Neither Good nor Bad: What a Relief!

I watched a YouTube video entitled, “How to Avoid Anger When Dealing with People”. An Indian sage named Sadhguru told an audience that anger is linked to judgment. We watch other people’s bad behavior, such as the refusal to wear masks in public places, and boil. Sadhguru then stated that our criticism is foolish as there are no bad persons. I snarked, “Oh, kumbaya! Look at all the paisley unicorns in this bright, wonderful world!” Then he went on: “And there are no good people either.” (Huhhh???) He explained: “People are constantly cycling between being good and bad. They are neither.” Our critiques are aimed at moving, changeable targets.

Isn’t that a relief? I waste time worrying about a lousy thing I did twenty years ago. I can’t tell whether that action, when weighed against the selfless moments on my record, makes me a good or bad person. And I wonder if I still have the spiritual mojo to pull off, in the here and now, some of my better moments from the past. I’m no longer that person who volunteered for a torture position at church. I’m just not willing. Does that mean that I was a good but have recently undergone moral decline?

The reply to self-incriminating voices in my head is: IT DOESN’T MATTER. Anthony De Mello cheerfully wrote in one of his books, “I am an ass!” The implication being that we’re all asses in varying degrees from moment to moment.

Overly harsh self-condemnation is an act of egotism. Does the cosmos really care whether I acted like a heartless dick back in 1983? No need to spend all that energy examining motives, tearing apart self-justifications. The universe spins madly on in utter indifference to an individual’s foibles and flaws.

We’re all God’s children, some better behaved, on average, than others. But we constantly shift positions along a spectrum ranging from heartlessness to decency to selflessness. Healthy modesty builds when I remember that I’m just part of a continuum.

What a relief!

Peaceful Living: The Next Great Transformation?

I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s book, “The Great Transformation”. It investigates how religions evolve when societies encounter traumas. Internal and external pressures changed Judaism, Taoism, and Hinduism during a period beginning around 900 B.C.E. Advances in Bronze Age weaponry led to devastating warfare, constant turmoil, and migrant populations. These conditions caused a reevaluation of human kind’s relationship with God.

The general trend was a movement away from outward ritual toward an inward focus on spirituality. Gods had been seen as unpredictable patrons overseeing the welfare of tribes and fledgling nations. He/She/It required appeasement through rituals and sacrifices. The local gods granted favors once their anger/jealousy/unpredictable moods had been soothed.

After 900 B.C.E, calamity became the norm. Rituals and sacrifices no longer seemed effective. Life went from bad to worse no matter how many burnt offerings were made. Hebrew prophets began to preach that Yahweh was sick of altar sacrifices, chanted praise, and harp playing. He had grown angry at injustice and would no longer offer His protection to the Israelites. Instead, He would use the Assyrians as instruments of punishment against His wicked charges. Right relations could be reestablished if the Hebrew kings and wealthy landowners took care of the weakest, poorest members of society. Harmony with God was a matter of following His will and acting with justice, mercy and integrity. Outward displays no longer sufficed.

Vedic priests in India began liturgical reforms to exclude the violence that often coincided with rituals. They eventually concluded that outward spectacles were unnecessary. True communion with Brahman, the ground and source of being, could be found through inner exploration. Attachment to things of this world, to greed, ambition and power, kept a devotee from finding the Self. The Self, or atman, dwelt in the Brahman, was indistinguishable from it. Once devotees came to know the atman, they became grounded in the underlying reality of existence. They transcended worldly strife.

I began this book during the Florida coronavirus lockdown. I wanted to spend some of my free time learning new ideas. Now I wonder if I had a subconscious motive: we’re living in turbulent times again and need to establish or renew spiritual practices. How do we reconnect with God, reestablish a right sense of order, while the world keeps churning out disaster after disaster? How do we navigate in the new Now when caught in the crosscurrents of hatred and violence?

In times like these, looking inward to find wellsprings of peace, love and kindness seems like the only way to move forward. Knee jerk reactions, while sometimes justified, often lead to further troubles and conflict. Peaceful protests, on the other hand, undercut those attempting to maintain the status quo. For example: white supremacists in the South had trouble demonizing Martin Luther King Jr. Attempts to slander and mislabel his nonviolent movement backfired. The false accusers only succeeded in making their own hatred more obvious.

Quakers have followed the peace path since the 17th century. They attempt as individuals and in worship groups to discern God’s will for them. This practice led Quakers to take a stand against slavery in the 18th century, to help found the Abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements in the 19th, to oppose war and violence throughout their history. They only take outward action after looking deeply within.

What Would Fred Rogers Do?

