Blog Posts

Blessings and Woes

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When things are good, we want to shield our eyes from whatever is up ahead. If we do this in an effort to live in the moment, acknowledging impermanence and accepting whatever life offers—wonderful. But most often, not wonderful. Most often we cling to the good like the cat in that 1970s “Hang in There” poster. You remember the one?

Most typically, I have read Jesus’ Blessings and Woes as an expression of the upside-down values he commends in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, as elsewhere, he teaches that unlike the values of the Domination System (upward mobility at any cost, hoarding, overpowering), the values of God’s reign are bottom-up, opposing the top-down systems of this world. In the reign of God, the first will be last, and the last first. Those in high positions are considered less honorable than the poor, and God is eternally on the side of those feeling the heel of oppression.

But in reading the Blessings and Woes this past week, I recognize an additional dimension of truth in the sayings. I hear Jesus saying: Things change. Things will always change. When you find yourself at the top, Woe to you! because this too will change. When you find yourself at the bottom, Rejoice and count your blessings! because things will inevitably get better. We can only count on one thing, and that is change.

When you interweave the blessings and woes, this comes across more starkly. Luke 6:20-25, shuffled:

20 Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

__________________________

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

__________________________
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

__________________________

25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

Moreover, in reading the passage I pondered how, globally speaking, I am rich. Even regionally speaking, I am full. In other words, according to this reading of Jesus’ sayings I am on the woe side of the equation, as are the majority of my friends.

As an educated white woman from a stable middle-class background, I benefit from a system where opportunity streams have been dammed to divert the good stuff my way. Such domination was happening in Europe and various colonies long before white people set foot on the North-American continent. But in the United States, the inequity has been systematized from the beginning. Laws and policies have been in place to ensure that white mid-to-upper class people thrive at the expense of others—from slavery to red-lining to unequal drug sentencing aimed at Black Americans; from the theft of land from Mexico to blatant discrimination against Latinos in our immigration system to Trump’s wall; from the Chinese Exclusion Act to internment camps on US soil to glaring biases against Asians in entertainment and other spheres to this day; from the crimes of Christopher Columbus to the Indian Removal Act to the struggle at Standing Rock; from the partition of Palestine to US military occupations in the Middle East to the ban on Muslim immigration. I can see that at every step, the violent coupling of white bigotry and political power have birthed white privilege. As a Christian, I want to work for a world where streams of opportunity are shared equitably, but this has to begin with understanding more fully the inequities in which I participate, and how to repair them. Yet I have had the luxury of not having to see them, of not even having to acknowledge reality.

As I read Jesus’ sayings in this new, additional way, I hear the warning: “Change is coming”! Those of us who are “full now” will not always be so. And of course this is true. Change is inevitable, as articulated most expertly by Buddha and subsequent Buddhist teachers. Everything is impermanent; we should know this by now. Yet it remains hard news for those at the top. Most often, we shield our eyes and cling and pretend the endless party is just getting started.

It was not hard to see certain dynamics at play in the 2016 presidential election. The language of “taking back America” and “making America great again” involves veiled references to the protection and resurgence of white domination. Those who may have doubted this during the forty-fifth’s campaign, or who held their noses hoping it was not true, should find proof in the appointment of Steve Bannon—an outright white supremacist—as head strategist of the administration (he is also the man who wrote the belligerent inauguration address). I know not all who voted for the forty-fifth were voting for white supremacy—perhaps not even the majority. Yet unconsciously, that is what they did. Few can now deny that at the very least, fear of white decline was an animating force—perhaps the animating force—in the election.

According to demographic trends, America will not remain a realm of white dominance. Change is coming and has been for a long time. Woe to those who cling to their white power!  Blessed are those who are disempowered now!

No doubt, this is a hard subject to discuss; it raises the collective hackles. My intent is not to be provocative, but to point out the truth. I wish white people could approach the topics of privilege, change, and equity with more curiosity than fear. In fact I feel comedians are doing the best job with the discussion because they afford people the release valve of laughter.

Come to think of it, I believe the laugh track is one of the features absent when we study the sayings of Jesus. We hear him as a stern and cranky prophet–like John the Baptist minus the hair shirt. But what if the sayings gathered into the Sermon on the Mount were not delivered sternly but joyously? Several authors have suggested Jesus had a sense of humor, and I tend to agree. He certainly used exaggeration (hyperbole) to great effect.

