Today, I said goodbye to an old friend, someone who has been in my life for 15 years and has walked with me through my transition from the pulpit to the outpatient offiice. My friend was my biggest cheerleader other than my wife. When he first met me and asked me which church I had served and I told him, he rolled his eyes and asked me why they sent me there. In these words, he echoed what other pastors said about that appointment. I knew I found someone special in the way he handled that first conversation.
The spiritual practice of gratitude is a state of mind and a way of life. In the Christian New Testament, in the book of James, you can find these thoughts regarding gratitude: “every good give and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with which whom there is no variation or shadow due to change”(James 1:17, ESV). “The generosity of God in sharing the goodness of creation with us can eliscit only one possible response – that of gratitude”(Esther De Waal quoted in To Everything a Season by Bonnie Thurston). In the ancient world, whether it is from the Abrahamic religions or the Indic Religions or even some of the different native tradtions around the globe, gratefulness is often seen as a core tenet of worship/spiritual practices.
As I compose this blog this afternoon, I am grateful for all my friend taught me and his grace that he offered in letting me explore my faith and my teaching abilities in his Sunday morning classes. When I was still preaching and doing the few funerals that I was part of, I used to talk about death being the end of new meaning. Meaning then was created only when you created a connection with someone. The connection with my friend was one of mutuality and respect, but for me anyways, as a student.
Cultivating a practice of gratitude will change the way you orient yourself to the world. I am reminded of course of Thomas Mertons mystical expereince in St. Louis when he realized the interconnectednes he had with all the people around him. I had a similar experience many years ago when I started my own practice of gratitude.
It was a long Friday, I had seen 8 or 9 clients and I was tired. I had to go grocery shopping and the shopping list was not as prepared as I would have liked. I was annoyed. As I was pushing cart along the meat aisle, little boy ran in front of my cart and I almost hit him. His mother scooped him up and apologized. In this moment, instead of irritation, I just saw a little boy doing what little kids do, and I smiled, I found myself grateful for a distraction from my own inner world of weariness and irritation. From this point on, I would make a conscious effort to offer a blessing or a bow of compassion when leaving someone, whether it be a client, my kids or the cashier at the grocery store. In doing so, I found the interconnectedness that Merton was talking about.
Practicing gratitude works:
1. Shifts perspective
2. Allows us to focus on what is right instead of what is wrong.
Gratitude is the state of mind of thankfulness. God speed, Ted.
Theodore G. “Ted” Cole, age 79, of Mill Village, passed away on Sunday, January 15, 2023. He was born June 19, 1943, to the late Lawrence and Adda Cole.
My cell phone sits just a few inches away from me as I write this blog this morning, beckoning me, enticing me, begging for my attention. As I drove into work this morning, I drove down our shopping mall corridor with all its bright shiny signs. Billboards displayed ads for things we really do not need, vape shops that sell us products that that industry is trying to make us think is cool, it reminds me of being a kid in the 80’s with all the cool Joe Camel and Marlboro Man ads in the newspapers, magazines, and televisions.
Where has your attention been this week? Your bills? Your weekend? Your kids? You? Epictetus tells us that you become what you give your attention to. Attention in my field of work is only a problem when you are struggling with it. But I feel that there is a larger problem a foot… we have forgotten how to pay attention.
In a world where we are so connected, so aware, so “woke,” are we really paying attention? I often offer to my couples specifically, that they may do an excellent job hearing what each other is saying, however, they are not really listening. Listening, you see, is a full body experience, it happens through what we see and what we feel from the other person when they are talking to us. Do we see the tension in their face? The practice of mindful awareness is observed in many of the world’s religions. Most notably, the Indic religions are full of attention and awareness practices and my own religion of Christianity has many references to paying attention in its sacred scriptures and practices of attention and awareness borrowed from the Indic religions.
Right attention allows us to be mindful or aware of critical moments of our spiritual life. It awakens us to the moments of grace, opportunities for gratitude, our connections with others and if your religious tradition includes it, moments where the (Holy)Spirit moves in and through us.
