Archives for posts with tag: religion

3 chairs“Prayer is not just spending time with God. It is partly that – but if it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us – unmasks us, strips us, indicates where growth is needed. Authentic prayer never leads us to complacency, but needles us, makes us uneasy at times. It leads us to true self-knowledge, to true humility.” ~ St. Theresa of Avila

Wow. St. Teresa’s words are powerful, maybe even a little frightening. Prayer can do that? Be that? You mean it’s not just folding our hands, bowing our heads, and reciting familiar words? There is something that happens in us, because of prayer?

As many of you already know, I have an app on my phone that I talk about often. Called ‘Insight Timer’, it is an app I use every day. I was drawn to it many years ago because it provides a way to set a timer to begin and end my prayer time. I can choose the bell sound I want from a variety of different tones, and I can pre-set times and sounds I want to choose from.

Last Spring, another company bought the app, and late this Fall, they unveiled a number of new features. Now, when I open the app each morning to prepare for my prayer time, the first page that comes up shows a map of the world, with dots that indicate where people are praying at that moment. And below, it lists first names of people who are meditating or praying right then. They are from: Nackenheim, Germany; Paekakariki, NZ; Belmont, MA; Los Angeles, CA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Thailand; Buffalo, NY; Thunder Bay, ONT; Melbourne, Australia; Lexington, KY; Brownsville, TX; Dublin, Ireland . . . As soon as I see this map and these names and places, I am comforted and enlivened by knowing that I am praying and meditating with a worldwide community.

Because there is also a social network feature, sometimes I receive a quiet bell sound on my phone with a message “Thank you for meditating with me today.” When the bell rings to end my prayer time, a page opens with a cascade of small images filling the page. And at the top it says, ‘You just meditated with 4015 people’ . . . or ‘5140 people’ . . . or . . .

If I am going to engage in this powerful, maybe even a little frightening, practice that needles me, and makes me uneasy at times, and that also leads to true self-knowledge and true humility, I need this community of people with whom I pray and meditate each morning. I am reassured by their presence, by their participation, by their willingness to connect.

As well, I need to reflect on my experience of prayer, and of God, with a patient companion, who listens deeply, questions openly, and challenges thoughtfully. He is my spiritual director, and my spiritual life depends as much on his companionship as it does on using my Insight Timer.

I’m wondering – what supports do you have for your prayer life? For your spiritual life? I can recommend the Insight Timer app for your devices. And I also invite you to consider seeking the companionship and support of a spiritual director, who can listen openly, honestly, and spaciously for Divine presence in and through your life.

I have spaces available to receive new people for spiritual direction. Also, you can find a spiritual director near you by following this link: http://www.sdiworld.org/find-a-spiritual-director/seek-and-find-guide. Remember, “authentic prayer changes us, unmasks us . . . needles us, makes us uneasy at times. It leads to true self-knowledge, to true humility.” Let me know if you’d like to explore this together. (leave comments at http://www.susienallen.com)

Coffee Cups and Community

UnknownI have watched with curiosity and confusion, at the ongoing commentary about Starbucks’ red cups for the holiday season. To me, they seem attractive, seasonal, and appropriate for the ever-more-diverse population in our society. While I am ordained clergy in the Christian tradition, I am ever more aware that my fellow community members represent a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Is it right that my tradition trumps any other during this, or any other time of the year?

As I’ve pondered the expressed outrage about Starbucks’ choice, I’ve been thinking: why don’t we express outrage that other faith traditions are never represented in the public sphere? Why don’t we express outrage that traditions dear to our neighbors who are Jewish, or Muslim rarely get expressed or celebrated by coffee cups or special sales or decorations? And why is it that loud voices from the political and news worlds seem to express either conservative Christian beliefs or no beliefs at all?

