Category Archives: modern faith

Yellow submarine: Faith in what we cannot see

For the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed my evening cup of hot herbal tea in a yellow submarine mug.

The submarine windows remain dark and wave-splashed when the mug is cold.

Yellow submarine mug with darkened windows.

But when I pour in boiling water, Paul McCartney miraculously appears and waves at me.

Yellow submarine mug with Paul McCartney

John, George and Ringo also make their presence known in other windows.

Yellow submarine mug with Ringo Starr

The Beatles stay hidden until I choose to create the right conditions to see them, and then I have to choose to celebrate and appreciate them.

The mug reminds me:

  • If I can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
  • When there is something to be revealed, the conditions have to be right.
  • Sometimes I have to make a choice to take action to make those conditions right.
  • And then I have to choose to notice, celebrate and appreciate.
  • I have to trust in what I can’t see as much as what I can.

Faith, hope, peace, joy, love surround me. If they begin to feel distant or elusive, I can pour some warmth on them and notice how they miraculously appear.

 

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Real Bethlehem, Story Bethlehem

Last year I gathered the a group of young Sunday school children into class. We sat in a circle on the floor on big cushy pillows and talked about the two stories of Christmas—the Luke version and the Matthew version. The kids ranged in age from 5 to 7, so we didn’t delve into deep philosophical discussions, but we talked about how two very different stories get smooshed into one. We told each one separately, and we told them as they are usually woven together.

Inevitably, our road led us to Bethlehem.

“Is Bethlehem a real place?” a girl asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Gobsmacked, she rocked back on her pillow. Her mouth dropped open. Other eyes around the room also regarded me curiously.

“What do people do there?”

“Well, they do a lot of the same things we do,” I said. “They get up, wash themselves, eat food, go to school if they’re lucky . . .”

The children digested this information. In the brief period of silence that followed, I watched a transition on their faces. Before the girl asked the question and I answered, we’d been living wholeheartedly in the land of story. Before she asked and I answered, we’d been thinking about what the stories meant.

Then we crashed to earth. The minute I told them Bethlehem was real, their brains began to tick. They moved from the teaching wonder of story to literal dissection. “If Bethlehem is real,” they were thinking, “then how could all that other stuff really have happened?”

Inwardly I sighed. One second we’d been pondering possibilities and thinking about how two stories from thousands of years ago could help us live our lives today, and then—boom—we stumbled into analysis.

It’s not my place to tell them what to believe or not believe. My job is to present them with the stories handed down to us and start the discussion so they can work through it themselves over the course of their lives. I couldn’t (and most certainly wouldn’t) tell them that two different, often contradictory stories, are factually true. I couldn’t (and most certainly wouldn’t) tell them those same stories aren’t true in their own way.

“Oh yes, Bethlehem is real,” I carried on, “but let’s talk about what we can learn from these stories.”

Real Bethlehem, Story Bethlehem. Starting points for contemplation.

Story Bethlehem

What to bring to a zombie apocalypse? Stories

“. . . the shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story.'” —Anthony De Mello

Perhaps there’s a simple explanation for our society’s current fascination with zombies: We are living with them right now. Something to think about anyway, according to the moderator of the United Church of Canada, Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell.

At our Easter service on Sunday, the minister at my church brought to our attention a podcast interview with our moderator. During an Illuminate Faith interview, Cantwell was asked by a participant at a youth forum what she would bring to a zombie apocalypse.

I can’t imagine she could have been prepared for a question like that, so I give her kudos for providing the best spontaneous answer to an unexpected question I think I’ve ever heard.

“I think we’re in a zombie apocalypse,” she said. 

She described zombies as beings who appear alive but who are kind of dead. The “walking dead” can be . . “anything that sucks the hope and the life out of us . . .”

Cantwell suggests we can find walking deadness in ourselves and on the streets.

I’ve seen it in myself. Have you? I can think of a few people who live almost exclusively in walking deadness. Can you?

The zombies that surround us “drag us into the illusion that life is miserable, that the world is falling apart . . .” and they “suck others into their living deadness.”

And what does Cantwell bring to the apocalypse? Stories.

Zombies, she says, “believe in the power of death as stronger than the power of life and of love,” and stories refute that belief. Stories of compassion and faith feed energy and life back into ourselves and our streets.

Cantwell made her observations in the context of our Christian Easter—a story that involves missing corpses and life after death—but I think they apply to all people in all places at all times. Stories of compassion and faith don’t eliminate the reality of death for all people in all places at all times, but they do feed energy and life back into those people. 

“. . . even when death does its worst, God’s got another chapter.” —Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell


Listen to the full Illuminate Faith podcast here: http://illumin8faith.com/files/archive-april-2017.html

Crossing lines

Adults yammered on and on around a little boy about 3 years old. He grew bored. Squirmed. Squiggled. Stretched out on the floor.

mazeTo entertain him, I handed him a sheet of paper with a maze printed on it. Happy to have any distraction he sat up and began to trace the path as if meditating with a finger labyrinth. The boy’s finger made its way over the printed paths with delightful disregard for lines that might be in the way. After blowing through any number of twists and turns that might have blocked progress, his finger reached the end. The boy raised his arms in victory.

“I did it!” he proclaimed.

“Yes, you did,” I affirmed.

Who was I to dampen his enthusiasm? Why tell him that crossing lines isn’t always that easy? Why burden a child with the idea that some lines are best left uncrossed and sometimes it’s hard to figure out which ones.