My wife and I recently watched the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. We expected a light-hearted profile of Mr. Rogers. Instead, we got a tense drama about a journalist, Mark Vogel, coming to terms with his past. Mr. Rogers intervenes at several points to prod and push the journalist forward. Roger’s gently quirky television persona falls away to reveal a man of deep conviction willing to respond to other people’s pain and desperate need.

Fred’s influence eventually persuades Mark to reconcile with his father, to put his family’s needs ahead of work, and to write an appreciative article about Mr. Rogers. Vogel overcomes his habitual cynicism and distrust as he puts some of Fred’s beliefs into practice. The main lesson learned is that negative feelings aren’t bad or need to be repressed. They need to be processed and released, however, before damage is done to others.

The journalist, for example, harbored a deep resentment toward his father for abandoning the family during especially trying times. Mark’s mother died in agony from cancer while her husband cheated on her and went AWOL. Dad’s dereliction of duty extended past her death: teenaged Mark and his sister had to settle financial and property matters postmortem. At the beginning of the film, the journalist punches his father at a wedding reception when Dad clumsily attempts to begin a reconciliation. At the end of the film, the journalist sits at his father’s death bed, forgives him, and tells him that he loves him.

Fred makes an appearance at a family gathering at the father’s home. Mark’s Dad lies in a hospital bed with his children, second wife, and grandson surrounding him. Fred arrives bearing a dessert. They sit and chat until an awkward silence falls. Fred clears his throat and says, “It’s hard to talk about death, but whatever is mentionable is manageable.” The process of dying becomes more bearable when imminent mortality is faced and acknowledged.

Rogers approaches the dying man near the end of his visit, bends down and whispers in Dad’s ear. Dad nods in agreement. Mark walks Fred out to his car and asks what had been whispered. Mr. Rogers says, “I told your Dad that he’s very close to God right now. I asked him to pray for me.”

Resolving to Be Patient

I run into trouble when making resolutions. I expect that after I realize that change must occur, rapid progress will immediately follow. If I dither, falter, suffer a relapse, veer wildly in unproductive directions, I must be fatally flawed or a raging hypocrite.

I’ve had more a than few moments when old behaviors resurface after a somewhat successful reform campaign. Bad habits thought conquered come back to haunt. I begin to doubt the worth of my efforts to improve when I go back to stage zero. Then I am tempted to give up all together. Why not just give in to the inevitable?

We can’t all have a St. Paul-moment when we get knocked off a horse and quickly take on a new identity. And maybe Saul (Paul’s birth name) had a few misgivings about persecuting Christians before Divine Intervention abruptly redirected his life. The Book of Acts does not address the possibility that the newly-minted Christian spent a few months after conversion fighting a habitual urge to hunt down neighbors worshipping the wrong gods. But perhaps he did.

I believe that all things are possible, that folks can make genuine reforms. But it often takes time and patience. Just like a captain cannot turn a battleship on a dime, we cannot change the momentum of our lives at a moment’s notice. Our collective thoughts and actions have a stubborn mass and velocity. A successful attempt at changing course must take that into account.

Self-forgiveness when inevitable moments of failure occur is vital to achieving ultimate goals.

Is It Okay to Argue with God?

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, Jack Levine

Some believers talk about a personal relationship with God. Their thoughts reach out to the Supreme, and God answers back. But all relationships eventually lead to conflicts. Is it okay to argue with God?

I attended a series of talks in which representatives from different faiths explained core beliefs and unique features of their religions. A Jewish woman proudly declared that the descendants of Israel had a right to argue with God. Jacob wrestled with an angel, God’s representative, and won a blessing. Job pointed out to God that his fate did not match his state of piety. Hadn’t he done all the right things? And for this he loses family, property and good health? God chose not to smite Job for impudence, but answered at length and restored good fortune to His faithful servant.

St. Theresa of Avila once chided God. She fell into a ditch during a rainstorm. She sat in the mud for a minute, stood up and shook her fist at the sky. She said, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”

I was raised a Roman Catholic, and the priests never based a sermon on St. Theresa’s soggy moment. God might be our Father, but no one thought it was a good idea to question the Ultimate. Privates don’t sass the general.

But wouldn’t it be a relief if we could vent once in a while? Would the world end, would our souls get fried to crispy bits if we gave an honest reaction to God about the latest unexpected misfortune plaguing our lives?

I’ve heard some theologians promote the idea of unquestioning gratitude. They suggest that the response to every vicissitude should be, “Thank you, God.” The argument goes, “If we’re grateful for the pleasant things that come from God, then we should be grateful for the painful things too. It all comes from the same source; it’s all part of the same plan.” That position might be fine for fully realized spiritual beings, but what about the rest of us?