As I sat with mouth agape and heart broken as news of the Paris murders, now claimed by ISIS, flashed across my smart phone and my TV, I found myself wondering – will this, FINALLY, be the time that we can stop talking about coffee cups and start doing the very hard work of building community with one another to form bonds that connect us through our common humanity? Can we do the hard work of developing ways to talk about what matters to us as individuals, and listen with open minds and hearts, even if we disagree? Can we support political candidates who seek to empower local community, rather than harden the rhetoric of division, debate, and disagreement?

imagesHow long until we can harness our energy for good, and join together as world community, to stand together against the forces of violence and hatred? What would that be like? How much power and creativity would that generate?

I found myself turning, again, to Parker Palmer’s compelling book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. In his opening chapter, Palmer speaks of Diversity, Tension and Democracy. Here are some of the things the says that speak to me:

“At the deepest levels of human life, we do not need techniques. We need insights into ourselves and our world that can help us understand how to learn and grow from our experiences of diversity, tension, and conflict.”

“The civility we need will not come from watching our tongues. It will come from valuing our differences.”

“Partisanship is not a problem. Demonizing the other side is.”

“Violence is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering.”

This time, we Americans are looking in from a distance. But we are not immune or safe from these same forces. We must look within to our own potential for violence and hatred, and join with one another for support and vision for something better.

Please, please. Let’s stop talking about coffee cups. Let’s gather, one by one, a few by a few, and say to one another, and to everyone who will join us – NOW is the time to move in a different direction. NOW is the time to learn and develop ways to live in safe and supportive community; where we listen first and talk later; where we value community before conflict; where we stand together in light of our shared humanity, rather than apart because we have differences.

Jewish author and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, tells it this way:

“One of the Just Men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day he walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening: he no longer amused them, the killers went on killing, the wise men kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst. One day a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words: ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it is hopeless?’ ‘Yes, I see,’ answered the Just Man.’ ‘Then why do you go on?’ ‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’”

View from the Balcony

imagesIn the leadership development work I do with Margaret Benefiel and Executive Soul, we often talk about stepping back from challenging situations and imagining what things would look like from the balcony (thanks to the work of Ron Heifetz, et al). It is amazing how that change of view . . . that change of perspective . . . that stepping away . . . can offer new ideas, new insights, new energy and creativity.

While Heifetz talks about this practice in the context of organizational settings, I believe it is a useful and powerful tool as a spiritual practice. What happens if I step back from a challenging situation in a personal relationship? What can I see, and know, and understand, if I move away from the particularities of my own experience – hurt, anger, frustration, sadness – and see things through a wider lens – the experience of others in the situation, the dynamics of the situation and its meaning for each of the players?

In order to do this – to remember to do it, to take the time to do it, to be open to the possibility of surprise – I believe it is something I must practice. In the heat of a difficult situation, it is much more difficult to remember to stop and stand back if I haven’t been practicing it all along, and reaping the benefits. If I practice this in smaller situations, it is easier and more possible to have the courage and trust to practice it in larger, more potent situations.

Thinking about this has drawn me to ponder – how does God see things? What is God aware of as God’s vision is from the widest, most inclusive perspective? If this becomes part of my regular prayer, will this help me to develop the practice of standing on the balcony?

I find I am reminded of some words from St Francis of Assisi, that – for me – offer a vision of God’s perspective. He wrote:

I think God might be a little prejudiced.

For once He asked me to join Him on a walk

through this world,

 

and we gazed into every heart on this earth,

and I noticed He lingered a bit longer

before any face that was

weeping,

 

and before any eyes that were

laughing.

 

And sometimes when we passed

a soul in worship

 

God too would kneel

down.

 

I have come to learn: God

adores His

creation.

Wicked

545The other night, Roger and I took the opportunity to go see “Wicked”, one of our favorite musicals. It is, in some sense, a prequel to the well-known “Wizard of Oz”; and tells the story of the relationship between Glinda and Elphaba – how Glinda became the ‘good witch’, and Elphaba became the ‘wicked witch of the west.’

The show is dazzling in every way – sets, lighting, special effects, costumes, and the incredible musical score. We had seen the show before; and I know the score very well, having listened to it countless times, and sung one of the songs a few times in performance. So I was ready to experience it all again, looking forward to the special moments I remembered from the first time we saw “Wicked.”

