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.

Compassion All Around

This week, noticing the convolutions of my interior life, I thought to myself, God, what a mess. Happily, the thought didn’t carry its usual load of self-judgment. Instead, it came with a smile and a good deal of compassion for myself.

The next day I saw how people who cause untold suffering for other people must have incredibly messy interiors. Living inside their skin must be excruciating. This isn’t news, but after experiencing compassion for myself, I was able to feel the same toward those I usually condemn. Paradoxically, at the same time, the tragedies caused by their actions came into sharper focus.

In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama tells the story of a monk in a Chinese prison camp in which many Tibetans died. After the monk escapes to India and is telling his story he says, “I was in real danger.” The Dalai Lama thinks he means he was in danger of losing his life. The monk says, “I was in danger of losing my compassion for my Chinese guards.”

I think the first step in cultivating this kind of compassion is to extend it to ourselves. In my interior landscape, I often approach myself as if I weren’t trustworthy, as if I’m just waiting for the rules holding me in check to let down their guard so that I can do something truly terrible. Like what? I have no idea, but the inner messages make out as if it’s along the lines of clubbing baby seals.

There may be better ways to approach one’s own humanity with loving kindness. We will make a lot of mistakes, but everyone reading this blog stepped out into the world with the intention of doing good today and is likely succeeding at least eighty percent of the time.

Richard Rohr says suffering that is not redeemed is passed on. Jim Finley says when you touch suffering with love, it dissolves. We will not end suffering in the world by staying at home and loving those who cause it. At the same time, we cannot cause lasting change if we act without compassion toward ourselves and all the world.

What Is the Use of Worrying?

It’s amazing how right spiritual teachers and traditions can be even when I’ve spent years thinking they were wrong. Take for example this whole idea that we create much of our own suffering. My evolving relationship to this truth has gone from “Yeah right, did you miss war, famine, etc.?” to “Well maybe so” to “Well would you look at that.”

I did not have to look far this week. I was attempting to stuff my purse and my lunch bag into a drawer at work, but they didn’t fit. I wanted to make a cup of tea and get some items checked off the list. I pushed harder on the unyielding bags and thought, oh come on, I don’t need this. Then it dawned on me that I was creating the problem. The drawer was not getting any bigger no matter how much I wanted to put more stuff into it.

Whether or not I accepted it, reality wasn’t changing. The drawer’s solid, physical existence made it clear how silly we are to resist what is.

It was a small, insignificant event, but as Richard Rohr says, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” My resistance to the limitations of three-dimensional space is mirrored in so many aspects of my life: trying to do too many things in a day, wanting other people to act a certain way, wishing I could do things the way other people do them. The list goes on.

In all of these situations, I tend to react with frustration, worry, or some other form of resistance rather than acceptance. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama cites the teaching of Shantideva, an eighth century Buddhist scholar who said, “If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?”

We skip looking at what’s happening and go straight to worry, or at least I do. Until we accept the situation instead of fighting with it, we can’t even determine whether or not change is possible through some effort on our part.

Sometimes we can change our circumstances, and sometimes we can’t. Until we see what they are instead of what we want them to be, we’ll never know.

Now

This is not an easy world to live in. A glance at any of the “Top Stories of 2016” lists will tell you that, but smaller, everyday occurrences reminded me of this truth at the beginning of 2017.

A friend’s grandma died. I learned another friend will undergo five months of chemotherapy. A third friend wrote about caring for his wife who is losing her memory.

Why start a year this way? Because it is the way the year has started.

These are not simple stories. On one hand, they tell of physical suffering, loss, grief. On the other, my friend’s grandma lived a good life; the cancer is not fatal; husband and wife still connect in beautiful ways.

These events hold pain and grace, and though we think of them as out of the ordinary when they happen to us, many people share these experiences every day. Their regularity does not diminish them. They are not war or famine, but they are hard.

A few years ago, a similar coincidence of the sad and the difficult inspired me to write this poem:

My Friends

One runs machine gun-guarded laps
around Bagram.
Two looks through the locked
door of her dad’s descent
into Alzheimer’s.
Three waits with her husband
for the report that will
read leukemia.
Four searches for her mother
after Fukushima—
fifteen thousand missing.

Today I saw a kestrel dive. His
wings stopped the world before
breaking through
bright green grass. My friends,
I will hold those wings for you.

We can do small, important things, like bring food, but most of all we can be present to the time and place and circumstances we live in and the people and other beings we live with, not forever, but for now. And now is all we have to offer. If we give it unreservedly, it may not change anything, but it will be enough.

As I hung up the phone after speaking with my friend who has cancer, I heard the first drops of rain falling on our parched California earth, and I felt deep joy—the resonance of beauty in our souls. All this is happening now.

God Loves You, Really

God always loves us just the way we are, and I often say, “No thanks.”

