World War III–It’s Here

World War III has started, folks. Don’t wait for a nuclear weapon to go off or a Gulf of Tonkin incident that will kick things into high gear. It’s here, and has been here since 9/11, first in Iraq, then Afghanistan, and now Syria, Yeman, Pakistan, Bengladesh, Libya, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Mali, Egypt and Turkey. And it’s not just the developing world:  The massacres in Brussels, Paris, Orlando, and San Bernadino were battles in this war.  Future battles are being planned right now.

The sides?

Radical Islam vs. the rest of the world

and

Islam Type A vs. Islam Types B, C, D, and F

It’s a war without borders, a truly world war, where no one knows when an angry man or woman, prompted by a religious leader, facilitated by social media, lax gun laws or ambitious gun-runners, will kill anyone anytime anyhow.   It can be soldier vs. soldier but doesn’t have to be–any death will do and the more the better.   Get used to it. There is no end in sight.

There will be, however, an end. That will come in one of two ways:

1) we all sink into such a miserable state of endless bloodbaths and fleeing refugees that we heave a collective sigh of despair and swear off all violence forever, every last man and woman of us on this planet

or

2) we stop listening to leaders and sacred texts that justify killing innocent people in the name of religion.  We recognize that the Sacred does exist in this world, but it can be found in our hearts.  Death itself is sacred.  We know this when we watch our loved ones face its challenges and are taken from us.  Killing in the name of religion, however, is the antithesis of the Sacred, it defines the Dark Side.  It robs the victims of their lives and the killers of their humanity.

We will only come to this point if parents can begin to teach their children that life and death are both sacred, despite what you learned from your religion.  Start teaching!

For more on this see ISIS and the Phoney War 

Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”and the Sacrament of the Group

A terrific book is out there waiting for you: Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, a combat journalist in Afghanistan who found that his experience on returning home from deployment was shared by many others in the military: it was hard to fit back in. He longed for the camaraderie you experience in battle, in a war zone where it’s life and death and each member of the team has to be there to support the other. Psychologically we need a tribe–that’s how we evolved.  Living a successful modern life means we don’t need each other physically as much any more, but the need to forge connections still haunts us.   When we are deprived of those connections we get messed up; when we find them, something clicks and our lives fall into place

The irony is that in peacetime, as affluence grows, we tend to be on our own making money to buy more stuff: we grow apart,we get selfish, we even get mean. But when we’re faced with a common enemy in a combat zone, or back on the home front supporting the troops as the nation did in World War II,  we get that sense of belonging, of  greater purpose. We come together, we share resources and have a sense of the tribe.

Junger is talking about what I call the Sacrament of the Group–a profound, feeling when we’re actively involved with people who are all on the same wavelength, with amplitudes reinforcing each other in what can sometimes be a sublime experience.  You can see this at political rallies, in concert halls, or at the World Cup. As a moment of transcendence it’s a powerful, fulfilling force, but at a more mundane level,  it is the bond of the tribe that Junger is referring to, something we sense day in, day out.  We’re missing this now in an America that is splintered as never before, which is why the vets are finding re-entry so difficult. How do we change that?

As Junger points out, we don’t get there by speaking contemptuously of our fellow citizens. The trolls are out there on the internet, and one of them has even leapt out of his reality TV screen to snatch a presidential nomination based on insults and umbrage. To glory in contempt is to destroy civilization. We should all be teaching our children to respect the dignity of everyone, even those they disagree with. This is a job for the family, schools, and community leaders. The primary campaign of 2016 is a measure of how far we’ve fallen.

We all need to belong to something, but tribes nestle within each other like Russian dolls. We begin with the family, then the neighborhood groups, and the community. Beyond that there is the city, the state, the nation, but ultimately we can’t forget that we are all citizens-of-the world.  Our task for the future is to get used to the idea of belonging  both locally AND globally.

Sebastian Junger appeared on the radio show On Point.   It’s worth listening to.

 

Are You Opening Your Children Up to the Spiritual Life?

Homo sapiens is the only species that can really use language.   Some apes have learned to do a little signing, but we are the only ones that can create complex sentences that convey complex ideas.   Our brains are wired to learn a language at a very young age, and if that opportunity is squandered, it becomes infinitely more difficult to learn to speak. There are terrible stories about children locked in closets for years who can only babble and shriek.  If they don’t hear the spoken word at the right time of their lives, it’s a lot harder to acquire a linguistic ability.

