Where Jesus Came

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of Christmas creches, and I suspect they’re not quite accurate.

Mary looks as if she’s just come from hair and makeup. Jesus is not crying, not nursing, but sleeping, the most unusual activity for a baby, as any new parents will tell you. And the innkeeper who wouldn’t give them a room apparently felt some last minute remorse and had the stables mucked out moments before because they’re gleaming.

The whole scene misses the point of incarnation; it confuses Christianity with perfectionism.

Jesus did not come into the world to put barns on the Good Housekeeping tour. He came to show that the stables shine just the way they are because there, as everywhere, the divine presence is found.

We have such a hard time with this. My family came for Christmas, and when they left, I felt unexpectedly sad. I enjoy the good fortune of having a wonderful family, but usually some sense of relief comes with having a quiet house again. Not this year.

I kept reminding myself to stick with the sadness, welcome it instead of fearing it and trying to push it away, and for one moment, I got it. I was making dinner, chopping up a pepper, and that pepper was suddenly breathtakingly beautiful, essence of pepper shining in the red and orange flesh.

Cutting vegetables in the comfort of one’s own kitchen is a far cry from going through the then dangerous ordeal of giving birth while lying on the ground, miles from home, without the community that would normally offer support. But that’s the thing about God’s love—it’s present during the smallest and largest difficulties, not taking them away as we often wish but rather inhabiting them and letting us know that no amount of muck can separate us from the sacred nature of ourselves, of others, of life.

The Joy of Presence

Instead of a license plate holder that says, “I’d rather be golfing” or “I’d rather be hiking.” I want one that says, “I’d rather be present.”

All the great spiritual traditions recommend dwelling in the here and now (or at least, as in the old Trident commercial, four out of five do). I tend to view being present as an accomplishment to attain, but maybe it’s simply a joyful place to be.

When we’re present, we can see that creation is one big current of love. Trees are manifesting love in tree form, grass in grass form.

Even we humans, confused as we are, walk around as electric charges of love. It seems improbable amidst all the horrors that we inflict on each other and on the Earth, but if it’s true of the hollyhock and the quail, it must be true of us. What else could we be when we are manifestations of God, of Infinite Love?

It’s easy to mythologize being present, seeing it as a state of perfection in which our mind is quiet and focused and our emotions are tranquil. While I’ll certainly take that when it comes, maybe presence is simpler than we think. Maybe all it requires is holding to a vision of life as it is, which is love.

Love does not make everything OK in the way we are accustomed to think of it. It doesn’t erase suffering or loss or insulate us from them, but as Jim Finley says, it offers “freedom from suffering in the midst of suffering.” It shows us the beauty of the bigger picture, the unchangeable nature of our and reality’s true identity regardless of the current circumstances.

Being present—being love to ourselves and others and recognizing love as the nature of all creation—is available to each of us every moment of every day, and it’s the most joyful choice we can make.

Still Life with Jello

I often ask my cat, Tux, questions he must be completely uninterested in, such as, what did I do with my keys? Others he may be tired of hearing, particularly, do you think I’ll ever get there?

“There” of course doesn’t mean to his food bowl; it means to that mythical place where I’ll have everything spiritually figured out. These days I ask it less often as I’m more and more aware that there doesn’t exist, but still, wouldn’t it be nice…

That question and I entered a new phase of our relationship this week. Intellectually I’ve understood for a little while that it’s not a useful question because “there’s no there there,” but in practice, I had just substituted “here” for “there.” Why not? Only one small letter apart.

I’ve been telling myself, if I could get really present, I would experience everything I associate with there—an uninterrupted state of peace, infinite reserves of compassion, an end to resistance, a better attitude toward the existence of jello. So being present came to mean being those ways. It became another there.

But that’s not it at all. There’s nowhere to go, period, and it doesn’t matter whether we get there, not even a tiny bit. On first blush, this sounds like a reason to eat a lot of jello, lime jello. Throw in the mini marshmallows and the pineapple bits. If it’s not getting any better than this, why not?

Considered in another way, though, it means that this moment is sacred, this one, right here, the one in which I am beating myself up or feeling annoyed or have just acted in a way that can’t quite be described as charitable. When the bathroom is dirty, when work isn’t going well, when failure or separation or despair threaten to engulf us.

That’s the miracle and mystery of it all. We are no further from God and God’s love at those times than when we are standing on the podium of life at our most shining and impressive. That’s the reason to be present—because our Life is here, right here.

Tuning into the Divine Frequency

Life would be so much easier if fulfillment could be found in exterior things. The world’s most amazing piece of chocolate cake exists somewhere, so find it and bam! you’re done. Mission accomplished. Life well lived. Carefree from here on out.

But nothing outside of our selves—space intended—will ever satisfy us, a reality that can cause a lot of joy or a lot of suffering.

So many things seem as if they describe or comprise our selves but don’t: our accomplishments, our responsible-ness, our moral conduct, others’ opinions of us. Sometimes, though, we really mess up all of these things—I mean really, or at least I do—and so they can’t be who we are.

What’s left when everything our society teaches us to value or work toward is not us? In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr writes, “Gospel holiness…is almost entirely about receiving God’s free gift of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.” Or to put it another way in another tradition, “We don’t need to look outside of the present moment to find inner peace and contentment; when experienced with awareness, everything becomes a source of joy,” according to Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

This sounds great but can be frustrating because there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves happy or become who we want to be once and for all. We are more than anything else receptors, and the best we can do is attune ourselves to the divine frequency, a station that only plays in the present moment.

“I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through,” says the Sufi poet Hafiz. When we allow that music to flow through us, our actions become notes in the divine song—natural expressions of our true selves. I suspect this receiving and giving is better than chocolate cake.