If you’re like me, when you read “just the way we are,” you hear “the way we ought to be.” God will love me when I maintain a peaceful mind, keep all my plants alive, and eat more vegetables. The thing is, God would rather not wait until we’re perfect because though God is infinite, we are not, and I may never become an expert plant tender.

This whole perfection thing, Cynthia Bourgeault says, has been misunderstood. We’re not aiming for perfection. We’re aiming for wholeness.

And wholeness includes those parts of ourselves we don’t much like, the parts we haven’t loved enough, to paraphrase David Whyte. The problem with not loving ourselves is that then we use our faults as a barrier between us and God. We point to them and say, no, I’m broken, I can’t let love in. God is ready to go outside and play, and we say, look at all the work I have to do first.

The French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing from the trenches of WWI, said that so few of the soldiers were willing to give their suffering to God. I used to think that because God wants our suffering, God wants us to suffer, but now I think it’s quite the opposite.

Jim Finley says that when you touch pain with love, it disappears. God wants to transform our suffering into love.

It often seems impossible to us that our failings can not only be lovable but also be and become love. It’s impossible for us to work this transformation ourselves, but God can handle it. Really.

So how do we offer our suffering to God, what does that mean? We can’t just wrap it up in a neat little gift box, stick a bow on it, and shyly hand it to God next time we run into each other. Or maybe we can. All that’s needed is a willingness to let love be more important than anything else, a lot of patience, and some attention to the ways God is pointing us toward the “dump your suffering here” drop off station.

Still, this may be a little harder than watering the plants.

The Love that We Are

There is a lot of suffering in this world of ours. I usually resist this reality by wondering why, but this week, it’s been so present all around me in big and small ways, in the news and in the lives of those I love, that fighting it seemed inconsiderate to those who were experiencing it.

Grace and unforeseen good fortune are also always present. A lot of good things happened this week. I made some pretty spectacular chocolate icing, for example. I’m sure larger good things happened, too—all around us people fell in love, children were born into loving families, forgiveness sprang up in hearts that hadn’t even been looking for it.

I am always wondering why these co-exist and weighing one against the other to figure out which one comes out on top, as if that would answer some fundamental question. Aside from the problem of my being infinitely too small to take this census, I don’t think it would give any better answer to life, the universe, and everything than Douglas Adams’s conclusion of 42.

The problem is looking at the whole thing as if there were an answer, as if it were understandable. Richard Rohr says the problem with a college education is that then you think you deserve an explanation for everything. But each moment of loving-kindness and each moment of grief is immeasurable and inexplicable. Jim Finley says, who can measure the love of a married couple? Who can measure the beauty of a hummingbird or the tragedy of a child being shot?

So this week I attempted to allow grace and suffering to coexist. This was quite generous of me seeing as they do already coexist. I cried a lot and lost sight of this reality a lot, but this is what I’m beginning to believe is true:

Life is not given to us so that we can understand it; it is given to us to love. It is not an affair of the head; it is an affair of the heart. This doesn’t mean seek out suffering or justify it. It means be present to it because it’s here and so are we. And if, as Finley says, love is the only thing that is real, if we can be the love that we are, surely the world will be transformed.

 

Minding Your Peas and Quinoa

When my brain gets really out of control with its negative messaging, sometimes I believe it and curl up in a ball and go to sleep. Other times, I remember that there are some things that help.

One thing that helps me is using these slightly adapted gathas (verses) from Thich Nhat Hanh as a mealtime prayer:

While serving food: In this food I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence.

Looking at the filled plate: All living beings are struggling for life. May they all have enough food to eat today.

Just before eating: The plate is filled with food. I am aware that each morsel is the fruit of much hard work by those who produced it.

Beginning to eat: With the first taste, I promise to practice loving kindness. With the second, I promise to relieve the suffering of others. With the third, I promise to see others’ joy as my own. With the fourth, I promise to seek God’s peace. (The original says, “With the fourth, I promise to learn the way of non-attachment and equanimity”—I have a hard time with “non-attachment,” so I changed it.)

Finishing the Meal: The plate is empty. My hunger is satisfied. I vow to live for the benefit of all beings. (Thanks to The Endless Further for putting this online.)

I find that paying attention in this way quiets my mind for a few reasons. First, I have to slow down, at least for the first four bites. It’s hard to rush through a promise of loving kindness because it’s a rather large promise and always makes me gulp a little.

Second, these verses have a bunch of gratitude built into them, and it’s hard to think either that you’ve recently ruined the world or that the world is out to get you while recognizing how fortunate you are.

And third, this practice puts other thoughts in my brain. I usually mentally cross my fingers during “I promise to relieve the suffering of others,” the way you did when you were a kid and were promising to do something but knew you were lying. It seems such an onerous thing to promise. But tonight I thought, if I just worked on relieving my own suffering, other people wouldn’t have to deal with it, and that would probably do them a heap of good.

Thanks, Thich.