In Buddhism, there are three types of right attention:
The intention of renunciation, which counters the intention of desire.
The intention of goodwill, which counters the intention of ill will.
The intention of harmlessness, which counters the intention of harmfulness.
There are many ways to practice attention depending on your spiritual tradition. Jesus tells us to keep our lamps burning and stay awake. One could interpret this in these modern times as minimizing your distractions and focus instead on acknowledging those who serve you. This means striking up a conversation with the barista, the employee at the checkout counter, the delivery person who comes to your office each day. Right attention can spread into all aspects of your life, I tend to use my time in the gym, running or riding my bike as times to focus on myself, clear my mind of any worries of for the coming day or the day that is leaving and prepare my head and heart for the challenges ahead.
As you think of the next week and your engagement with the world, I would like to challenge you to change your relationship to what you give your attention to.
The chime of your incoming text message or phone call is a cue to stop, focus and mindfully consider how you respond to that text or phone call.
Stopping at the stop light, pause and look at the other drivers around you and consider your interconnectedness with those around you.
The request for attention from your spouse, partner or child is a moment of connection that brings you intimately closer to that connection in your life. Missing this is a regrettable moment that you will never get back.
I heard a quote the other day by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. He says that “forgiveness is about giving up all hope of a better past. As we close out 2022, we are reminded of another year gone by, things undone, laughter, heartache, and tears.
I am reminded of Ecclesiastes 3 and the idea that there is a time. Ahead of us, we have 365 days. Behind us, we have 365 days and depending on your age, a lot of days. We cannot go back; we must not go back. When I was in the church, and the few funerals I was able to be part of, I used to say that death is the end of new memories. Existence is something one creates by one’s being.
Today, tonight, 2022 breathes it’s last sighs and 2023 breathes it’s first. Hope is the “basic ingredient in optimism, a tendency to dwell on the best possibilities. It is a frequent companion of another spiritual practice – enthusiasm”(Brussat 2022). Both are energizing forces that can propel us into the void of the unknow, strengthen us with confidence that our next steps will be brighter, bolder, life giving.
Jesus was asked one time how many times one should forgive. He said something preposterous in reply, 70x 7. Who gave you static last year? What fell through last year? Who stabbed you in the back? Or who hurt you in the past? Who abandoned you? Betrayed you? In thinking about hope, where does your hope lie? For a better past? Or for a better future? You cannot go back.
Go forward, or not. Here is now and, in a few minutes, here will be then. Whenever we meet someone on the road ahead and they are thrashing about in gloom and doom, let us vow to hold up the banner of hope. In cultivating forgiveness, we are cultivating acceptance. We are learning to see that there are no differences between ourselves and those around us, truly, we all want the same thing, love. Around the next corner is a person hoping for a better past. You can be the one who perhaps is the one who shows that person that there is a brighter hope for a brighter future.
Goodbye 2022, welcome 2023. May all we do this next year flow from the deep connection we have with each other and the oneness we share with the divine. May we create communities of love where hate cannot conquer our walls of love. May we see the beauty in the hearts of those around us. May there not be cruelty, hatred, greed or war within ourselves, our families, our communities, our world.
Romans 12 tells us that we are not to be conformed by the ways of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Over the last year, I have been engaged with group Spirituality and Practice established by Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat. We have been studying their Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy. As we come to the close our our year, we have been asked to complete a final project that captures how we have applied an alphabet practice and how it changes how we see the world.
In college, when I was very young into my faith and actively seeking a calling to the ministry, I became enamored with the Romans 12 quote noted above. At one point, when involved in Campus Ministry, I led a talk on Romans 12 that essentially looked at the life- long journey one takes to become transformed by the renewing of our minds.
For this final project, I want to reflect on three practices this year that have brought me much reflection on the last 25 years since that retreat in college.
The last 25 years have been about questing, following a vision and standing in awe of the wonder of it all.
The Brussat’s note that “questers venture into the unkown, confront difficulties and dangers and return home with new understandings of themselves and of the world”.