Jesus is certainly not making light of domination. But what if he is shedding light on it in a new way by saying: We are all blessed and woe-d?!  Not one of us will outrun the plodding course of change. We are in it together. Blessing and woe. Woe and blessing.

The saddest individuals are those who cling to their privilege and refuse to see it for what it is. They refuse to see that any privileged position is doomed. In Buddhist language, there is “loss” and there is “gain” and we will all experience both. I believe the billionaire president and his billionaire associates are in reality a good deal like that cat in the 1970s poster. They cling to their positions in the world because a chill whisper coming in dream, or on the tide of truth that occasionally accompanies dread, tells them their position in the world is tenuous. The problem with being in the .001 percent is knowing you are grossly outnumbered.  The balance is already starting to change, thus they grasp for power so determinedly.  Blessing and woe. Woe and blessing. What we must ask ourselves is this: How are we, too, hoarding the good?

Living as if it is True

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Oh the relief I found first studying apocalyptic literature as a 20-something undergrad theology student. The role it had played in my youth, when I knew nothing of symbolism, numerology, the veiled anti-languages of the beleaguered, was to drive me from my childhood bed in tears, fearing the figurative lapping flames, the “sign of the beast,” and epochs of war. As an adult, being able to hear in the language of apocalypse defiant notes of resistance, empowerment, optimism, resilience, and to appreciate the messages encoded in the bizarre “revelations” is refreshing.

Yet there’s no doubt, apocalypses are written when times are bad. They are not upbeat. In fact, they are always the code-language of the oppressed when times are worst. But the very fact that we have them, that apocalypses were enshrouded one day as sacred scripture, tells us who was vindicated. In the backward glance of history, the brutal Roman Emperor Nero (symbolized in Revelation by the number six-hundred sixty-six, the numerical value of his name) is not the hero. The writer defiant enough to portray him as a beast is.

Contrary to my childhood fears, apocalyptic literature can be oddly comforting during hard times, when one is not winning. This is what I remembered this week, reading the conclusion of Revelation following the 2016 presidential election that did not go my way, or the way of my friends of color, friends whose religious freedom is threatened, friends who are vulnerable in a number of ways. In the hopeful imagery of Revelation 21:22, the holy city is permeated with the presence of God, and everyone honors God’s reign of love—led by the victor, a vulnerable lamb. This has always been the good news of John’s Apocalypse for those who can’t seem to catch a break, especially at a time when bullies have taken the earthly throne.

The New Testament is “war literature,” we must remember—all of it written amidst the unspeakable slaughter of Jews by the behemoth of Rome. Almost every word of it is written to inculcate hope in people who see brutality meted out around them. In the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it was reported that 10,000 Jews were crucified by the Romans. This was in a single year, in a single city. In the decades and years preceding and following this, there were thousands more crucifixions (though only one is widely remembered), not to mention innumerable imprisonments and sexual assaults, which always accompany war. Written documents that formed the basis of the canonized gospels were taking shape during this period and in response to it. Though the New Testament writings do not make explicit reference to Rome’s war against the Jews (who got on the wrong side of empire for defending their identity, faith, and worldview), the lack of references hints at the vulnerability of the writers. They were forced to speak about the war using mostly symbolic, apocalyptic tones.

So if the New Testament doesn’t speak explicitly about what Jews and those who loved them were experiencing in the period of its formation, what does it speak of? In a thousand ways, it speaks of God’s faithfulness and prompts readers to remain faithful in return. This is not a cop-out. It is written in hope, which Mary Oliver describes as “a fighter and a screamer”—hope that liberation and justice are more powerful than domination. That despite set-backs, liberation and justice grow. The texts written between the first Pauline letter (around 50 CE) and the Gospel of John (likely the latest New Testament document), were written during a time when war atrocities at the hands of Rome touched everyone with ties to Palestine. And in this context, the consistent message was that God’s way prevails, and God is restoring and healing creation even when that restoration is hard to see. In the imagery of Revelation, God is building a “holy city” of peace. During dark times, it can be hard to give one’s heart to this message, to live as if it is true. But to do so is to live by faith. Faith does not mean we don’t doubt; it is not about intellectual assent. Faith means we choose to live minute by minute, day by day, as if God’s creativity, God’s ever-expanding love force, is bigger than humanity’s most rotten and gnarled debacles, and we choose to live as participants with God.