We are also the only species that has a spiritual sense, and there may be a window of opportunity to develop it as well. Columbia University Professor of Psychology Lisa Miller points out in her book The Spiritual Child that these days, although an increasing number of parents are identifying as being “spiritual” as opposed to “religious,” many are clueless when it comes to helping their children develop spiritually.   Within a religious tradition their job seems easier: send them to Sunday School, or teach them a catechism, practice rote prayers that have all the stultifying effect of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.  Maybe they’ll  say a prayer of their own now and then.

Maybe not.

Miller argues that spirituality is a dimension of our humanity that, if absent, opens the road  to problems.   She cites studies that show that developing a spiritual sense helps young people avoid depression, addictions, and other pathologies that prey on this generation of children. Her book is chock full of advice for parents on how to foster that spiritual life that seems so important to well-being.   All of us can get on the path to transcendence, with a little help from our parents.

This is the point my book also makes.   OK, so you’re spiritual, not religious, but what are you going to tell your child about death, right and wrong, and living together  peacefully in a world that has gotten smaller and smaller? We all need some guidelines for living, and most of us can sense that there is something beyond the mere desire to eat, drink, and be merry.  There has to be a moral code of some kind that we all live by and that is part of what defines the Spirit.  For the freethinkers out there, it doesn’t have to be a deity in the traditional sense, a Creator-Father, someone to talk to and seek answers from.  By simply seeking the answers to these spiritual questions and opening yourself to the wonder of it all you are partaking of the Spirit.

If we want to save the world, we have to start with our children, and with the allure of the screens pulling at them minute by minute.  Unless parents take the time to teach spiritual intelligence, to  wonder at beauty and ponder the mysteries of life,  future generations will enter adulthood as disadvantaged as someone who never learned to speak.

Pope Francis Does It Again!

In a new “Exhortation” entitled “On Love in the Family” the Pope has broken new ground in humanizing the Catholic faith.   So much of this is desperately needed that it bears repeating, so here’s some of what he had to say:

1) Get it Together, Men! The Pope goes after domestic violence and verbal abuse of women as the antithesis of what a loving union should be.  Absolutely!

2) Not Sex Ed, …Love Ed: he warns about the danger of encouraging adolescents to “toy with their bodies and desires” treating the other person as a means of blithely fulfilling their own needs. They need to be taught that sexual union is based on a profound love, not personal gratification.

3) Treat Gays Kindly: we must respect the dignity of all, regardless of sexual orientation, and treat everyone with consideration

4) Stop Dissing the Divorcees: far from ostracizing those who get divorced, we must encourage them to be part of the community

A lot of this comes down to that best of all Bible passages: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It also emphasizes the need for a serious education, starting in childhood, on what this whole range of mysteries is all about: sexual attraction, marriage, and sexual union.  Too often we’re doing a bad job of this right now.   Mother Jones recently published an article on the “Abstinence Only” sex ed laws in Tennessee, which got their start when the daughter of a legislator in that state came home to announce that her instructor in AIDS prevention had illustrated the use of condoms by rolling one onto a vibrator—with her mouth!

Yes, that would do it.

We desperately need to let our children know that sexual union is sacred and it all ties in with how we treat each other as sexual partners and how we regard the sexual orientation of others. This needs to be taught in the home and taught at school, no matter what you think about God.

On the other hand, there are some things in Francis’s exhortation that are problematic, even for the most devoted Catholics. Take the Pope’s unhappiness with birth control, for example. Francis jumps on the fact that we call contraception “protection,” as if a future child were an enemy.

Semantics can be such a problem.

Even in the most Catholic countries, couples are ignoring the Church’s teaching on this point and using birth control in massive numbers.   If they were not, there would be millions of unwanted babies. The “enemy” if there is one, is not the child, it’s Want, Poverty, Starvation and all the social ills that come with them. The Pope and his men seem unaware of the dangers of the Population Bomb, or if they are, apparently they would address it by having us buck up, strengthen our self-control, and simply refrain more often from sexual activity to avoid the 12-child family.   They are dreaming. We are programmed to procreate–the urge is too great for most to resist.  Without contraception famine, wars over scarce resources, and mass migrations of peoples would overwhelm the earth even more than they already are.

So Two Cheers for Pope Francis, and thank God that Catholics around the world are using their common sense where it’s badly needed to keep Poverty at bay.