Spiritual Vegetables

Sometimes we would rather not do what is good for us—like eat our broccoli. I like broccoli, but the homemade hot fudge sauce I drowned my ice cream in last night was fantastic. I don’t recall ever applying the word “fantastic” to broccoli.

Here’s the thing, though: when I finally fix a spinach salad after a few days without vegetables, my body is so happy. It’s a little bit like that with living in and from a place of love.

There are days—a lot of days—when I wish that our achievement-oriented consumer culture told the truth, when I want to feel complete from finishing a project at work or finding the perfect dining table. There’s nothing wrong with either of these pursuits. Both of them deserve to be enjoyed, but that satisfaction is not going to last. Something will always come next.

Almost every day I reach a point where I think that staying present, reminding myself to approach everyone with love, and letting God lead are impossible and aren’t, after all, going to change the world. But you know what? They are.

We won’t be able to see it directly or prove it or explain it or predict it. That’s hard because we all want to be right. Maybe people can tell the difference between someone who is irrational and someone who is following a deep but invisible knowing, but maybe they can’t. Recognition is not the point.

Jesus asks the apostles whether they’re going to leave him, and Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy answer. Saying, “We’re stuck with you because you’ve got the best game in town” is not the same as saying, “We’ll never leave you because we love you and we think you’re great.”

But Peter got it right for once. We are told to love God and neighbor because only that will satisfy the yearning of our hearts, only that will allow us to see how we are already one, how our world—our universe—is already whole.

The Freedom of Passing Away

Driving home yesterday past beach houses and small businesses, the thought popped into my mind, “All this will pass away.” To my surprise, the observation felt peaceful rather than panicked.

Of course it’s easier not to feel panicked when looking at someone else’s house or houses in general rather than lives. And I wasn’t thinking about a tsunami, though that could happen. I was thinking about a local shopping center that’s getting a facelift. A friend and I meet there every week to run, and as the new facades go up, we can see its modern look replacing the current, worn-down exterior. Before it was shopping center, orange or almond groves stood there.

We’ve all seen this kind of change. It can happen suddenly and violently—like the destruction happening in any number of wars around the world right now—or slowly, like the old, abandoned cabins that still dot the Western landscape.

We like some changes—people want their children to learn and grow. On the other hand, we as a society have decided that we would like to stop aging around 30.

This type of hanging on prevents us from participating in what is actually happening. There’s a sense of liveliness that comes with not trying to pin down the present and make it stick around. I used to fight the whole idea of detachment. I thought it meant you couldn’t care or feel deeply about things, but now I think it means something closer to accepting things as they are. The little seaside town I was driving through will pass away, whether in ten years or at the death of our sun.

I’m not suggesting that change is always easy or that we in our humanity will always feel equipped to handle it, but if we can see that movement is the nature of existence, we can hang on a little less and be present a little more. There is a great freedom in the truth that every moment everything is both passing away and becoming new.

Here is a poem by Joanna Klink about entering into a sudden change. This poem arrived in my email thanks to the Academy of American Poets poem-a-day program.

On Falling (Blue Spruce)

Dusk fell every night. Things
fall. Why should I
have been surprised.

Before it was possible
to imagine my life
without it, the winds

arrived, shattering air
and pulling the tree
so far back its roots,

ninety years, ripped
and sprung. I think
as it fell it became

unknowable. Every day
of my life now I cannot
understand. The force

of dual winds lifting
ninety years of stillness
as if it were nothing,

as if it hadn’t held every
crow and fog, emptying
night from its branches.

The needles fell. The pinecones
dropped every hour
on my porch, a constant

irritation. It is enough
that we crave objects,
that we are always

looking for a way
out of pain. What is beyond
task and future sits right

before us, endlessly
worthy. I have planted
a linden, with its delicate

clean angles, on a plot
one tenth the size. Some change
is too great.

Somewhere there is a field,
white and quiet, where a tree
like this one stands,

made entirely of
hovering. Nothing will
hold me up like that again.

The Terror of Now

Not all learning by experience is pleasant. Like when your mom tells you that the melted, unsweetened chocolate that smells fantastic doesn’t taste good and you don’t believe her and so she tells you to try it. And then you believe.

After a few such incidents, we realize that we can learn from others’ experiences, and we don’t actually have to eat a large piece of horseradish root to accept that it’s kind of hot. OK, some of us do.

Taking others’ word for it is not quite the same, though. There are plenty of things we accept but won’t truly understand until we experience them, everything from just how scary the wicked queen in Snow White is to the level of sleep deprivation an infant subjects her parents to.

Many people—including most recently for me Richard Rohr—have said that we spend most of our days living in the future or the past because our small self, or ego self, is terrified of the present. The current moment is always beyond the ego’s control, and it doesn’t much like that. The people saying this are smart and deeply spiritual, so I have been happy to believe them. I could certainly verify that I spent little time in the here and now.

Then, for a few weeks, I focused on bringing myself back to the present as often as possible, which consisted of a lot of bringing back and not a lot of staying. Even so, my ego freaked out, as if the wicked queen/hag were standing directly in front of me with an irresistibly red apple.

Terror is not difficult to recognize, and when it shows up while doing the dishes or cooking breakfast—in my kitchen, absent saber-tooth tigers—ego protection seems a pretty reasonable explanation. It’s fascinating to watch when I can remember to watch it and not run away immediately.

It’s even interesting to watch myself run away, which I’ve done for the last week or two, under the guise of needing to get things done. Now that I can recognize the running away, though, I can at least choose whether I have the oomph at any given moment to confront my ego fear. And maybe, when all is said and done, that fear is really no more threatening than unsweetened chocolate.