Faith affirms that our hope is not in political systems, but simultaneously in God’s faithfulness and the incarnation of Love and Grace we honor in Jesus, and/or in nature, and aspire to in ourselves. To use Paul’s language, we too are invited to be the incarnation. God is not on the side of those who abuse power, but of those who are vulnerable: the black and brown children taunted by racist chants on the playground, the women harassed because they wear hijabs, the parents taken away from children because they lack standing in a biased immigration system, the person beaten for their ideology, whatever its stripe. The hope and imperative of the Christian scriptures is 1) that we are invited to be the hands of feet of God, which is costly and at times difficult; and 2) that God is faithful to the co-creators.

What faithfulness does God ask of us now?

Fall Poem

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Again

You are no different than asters that fall dead

in sleep, reemerge each year strong and new. By

 

midlife, you had fallen twice. First, watched

the pieces leveled one by one, left to ask what remains

when no one calls, when accolades fester into

gossip, when all our proud self-sacrifice, clever deeds

 

feed the march of maggots. The Perennial Story. Then,

having emerged, you saw it everywhere. How

what dies is nothing and divinity still seeks divinity. How

the brilliance of pigment, the ground-claiming rout

 

of foliage is mistaken for the life force invisible, strong

for the dying. “So,” you preached, “let it be.

Surrender to this new birth. You are not the maggot

feed. That is nothing. You are the endless life.”

 

Until it happened again. Piece by piece. This time love.

This time justice. This time sense. One by one. The ground

itself dead in a winter of grief and grasping, fierce

grasping to what was dear life. Then finally, it was

 

over, the pain and tearing. You thought it was over. It may

yet be. It is okay to stretch your petals and turn. These

are the clothes you wear a few decades, they may be beautiful.

There is the sun. It is okay to eat create laugh. But

 

can you see?  Have you learned the pattern? Again

you will die, you will rise, you will return. New.

More than once if you are blessed

and brave. The final dare is: Let it be.

Bathing

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It has been years since I had a shower.

By this I mean a shower enclosure in my home. When I built my little house in the big woods, I installed a 100-year-old clawfoot with a cranberry-red exterior. Found on Craigslist, it’s provenance was a Victorian house in north Portland. Both my contractor and plumber tried to talk me out of it, calling it impractical—the tub was heavy, old and worn, and challenging to install. Yet while this was true, they couldn’t see their misguided motives, clearly the result of too little bath-taking. They encouraged me to install a generic shower enclosure with a bathtub. But anyone who’s tried to recline in such enclosures knows the tubs don’t conform to the human body, being we are not shaped like praying mantises.

I have a penchant for submerging in water. Though it’s indulgent, I bathe every morning, and soak in an outdoor mineral-salt hot tub every night (my friend Shonna suggests I’m a selkie—a seal-person in Irish mythology). Submerged in water is, for me, the most sublime posture, and both tubs invite prayer and staring off into the woods. While in high school, my daughter did prefer showers. To prove my tolerance, I installed a curtain enclosure and shower head over the clawfoot. But now she’s a bather, thanks be to God. My husband converted as well. I removed the curtain and showerhead years ago, for why preserve the sham of harboring shower-takers?

Bathing slows people down. Hot water makes us soporific, a feeling unappealing to those rushing to get out the door. Bathing requires rising early, taking it slow. One must wait for the water to run. Who has time for this? … Who doesn’t? If you have a tub you fit into (some are simply too tall), you’ll find few cheaper pleasures or better therapies.

Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks of cultivating intimacy with the spaciousness of our minds, and bathtubs are a great place to practice this. What he describes is an old practice known as “contemplation” in religion. It assumes our minds are spacious, and that we become intimate with that spaciousness—noticing it, feeling how it feels, observing our thoughts, listening for wisdom’s quiet whisperings—as we practice presence. I would align this spacious kind of “mind” with the unconscious mind—the part of us most conducive to (a conduit for) Spirit. On the other hand, the conscious mind is the part most unkempt and cramped, like an old filing cabinet. It is where we store learnings that we are aware of, our neurosis, fears, and prejudices, as well as fact-learning, positive emotion, memories. As the conduit for Spirit, our unconscious minds are as vast and spacious as the universe (while also harboring the cerebral space-junk we are unaware of). Intimacy with the unconscious offers endless possibility for inspiration, insight, and growth.