Better to let him savour his accomplishment. Better to send him out into the world ready to obliterate barriers blocking his path. Better to equip him to cross the many lines there are that need to be erased. Better to encourage than discourage.

He’ll figure it out.

And the adults yammered on.

Friendly darkness: Faith, dreams and focused clarity

A theme ran through my conversations this weekend: darkness.

We skied at Mont Tremblant, QC on Friday, swooshing in and around magical tree sculptures created when large wet snow flakes followed quickly after freezing rain.

mont-tremblant-2017

The mountaintops for miles around glistened with the fairy-like creations. The unusual accumulation on the wires also made the ziplines of the Mont Tremblant Zipline and Tree Course stand out against the clear blue sky. Our skiing friends told us how they had navigated those ziplines on a summer trip. They went on to talk about a different ziplining adventure at the Louisville Mega Cavern where the ziplines run underground. At Mega Cavern brave souls stand on platforms and contemplate leaps into darkness. They must decide on faith to leap, or not, when they cannot see where they’re going.

Darkness is full of uncertainties, but taking the plunge into the mysterious unknown strengthens our faith. 

On Sunday morning our minister spoke in her Epiphany reflection about overcoming fear of darkness. She spoke about dualities where one extreme as perceived as being more favourable than another—reason/emotion, adult/child, light/dark—and how we can re-think those perceptions. She referred to the opening paragraphs of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, where the author writes about children being summoned back to the family home before dark, the fearful gathering in of loved ones to protect them from that which lurks in the dark. Our minister also talked about how, in the new children’s book The Darkest Dark, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield faced his childhood fear of the dark.

Darkness is scary, but when Hadfield learned to embrace darkness as the place of dreams and possibilities, his dreams came true.   

“For the first time, Chris could see the power and mystery and velvety black beauty of the dark. And, he realized, you’re never really alone there. Your dreams are always with you, just waiting. Big dreams, about the kind of person you want to be.”     —From The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield

Later Sunday afternoon, I went to the movie theatre with friends to see Hidden Figures. I don’t remember what led our conversation in the direction of darkness, but somehow the theme reappeared. “I’m not good in the dark,” one friend observed. “I would not be comfortable with that.” A few minutes after that brief conversation, the theatre lights dimmed and we all sat—quite comfortably—in the dark. The darkness made the enjoyment of the movie possible. Without light, the picture was clear, not washed out. Any light—from a cell phone, for example—would have been an unwelcome distraction. At a movie theatre, dark is good, light in the wrong place is bad. At a movie theatre, like a person wielding a flashlight in the dark, the light shines only on what is most important.

Darkness makes us uncomfortable, but it narrows our focus to a sparkling clarity of what’s important in any given moment and let’s us choose where to shine the beam.  

At this time of year where I live in Ottawa, Canada we wake up in the morning and prepare for work in darkness. We leave our offices at the end of the day in darkness. We have to work to appreciate the gifts this season of growing light brings to us.

We have to choose gratitude for the faith, for the dreams, and for the focused, sparkling clarity. 

I appreciate the darkness that allows me to enjoy Christmas tree lights.

I appreciate the darkness that allows me to enjoy Christmas tree lights.

Holiday traditions and why you may, or may not, need a cat

I wrote this post in December 2012. I’m re-posting it now, because some of us might have to re-consider our “cats.”


Are you trapped in your traditions? Do they serve you, or do you serve them?

I pondered this question after reading a Paulo Coelho blog piece about an ancient Japanese story, which I will paraphrase here:

A great Zen Buddhist master had a cat. The cat was his constant companion even during the meditation classes he led. When the old master passed away, another disciple took his place and continued to allow the cat to join in meditation. When the original cat died, the disciples missed its presence, so they found another.

Disciples from other regions heard about the cat who attended meditation classes, and spread the story around to others. These disciples believed that the cat was the reason for the greatness of the Zen Buddhist master. Other temples began to bring cats to class.

Eventually, writings began to appear about the importance of cats during meditation. A university professor studied the issue and wrote a thesis about the effects of cats on concentration and energy. Disciples began to believe that cats were essential to meditation.

Soon, an instructor who was allergic to cats decided to remove the animal from his daily classes. Other disciples were aghast and reacted negatively, believing the cat to be essential to their success. But his students made the same progress even without the cat.

Generations passed and, one by one, monasteries began removing cats from meditation. After all, it was a burden feeding all those cats. In fact, students began to study the benefits of meditating without animals.  More time passed until “cat,” or “no cat” was no longer a matter of consideration. But it took many years for the full cycle, because “during all this time, no one asked why the cat was there.”

Christmas is one of the most tradition-bound times of the year. Christmas trees, shortbread, gifts, overspending on gifts, turkey, family gatherings, family fights, church services, candles, crèches, Santa, pageants, parties with too much rum eggnog, carols . . . These things have been part of our current version of the holidays for so long we have started to believe that Christmas is not Christmas without them. If we were to suggest not including them, people would react with aghast negativity.

Why are those “cats” in the room? Is feeding them becoming a burden?

Christmas means different things to different people. For me, it recalls the birth of a compassionate movement toward “all is one.” It recalls the birth of a man—an activist—who sought social justice and lived the idea that every person contains the divine spark. 

As I meditate my way toward Christmas this year, whether I invite some of those “cats” to join me or not, the movement toward “all is one” by all of us divine sparks continues regardless.

cat

I see the divine spark in Waffles’ eyes 🙂

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