The house lights went down, the orchestra began, and we settled in for a special evening. And while the cast and crew and everyone involved provided a magnificent performance, I found that I was drawn into an element of the story I hadn’t pondered the first time I saw it.

I have been dwelling in a deep soul-place, of late. The swirl of questions have, in part, been about the nature of being human – and my struggles with how I live with my own limitations, sharp and painful emotions, less-than-desirable responses – and how these things measure up against my longings, my prayers, my dreams and hopes. So from this deep place of reflection, I began to experience the story unfolding before me on the stage.

Elphaba was born green and possessed special powers. She wanted nothing more than to meet the Wizard of Oz with hopes that he would “de-greenify” her, and help her to find a place of acceptance among her community and within herself, and a useful purpose for her powers. In the meantime, Glinda – beautiful and self-centered – sought to help Elphaba fit in; not for Elphaba’s sake, but because it helped Glinda to elevate her status and sense of herself as all good.

We know the ending of the story in one sense – Glinda becomes the beautiful and revered ‘Good Witch’; and Elphaba becomes the terrifying ‘Wicked Witch’. But really, who was good and who was wicked? Were Glinda’s beauty tips, her underhanded maneuvers to get rid of a suitor by encouraging him to dance with the girl in the wheelchair to ‘please Glinda’, her willingness to sacrifice what was right with what was expedient and self-serving – were these things good? Was Elphaba’s desire to fit-in, to find a community, to tell the truth even if it meant being ostracized, to ‘defy gravity’ by rejecting the impulse to conform – were these things wicked? Did the community of Oz help to characterize Glinda’s goodness and Elphaba’s wickedness by seeking the easy way – scapegoating Elphaba for all that was happening that was ‘bad’, and assigning all their hopes for restoring order to Glinda?

It is a story told again and again. I came away from the performance energized by the wonderful performances, the energizing and inspiring music, and grateful for a night out with my husband. I also came away with a powerful framework for reflection. How is it that we, as people in community, define one another? How do community’s values, needs, fears, define each of us and our sense of self? What is good? What is wicked? I’m grateful to the ‘art meets life’ moment that watching “Wicked” provided for me. ‘I have been changed . . . for good.’

How to Make Peace in the World

jooYears ago, while on vacation, I happened upon a framed quote that captured my attention. I stood and looked at it for a long time, trying to burn the image and the words into my memory. I was at the beginning of my vacation and, hoping to stretch my vacation dollars, decided not to purchase the quote – concerned I might find something else later in my vacation and be out of spending money before I got there. (Yes, yes – I can get controlling about this)

As you might imagine, when I got home from vacation and was thousands of miles away from the store that was selling the framed quote, (and I had some money left over), I realized that it felt important to me to purchase it. So, thanks be to the internet, phone calls, and international mail service (yes, it was in another country), I ordered and received this important treasure.

You see, the quote is an old Scottish blessing – and I love things Celtic. But more importantly, the words – for me – simplify the enormous challenge we all live with. How is it that any one of us can have any agency and influence toward bringing peace to the world? I’m not a politician or in the military. I don’t work for an NGO in another country. I’m not a doctor or a member of the UN. But, I learned, I have a daily opportunity to help bring about peace in the world. Here’s what I learned from the wise ones in Scotland:

If there is righteousness in the heart,

there will be beauty in the character.

 

If there is beauty in the character,

there will be harmony in the home.

 

If there is harmony in the home,

there will be order in the nation.

 

If there is order in the nation,

there will be peace in the world.

 

So let it be.

I have come to learn it is my daily, hourly task to cultivate righteousness in my heart. I will do it differently from anyone else. This is not self-righteousness, mind you. This, to me, is daily tending the garden of Love within, planted by God and nourished by the choices I make to cultivate that Love.

Each of us has this garden of love, of righteousness, within. So go – cultivate your garden – and make peace in the world.