We can also cultivate intimacy with the less spacious parts of our minds, however—the cramped attics where hoarding of life’s clutter leaves little room to navigate. If we don’t go into the attic with the intention to acknowledge the mess and clean it up, we forever struggle with disquiet and act out of confusion.

Without time to listen introspectively, I become agitated. Usually the agitation comes from feelings I haven’t acknowledged and felt, or from insights Spirit is trying to teach me that I need space to see/hear/absorb. Surveying the world around me, I sense a lot of disquiet, and expect this stems from a lack of contemplation in modern life. I am an introvert, so the need for solitude and introspective recharging is pronounced in me. Yet one of my close friends is a consummate extrovert and she too requires contemplation to hone in on precisely what needs processing—even if she ultimately processes verbally.

The ego (the illusive sense of a “separate self” we feel we must guard and promote; the vehicle ushering our own kernel of eternal Spirit through this world) is forever concocting expectations out of what we want and think we deserve, incessantly reaching for rewards. When the ego isn’t satisfied we have a sense of disquiet. Only moments of true listening and contemplative observation allow us to see what’s happening, how we’ve been led down another rabbit trail of expectation and reaching, so we can stop and remember we are cared for. Most importantly, contemplation reminds us to take a deep breath and trust.

Contemplation or thoughtful, mindful listening is different from the deluge of endless self-absorbed thought-babble the conscious mind serves up in heaps, like food at a cheap, small-town smorgasbord. Some thought-babble happens all the time whether we get quiet or not. It happens while we’re giving directions, while we’re “conversing” with our siblings, while we’re watching TV or our kids’ soccer game, while we’re collectively praying in church or trying to meditate. But if we’re able to observe and notice the thought-babble, it somehow loses momentum and quiets down. Such observation is called “mindfulness.” Next time you’re worrying what your co-worker thinks about you (for example), stop and take note: “Interesting. I am worrying what Agnes thinks about me again.” And every time you take note, the thought’s ability to run away with you diminishes. Babble thrives on being unwatched.

Thought-babble even takes place while we are (gasp!) bathing. Since contemplation isn’t our human default, it requires not just being in quiet and space, but doing so with a bit of intention and awareness. It usually requires experience with contemplation. I personally find baths to be great for such practices. But for others, walking may be more conducive, or sitting in a quiet room, lying in bed, cooking a meal alone, even dancing.

My cats are models of quiet presence. Lately I’ve been travelling with them on weekends, packing them in crates and taking them to Mom’s while I rent my cottage on AirBnB. They are not thrilled with this arrangement, thank you very much. But when we return and I open the crate doors, letting them hop from the car onto home turf, they are fully present. They don’t spend the whole week fearing the next time they’ll be absconded to the car, replaying grievances over and over in their heads. They just experience the week—or the moments that comprise the week—whether they’re curled up on the porch, sleeping in shards of sunlight that cut through the windows, watching vigilantly for the neighbor-dog, hunting hapless creatures lower on the food chain, or being doted on by me. Sometimes Lupe even visits while I’m bathing. If I’m in the hot tub, he bats the water with his paw and licks it to taste the salt.

Now that is a good metaphor for contemplation, come to think of it: dipping in and tasting the salt. Life is full of flavor. And we are here to taste it.

Summer at Twelve

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Copyright Juleen Johnson
 I recently participated in an event called Word & Image. Writers were randomly paired with artists. The artist selected a piece by the writer and created an artwork in response to it; and the writer selected an image by the artist, creating an artwork in response. I was paired with a talented photographer named Juleen Johnson. She created the photo above in response to my poem below.

Summer at Twelve

The shopkeeper kept silent each time

my friend and I snuck behind the far row

of books, eyes wide at The Joy of Sex.

 

Perhaps it was time we knew.  At

twelve, we bled, could reproduce.

And we were children of the seventies;

 

innocence so passé.  Oh, the wonders in pen

and ink!  The endless bodily arrangements!

It was enough to turn adults red as poppies,

 

to transfix the steadiest mind. But after

the bookstore, we would eat ice cream—

bubblegum flavor, confettied with gumballs,

 

each fished from our mouths and saved

for later.  Tiny, colorful pools of drool

collected like polka-dots on paper napkins where

 

each gumball sat, counted, to see

who’d scored the most that day.  Then we raced

home on bikes, the road frying-pan hot.