I don’t thank God at funerals. Don’t feel gratitude when unfortunate phone calls announce upcoming tragedies. (My prayer during these times is for endurance. I don’t want to become a bitter jerk in the face of harshness.)

Sometimes I let Him in on the misery I’m feeling. I pray, “Here I am, Lord. By the way, this sucks!” I don’t blame God after registering my complaint, but I do ask, “What’s the point of this? Was this the only way this could go?” Those are the only genuine questions I can ask.

Learning to Say No

A sweet fifteen-year-old girl came to our door with a friend in tow. They wore knee length dresses and carried Bibles. Sweetie asked Judy whether she thought the world’s condition had grown worse and worse. Judy decided to counter the opening pitch by reassuring the girls that some things were actually getting better. They gave Judy a warm smile and asked if they could come back for another chat. Judy said yes.

The girl returned a week later with her father. I met them on my front porch as I knew better than to let them enter the house. She started a Bible lesson but fumbled for words. Dad stepped in and read a passage. I stopped him by saying, “You’re trying to recruit us, aren’t you? My wife and I are Presbyterians. We’re happy with our church.” The man looked irritated for a second. He recovered his cool and said, “I’m a Bible teacher. I go door to door teaching the Bible.”

The girl returned three more times. She and her mother gave us a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet the second to last. Judy and I ignored the doorbell when Sweetie came to the door with a young man the last time. I could feel their disappointment: souls lost.

Tonight another sort rang the bell. This guy wore a powder-blue shirt, slacks and a ball cap. His shirt pocket sported a cable company logo. I cut to the chase: “We’re not interested,” I said. “But that’s why I’m here. We want to know why you’re not with us,” he replied. His tone sounded partly perplexed and partly indignant. I had hurt his company’s feelings. “We’re not big media people,” I answered (taking the bait). “We don’t watch TV all the time.” “Okay, but what do you do for your internet?” he asked. I named a phone company. He tried to stir up dissatisfaction by saying, “Do you ever experience any slow-downs? How do you like your network’s speed?” I tried once again to make him go: “You’re trying to sell us something we don’t want.” He smiled and said, “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m just asking questions.” “Well, I don’t want to answer questions. I’m tired and I want to sit in my chair and relax,” I replied. He finally trudged away.

I later realized that his strategy included the wear-down technique: keep the mark engaged as long as possible; test patience until the victim gives in to the sale. I should have answered his first question with, “That’s none of your business.” Slamming the door shut would have worked too.

Never Compare

I tell worried students to never compare themselves to others. Our starting lines are different in the race to improve work and hone talent. It does no good to either feel superior (you’re not that near the finish line, so keep running) or inferior (you’re no worse than 90% of beginners). What helps most is to steal. If Sarah turns a line in an attractive way around a shape, rip it off as best you can. If Tom develops exquisite transitions in his tonal changes, take a close look and figure out how he did it. We all have innate abilities, but those who make the most progress remain humble enough to pick-pocket their betters…

I recently heard a passage from a book on Christianity that admonished seekers to jump all in. The writer declared that faithful Christians must trust God completely. Anxiety and fear are signs of weakness, a failure to acknowledge that God walks beside us as we make our journey from this life to the next. True Christians avoid doubts.

Perhaps the writer intended to motivate and inspire readers like a cheerleader demanding loud support from a crowd. But I found the strident words annoying. Some of us struggle for our faith. Who was he to judge?

I sometimes envy folks who have a steady belief in the promises of their faiths. They look forward with greater sureness and joy. My steady companions, however, are doubt and dread. They dog my steps like familiar, persistent enemies.

Perhaps there’s still room for hope. I’ve met people at church who are kind, steady and full of hope. They pray for each other and try to lighten the loads of those in need. Instead of just wishing that my spiritual light would shine as brightly as theirs, I could study them carefully like a robber scanning the floor plans of a bank.

Pastor Bob knows that life is tough and full of suffering, but focuses on the goodness he finds in others. I could try that. Irene feels the supporting influence of prayer carrying her through uncertain times. I could pray for guidance and send hope and assurance to others. Ruth is driven to step in and provide help where needed. I could turn away from my troubles and look for ways to be useful. Arthur focuses on finding God’s presence in the Living Moment. Sounds good to me.

In the end, leading a vibrant spiritual life might be a matter of ripping off the right people.

Quaker Meeting: “I feel the presence of God descending.”

Alapocas Friends Meeting, graphite.

Judy and I sat on padded, upright chairs in a school library. We had joined six other people to form a circle in the dimly lit room. Some stared at the floor; others closed their eyes and frowned; one older man gently snored. The grandfather clock on a near wall ticked, and branches occasionally scraped against the windows.