“We the people . . . ”

Several times over the past few years, I have had the privilege of speaking at our town’s Memorial Day Parade. Each time, I wonder how I will stand in the intersection between church and state, and speak honestly and respectfully about the sacrifices of those in the military, and my own deep longings to find a way – as a nation – to honor and celebrate non-violent conflict resolution. Here is what I said at today’s parade:

On this day of public remembrance, I want to think and talk about 3 energies: grief, gratitude and growth.

54Since the first time a fallen soldier’s grave was ‘decorated’ in the early 1860’s, our nation has come together each year at this time to remember and honor the men and women who have died in military service on behalf of our country. For many – perhaps most families, this day invites and opens up memories of loved ones. They may be ancestors whose names have been immortalized in the telling and retelling of their heroism; they may be parents or siblings, children or spouses, whose lives have only recently been lost to battle. As we remember them, our hearts bear the marks of grief and loss, and our sadness and pain is comforted by the gathering of the generations on days like this. I think it is no accident that Memorial Day occurs in the fullness of Spring – when we are surrounded by the beauty and abundance of nature and the promise that even in death, there is the possibility for new life. Our public gatherings give us the chance to stand together in grief and remembrance.

As we speak out loud the names of those from our community who have given their lives in military service, as we solemnize their memory with volleys from the Minutemen, as our bands play songs of patriotism, and as speeches are given, we have a chance to express, publicly, our gratitude for the sacrifice of these fallen ones. We have a chance to stop together and give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy, the community we share, and the abundance that is possible – in part – because we are cared for and protected by those who have chosen military service as their vocation. Our public gatherings give us a chance to say thank you.

But, I hope and pray our Memorial Day gatherings and celebrations also give us the opportunity to stop and think deeply about what the sacrifices of our military men and women ask of the rest of us. We are still a world filled with conflict. Single words like terrorism, radicalism, piracy, drones, bombings, attacks stir us deeply and easily generate fear and hatred, rhetoric and media saturation, and often pit neighbor against neighbor in disagreement about how best to respond. I am hoping – and praying – that Memorial Day, this and every year, will also be a call to us as citizens of our country, to grow in new ways. I am hoping and praying that as we gather together as one community, we will look around at one another – let’s take a minute and do just that – and see not people who stand on opposing sides of an issue, not people who come from different backgrounds and traditions, not people whose advantages are our disadvantages . . . I’m hoping we can look at one another and see human beings . . . with hopes and dreams, lives and loves, needs and fears. I’m hoping we can call one another to live and move beyond ‘what’s good for me’ toward ‘what’s good for us.’ I’m hoping we can remember and honor our fallen ones, this day and every day, by learning to live together, and grow together, in ways that honor and promote what our country’s early leaders expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America. It begins . . .  “We the people . . .”

Taco Tuesday

I have spent the last couple of days in the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains. Our family cottages are here, and Roger and I have come here to open up, turn on the water, vacuum up dead flies, and clean up the dust and debris of winter as we get ready to welcome family during the summer months.

I have been coming here since I was born. My great-grandfather had a farm nestled into the valley; and over the generations since, our extended family has gathered here in the summer to rest and play and enjoy one another’s company in the midst of these beautiful mountains.

I have had the joy of bringing all three of our children here each summer, and even had a few summers when I stayed for a month with my younger two. And as I have transitioned from parish ministry to community ministry, I have arranged my work life so I can spend a couple of summer months here.

The population of our town up here is just a little over 1000. There is one school, K-12, with one class per grade. There is one road that runs through the town, with a Catholic church at one end and a UCC church at the other. In between, there is a small grocery, a few shops (this is a tourist destination), a few eateries, a fitness center, a small nursing home (The Neighborhood House), a library, a small art museum, and a big field where they have community gardens and the summer Farmer’s Market.