 

Our Coppertone legs glistened like mirages,

flashed the unwitting invitations of angels,

goddess-bound.

Myths and Misunderstandings

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{First published in Upper Left Edge, Spring 2015}

A writer friend told me I was passed over for a recent book-signing because the organizer finds my book title “scary.” This wasn’t the first time I learned of such a reaction to Jesus Loves Women: A Memoir of Body and Spirit, and from readers who’d likely enjoy the book if they’d get over the word “Jesus” and venture a read. This conclusion is based on the type of reader who did relish the book—well-read, of spiritual inclination, appreciative of grey areas in matters of ethics and values, and experienced enough to understand moral failure. If only she could get over the title.

Call me naïve, but the reaction to my title surprised me. I didn’t expect the word “Jesus” to be the conversation killer it turns out to be. While I understand some individuals shut down at the word “Jesus” because of stereotypical images of Christians (picture the enthusiastic faithful asking if you’ve “accepted Jesus as your personal lord and savior” or telling you “Jesus died for your sins”), I assumed “Jesus” wouldn’t conjure this reaction in generally thoughtful people. I expected the critically minded to realize that Jesus—the name-sake of a major world religion as varied as it is widely held—holds myriad meanings for different souls. I expected them to approach the name with an appreciation for nuance, perhaps even curiosity. Yet, after conversing with my friend, I was faced with a dilemma: Should I ask my small-press publisher to consider changing the title?

Amid the wide array of people on the spectrum of Christian tradition are those who never utter the words “Jesus died for your sins,” or “Jesus is my personal lord and savior.” In fact, I don’t believe Jesus was killed as a sacrifice for people’s sins. I also don’t consider Jesus a “personal lord and savior,” as much as I respect the prerogative of others to hold such views. Yet I claim my place on the spectrum of Christianity. (Same goes for Buddhism. Both traditions contribute significantly to my spirituality.)

As I considered the prospect of changing my book title, I decided against it. I wondered if altering the title because of reactions to “Jesus” would be catering to prejudice. Besides, as I narrate in the book’s introduction, the phrase “Jesus loves women” came first. An elderly Trappist monk named Brother Martin, one of my closest friends, repeatedly asked me: When will you write that book about how Jesus loved women? The memoir I ended up writing was likely not the book he had in mind. Yet his question precipitated my thinking about divine love, and how—for reasons of childhood misconceptions—I felt alienated from it. The phrase “Jesus loves women” precipitated the narrative. Because of my background in Christianity, Jesus is a symbol to me of embodied divine love, and wrestling with the question of divine love for women, and divine love for me, is central to the story. Even today as I struggle with male/female relationships and with my own marriage, I am inspired by Jesus to honor the fullness of God in me while also practicing selfless love.

Still, another motivation lies behind my inclusion of “Jesus” in my title. I actually like the specificity evoked by the name. I like how it grounds the story in a particular mythology, because myths are monumentally important and increasingly undervalued.

I often hear religion, Christianity included, maligned by the non-religious. Granted, glimpses of Christianity in the popular sphere—Christian bookstores, Christian TV, Christian radio, are so distorting and limited that disparagement of Christianity could be understandable. To many Christians including myself, the displays in mainstream media—the nationalism, the wedding of religion and political conservatism, the anti-intellectualism, the easy belief and simplistic formulations for salvation—are foreign to our experience of the faith. For many inside the vast and varied world of Christianity, it’s easy to see how these images distort. They characterize a small facet of the faith and fail to characterize the rest. But as with all things maligned by prejudice, misunderstanding and prejudice commingle, and the stereotype is assumed to be an accurate representation of the whole.

It is therefore tempting at times to distance myself from the stereotype by distancing myself from the tradition. But as fate would have it, I cannot. I believe too strongly in the value of myth and religious literacy to let the temptation seduce me. Prejudices against Christianity, like those against Islam, Judaism, Modern Paganism, and other faiths, stem from a general proliferation of religious illiteracy: a lack of understanding of major faith traditions, their diversity, and their histories. The most religiously illiterate hear the word “Jesus” and think of young earth creationism and virulent homophobia, or hear the word “Allah” and think of terrorists and burkas. But the mildly religiously illiterate sense discomfort with the unfamiliar and simply turn away.