A fellow next to me said, “I feel the presence of God descending upon us.” I felt nothing but boredom and an urge to massage my neck. I saw that his face had settled into a look of peace as if his mind had become immersed in a field of joy.

I envied the man and wondered if going to a Quaker meeting had been a mistake. My spiritual life hadn’t advanced far enough to give me a sense God in any form. Was I qualified to worship with them? Then I decided that the man’s declaration was evidence of a self-induced delusion.

I went back the next week, however, and sat in the circle. I stared at a rhombus of light on the carpet in front of me. Dick snored and the clock ticked. A sparrow chirped in the bushes outside the window. I started to nod off.

Then a sensation of falling deeper into the silence made me close my eyes. A loving, still, peaceful presence filled my mind. I could recall nothing like this from my short time of practicing meditation. I wondered, “Is this God?”

The Devil and the Creature: Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time there was a devil.  God told him to take the blame when things went wrong for the creature, the one who walked upright and thought too many thoughts.  The devil’s compensation:  he could play with the creature.

The devil, by definition, had bad intentions.  But God told the devil that he couldn’t add anything to Creation to make the creature more miserable.  He couldn’t, for example, unleash a grizzly killer whale or a hurricane volcano.   That would be going out of bounds, and all games had to have limits.

So, the devil chose a more subtle approach:  he exploited passion.  If something felt good to a creature, he whispered “more” in its ear.  Addicts abounded.  If a human grew angry, the devil posed a question:  “what would it feel like to punch that jerk in the mouth?”  Dentistry, an evil that God allowed to arise (the sight of toothless multitudes offended Him), spread across the earth.

The devil wasn’t responsible for wars, orphaned children, sexually transmitted diseases, and addiction.  He didn’t force the creature to set up governments, give power to rulers and bureaucrats, and settle disputes with lawyers.  He didn’t teach the creature to forge metals into weapons or ferment grains into alcohol.  He never said that women and men were unequal, or that certain areas of the body were unclean.  He just made a few suggestions, and  the creature did the rest.

God saw that things had gotten worse for the creature but did nothing era after era.  God was Everything, all existence abided in Him, and nothing occurred that shouldn’t.  “Should” and “shouldn’t” were in God’s vocabulary (He made all the words), but He rarely took them seriously.  But the creature began to get mouthy, to whine and complain about its plight.  The devil still took most of the blame, but the humans had figured out that the demon was part of creation, was part of Everything.  They began to dust their disasters for God’s fingerprints.

God called the devil to His side and demanded an explanation.  The devil arrived with five lawyers who protested when God denounced the devil.  “It’s all in the contract,” they insisted.  God banished the lawyers to the outer darkness and let the devil creep away.  The lawyers had forgotten that injustice was part of Everything and got what they deserved.  He would have banished the devil too, but He still needed a fall guy.

God puzzled for a micro-nanosecond (He’s very bright and quick) and decided to create religion.  Religion would give the creature guidelines to limit self-inflicted misery.  The devil would still create mischief, but now the humans would have choices to make.  They couldn’t blame God if He spelled out the rules and gave them freedom of action.

The devil crept out of his hiding place when the priests and prophets arrived.  “I was getting bored,” he thought.  “But this is going to be so much fun!”

Once Upon a Time: God and the Devil

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Once upon a time there was a God who was Everything.  Everything meant hot and cold, life and death, good and evil.  A creature arose out of everything who began to think for itself.  And the creature’s descendants eventually began to blame God when things went wrong.  Cousin Fred died in an ice storm.  Why did God take him away?  Was God angry at Fred?  What did Fred do to offend, and how might the survivors avoid God’s punishment?

Now God didn’t think that he was responsible.  He was Everything, and Everything meant all possibilities.  If a creature wanted to complain, he certainly could–complaining was just another part of Everything.  So was suffering and fear.  So was satisfaction, comfort and pleasure.  The creature couldn’t have only the things it wanted if it was part of Everything.

But God grew tired of listening to the creature’s complaints.  They went on and on, and their prayers and petitions and offerings grew tiresome.  What did they expect from Him?  Hadn’t He already given them Everything?  So God allowed Satan to arise.  And God said to Satan, “You’re my fall guy.  When things go wrong for the creature, you take the blame.”

But clever Satan said, “What’s in it for me?”

God said, “You get to exist and be part of Everything.”

“No thanks,” Satan replied.  “I’d rather sink back into Nothingness than to be an unpaid and despised Somethingness.”

God could see Satan’s point, so He said, “Okay, you get to play with the creature.  These people can be a lot of fun.”

“Play with them?  What do you mean?” Satan asked.

“Use your imagination,” God blandly replied.

“Deal!” said Satan.