It has been increasingly surprising to me that, through all these years (I’m almost 60!), we stayed to ourselves in the family enclave and did very little to connect with the town residents and activities. While on one hand, we had plenty to do and lots of company on our hillside, it began to feel odd to me that we have been enjoying the fruits of others’ labor to keep the town going, and haven’t made an effort to reach out and get to know our town neighbors and activities.

dfsdfSo for the last few summers, I have been making connections – attending church (the best place to get to know people!), going to concerts, getting to know neighbors, signing up to receive the church newsletter and joining the local on-line social network site. As I’ve begun to develop treasured relationships, I’ve also begun to get a sense of how community happens here in this small town in the mountains. So I was delighted to say ‘yes’ when a friend called last night to invite me to join her at a local eatery for Taco Tuesday.

For the last month or two, this small, casual eatery has put a sign out front inviting people to join them for Taco Tuesday. News travels fast in this small town, so the word gets out quickly. It was a gorgeous warm night, last night, so when I arrived, there were cars lining both sides of the street. The front deck was swarming with people – babies, toddlers, teens, parents and grandparents – all sitting together at picnic tables. Inside, a line had formed at the counter where you could order as many tacos as you wanted – a choice of veggie, beef, or chicken – for $3.85 each. My friend and I ordered and headed for a small table. One our way, another friend invited us to join him and other friends at a big table. I saw the pastor and his wife; the librarian; another neighbor; a summer singing friend. I was introduced to several others who seemed to have all the time in the world to sit together, catch up on news, laugh, eat, greet others, and simply settle into the evening.

I was fed by much more than tacos at Taco Tuesday. I was surrounded by the energy and spirit of community; and even though I am a ‘newcomer’ to their circles, I felt welcomed and included, and swept into the joy of connection.

I will look for Taco Tuesday when I get back up here this summer; and can’t wait to join in the spirit and joy and pleasure of being together. And in the meantime, I’ve begun to wonder how and where Taco Tuesday might happen back home in MA. It seems to me that, more than ever, we need times and places to gather as community – simply to know and appreciate one another.

In the Christian community, we are now in the 40-day period called Lent. This time of reflection and introspection begins with the observance of Ash Wednesday – a service of remembering our earthy humanness; our finiteness (“from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return”); and an invitation to settle in for the season to see how and where we are cutting ourselves off from G-d and from that which helps us come alive.

I was not able to get to Ash Wednesday worship this year, and wondered how I might find source and sustenance for my own ‘settling in’ for the Lenten journey. Thanks to a treasured spiritual friend, I received an Ash Wednesday reading from the pen of Ronald Rolheiser. And in it, I discovered a surprising vision for healing life within community – a way of holding one another in patience and freedom.

“Certain native communities used to live in what they called long-houses. A long-house was the communal building; in effect, the house for the whole community. A long-house was long, rectangular, with large sloping sides, and with the center of the roof open so that this could function as a natural chimney. Fires were kept burning, both for cooking and for warmth, all along the center of the long-house. People gathered there, near the fires, to cook, eat and socialize, but they slept away from the fires, under the roofs that sloped down either side of the open center.

Every so often, someone, a man or a woman, for reasons they didn’t have to explain, would cease adhering to the normal routine. Instead he or she would become silent, sit just off the fire in the ashes, eat very sparingly, not socialize, not go outside, not wash, not go to bed with the others, but simply sit in the cinders. Today we would probably diagnose this as clinical depression and rush that person off for professional help. They, for their part, didn’t panic. They saw this as perfectly normal, something everyone was called upon to do at one time or another, They simply let the person sit there, in the ashes, until one day he or she got up, washed the ashes off, and began again to live a regular live. The belief was that the ashes, that period of silent sitting, had done some important, unseen work inside of the person. You sat in the ashes for healing.”—from Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

This image has stayed with me since I first read it. What might we learn from this community’s open holding and acceptance of one another through dark times? How might we, ourselves, find the space and time for healing ashes? A space where we are held in the life and flow of community, and yet given the freedom to stop and simply sit until the interior work feels done?

I don’t know this place . . . yet. But I will be looking for it . . . and wondering how I can help create it . . . for myself and for my community.