I am by nature impatient with religious illiteracy. I have a PhD in a field of religious study and if I could, would assign Karen Armstrong as required reading for American adults. I am reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou … for fun. Admittedly, my level of interest in religion is atypical. On the other hand, I can name topics of great interest to others of which I am illiterate. Sports, for example. We’re all specialists in our own ways. We don’t need to be specialists in religion one and all. That said, I am leery of impulses to blend away distinction in religious and spiritual traditions to make people comfortable with the unfamiliar.

I don’t equate distinctiveness with dogmatism. It’s possible to appreciate special elements of a religious tradition without requiring assent to cognitive beliefs that define orthodoxy in particular expressions of that tradition. I stand my ground on the spectrum of Christianity, though much of the Nicene creed stokes doubt in me (I take solace in the “we believe” language of the creed—which expresses the heart of the whole tradition rather than individual beliefs, and in the meaning of the verb “credo,” which does not mean “to believe” in a cognitive sense, but to “embrace with one’s heart” as part of a collective with a long historical lineage). On the other hand, for some people of faith, distinctiveness includes strongly held beliefs, or dogmas. My unfamiliarity with the beliefs of other people, or my disagreement with them, might make me uncomfortable. Yet I want to make space for their distinctiveness. Though dogmatism doesn’t appeal to me personally, it’s part of the diversity of human experience, and honoring diversity does appeal to me.

Most people—myself included—need distinctive sacred stories, which I call “mythologies,” intending the term in the most honoring way. I like Karen Armstrong’s definition of a myth as: “essentially, a guide,” and like Armstrong, do not imply by the word “myth” that a story is a fabrication (as is sometimes implied in modern usage of the word “myth”). On the other hand, facticity in a scientific or historical sense is not the point of a myth. The point is to tell us how to live and who to be. As Armstrong wrote in The Spiral Staircase: “The myths of the hero, for example, are not meant to give us historical information about Prometheus or Achilles—or for that matter, about Jesus or the Buddha. Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way that we bring out our own heroic potential.”

Many secular people are starved for mythological meaning and sacred stories. For me, the Jesus myth (including Jesus’ teachings and actions) is indispensable. It guides me in how I view power-dynamics, how I view injustice and strive to relate to those less privileged than I, how I stand up to authority. To be less abstract, it compels me to recycle and use less resources, to give money to those helping Central American refugee kids at the US border, to pay my employees well, to tell my daughter “I’m sorry” when my words are harsh and hurtful, to support the farmer down the road, and so on. And the Jesus story shapes and guides how I think about divine presence, compelling me to see divinity as essentially compassionate, generous, and immanent. It challenges me to envision nonviolent responses to trials I’ll face in my lifetime. Time and again, it has compelled me to keep my heart open despite betrayals and disappointments, particularly by men.

Myths provide stable vantage points from which to see and understand the world, and the Jesus story (along with the Buddha story) is my mythological terra firma. Myths demonstrate what it means, within a particular tradition, to be human and to live a purposeful life. Having sacred stories is so important that people without faith traditions often develop their own to fill the vacuum. Dominant non-religious myths in America center on science and technology, popular culture, sports, 12-step programs, or national, state, and family histories and dramas. I’d bet every healthy individual I know has a life-ordering meaning story or myth. In fact, social-scientists acknowledge the importance of personal myths for healthy development. For example, an Emory University study found that children who see themselves in a family story of decline and assent are better poised to overcome life’s adversities because they see how those around them have overcome.

People can develop dangerous, even lethal, myths, and these myths are, needless to say, distressing. But despite the fact religion is often blamed, dangerous mythologies can as easily pivot on non-religious axes. I see examples in the lives of young men perpetrating school-yard massacres, or historically, in Maoist China or Stalinist Russia. The best antidote to a dangerous myth is a healthy myth.

A healthy mythology involves specificity and distinctiveness. It involves special stories we come to know and understand, and is life-affirming. It helps us open our hearts. There was a time, after completely laying down the belief system of my childhood, when I felt uncomfortable with religious specificity. I wanted to float among the unformed and religiously non-distinct, where I wouldn’t be troubled by belief. But I now see this as the other side of the fundamentalist coin. Both the view that clings to belief, and the one that shuns all belief out of discomfort, put far too much emphasis on belief. They miss the point of religion and spirituality, which is practice, and being shaped by practice. What I desire now is the wide-mindedness to experience sacredness in all manner of specific religious contexts—whether synagogue, Zendo, mosque, forest-circle, or church, while simultaneously cherishing a specific mythology of my own.

The thing about honoring myths is that we can’t exclusively honor our own. We need to allow others their own myths. To state the obvious: if our mythologies were all the same, they would no longer be meaningful. Yet twenty-first century people have difficulty with intellectual diversity, and with our 40-character attention spans, with nuance of thought. We define diversity narrowly by race and gender, and falter when a person we’ve included along these lines suddenly challenges our unwritten intellectual orthodoxies (I think of the discomfort white progressives have with the opposition to gay marriage in conservative black churches). But our intolerance of intellectual diversity comes from insecurity, fed in part by the tenuousness of our mythological bearings. Perhaps if we were each consciously grounded in healthy myths we’d more willingly let others have myths that differ from ours, to let go of stereotypes, and to peacefully dialogue about difference. The beautiful thing about a myth is how it’s both stable and reinterpreted again and again. To allow mythology its interpretive potential, we must let our edges touch those with whom we disagree. In titling my book Jesus Loves Women, I hoped those who don’t resonate with “Jesus” would be open to a distinctive story that teases their edges. And I still hold out hope.

Small Things are all that Matter

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What makes a great life if not the interweaving of a million small threads? Small things add up. Small things matter. They are, in fact, the only things that matters. Since great accomplishments are nothing but the sum total of countless steps that appear insignificant in themselves, one does well to mind the details. This is true for the discovery of a cure, an enlightened piano performance, the raising of healthy, well-adjusted children, the building of almost anything worthwhile, from a bench, to a baseball team, to a business.

Hence the trouble with fixing our sights on great accomplishments. We end up tripping over the details. A character in a story who claims she will “do great things,” is almost always a guaranteed failure—have you noticed? So fixated is she on the future glory, the bottom line, or the eventual outcome, that she tramples and trips over the small stuff. It is a waste of her time. Yet the cumulative total of a thousand neglected things, however diminutive at first glance, leads to ruin. Things like telling small truths, showing kindness to people who lack influence, doing inglorious tasks while spreading equanimity, saying thank you, eating well, taking time to breath in and out with intention.

“We cannot do great things,” said Mother Teresa in her now famous quote. “We can only do small things with great love.” Not a bad one to remember.

My daughter is graduating from high school next month, and if she and her fellow graduates were to absorb one message as they cross the threshold from high school into post-high school life, I would have it be that. How many graduation speeches have exhorted graduating seniors to “go out and do great things”? Well, in the spirit of Mother Teresa, I would tell them: “do small things, one after another, and do them honestly and humbly, with love. Great things may very well happen if you do this, but don’t give it a second thought. Each and every small act you do: that is what matters.”

This concept came to mind last week as I was pulling weeds for a gardening client. Some of the weeds were less than a quarter of an inch tall, and I carefully pulled them up, roots attached, one after another. It does not get much smaller than this, does it folks? And I asked myself how I could do the smallest tasks of my job with “great love.” A few of my usual practices came to mind.

To begin with, I pay attention to how I position myself as I weed. I try to shift positions from one yoga-like stretch to another, in order to lessen tightening in my body and distribute strain. And as in yoga practice, I try to breathe steadily. I try to silently repeat a mantra throughout my work hours, a spill-over from my non-work life. It’s a practice I recommend, if only to banish the ear worm. Who wants the lyrics of “Oklahoma” looping through her head an entire morning? Finally, I try to pay attention to the sounds around me—sometimes birds, waves, the brush of wind.

I do these practices to nourish myself as I work. But I started to wonder if this is my way of doing “small things with great love.” Who knows? Perhaps in some unseen way I am infusing nourishment and love into my clients’ gardens.

When I’ve finished weeding a garden, I like to survey the broader accomplishment: a prim, beautiful garden. In the course of the work, however, I focus on one square foot of ground, the one directly in front of me, and then another. I pull one weed, and another weed, and repeat.  That is, after all, all that matters.

{First published in North Coast Citizen, 2010}