Questing. Native peoples around the world use questing as a right of passage into adulthood and other times of transition. In the America’s. young children as early as 7 or 8 are taken into the wilderness by an elder for a night apart, later, this evolves into a vision quest and sweat lodges. My questing started when I was 17 and recieved my first call to the ministry. I believe my first quest was surviving Army Basic training and in my school to become a medic, I was given the opportunity to go on a retreat by the chaplain of our unit and again, I recieved a call to ministry. Approaching the chaplain, he would pray for me and told me to contact my priest when I got home, which I did. My home priest set me up with the diocesan formation director and I began a formation process that lasted two years. During this time, I was challenged to look at what kind of priest I wanted to be.
I thought I had it all figured out when at 20, I met a pretty red head who fed me tacos. We would fall in love, graduate together and get married. I would reestablish my ministerial pursuits in The United Methodist Church, but would again abandon them as I desired to be a social worker instead. God had other plans, I would end up at Methodist Theological School in 2001 and serve my first chruch the weekend after 9/11. The old saying goes that seminary will ruin your faith, it did. At 25, I became a dad; and I would poke at itinerate preaching for 5 more years and at 30, my career recieved a terminal diagnosis; at 40, I had found a new career and had started over, by 41, the terminal diagnosis of my ministry career had brought in hospice and by 42, the last chapter of my career in the church closed.
Questing has been a process of discovery and at 45, I realize that there is so much to go as I watch my now 20 year old daughter experience the struggles I faced when I was in college. Brussat’s line, “Questing also serves as an antidote to the rigidity of certitude thinking that you already know it all” speaks volumes to me at this middle age. As a student of Buddhist and contemplative thought since those early days of my ministerial call all I have learned thus far is that I have a lot more to learn.
Vision. The practice of vision as I would learn this year and the striving to be “transformed by the renwewing of my mind” led me forward. Humanity has often found time to go out to the wilderness and connect with the spirit or the divine and to seek out answers to problems in this lifetime. The vision quest offers ontological and existensial answers to life’s mysteries. Over years of seeking, I have grown in maturity, understanding my responsibility to myself and others and my environment. As I have matured, I have found that I have outgrown the faith of my youth, alienating me from the religious institutions that I once sought to serve. Statistically, my age does not fit in the “none” category, but I feel I identify with this crowd.
My vision has changed over the years and at 45, where once I wanted to save the world for Jesus, now I want to save the world from the church; from the toxic theologies; toxic parenting practices and overall loss of love and respect that each person inherently has onboard as a human. A practice that I began several years ago was offering a blessing to all I leave or depart from. The cashier at the grocery store, “Have a blessed day”, my client walking out the door, “Have a blessed day”. Inspired by Merton’s Fourth and Walnut mystical experience, I have cultivated the vision of seeing myself inseperable, “that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers”. This has been a long journey from my evangelical days when I “judged” people by who was saved and not saved.
Transformation and Wonder
I don’t really know how I got here.I have been with that pretty girl 25 years now. We have 4 teenage and adult daughters, I am “little more older and a lot less bolder than I used to be”. Humble pie has been in my diet quite a bit and it has been, well, humbling.
And yet, here I am. According to the Brussat’s, wonder “arises from our natural curiosity about the grand adventure of life”.Vision arises then when we allow this curiosity show us “fresh insights”. The Brussat’s offer the word accept in their description of vision and this has become for me the driving awareness to make the quest bearable. There is an “isness” the journey. There are the fun times and then there are the dark moments that cloud all vision and makes one think that all hope is lost. It is vision that challenges us to see the Divine in all things and in all people. The Calypso poet Jimmy Buffett also tells us that wrinkles only go where the smiles have been.
I stand in awe of this grand experiment, wondering where it will take me next. My grandpa taught me to smile, to laugh. I am reminded of Thich Nhat Hahn who reminds us that “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion”.
As of this writing, I have not returned home, I hope that I have at least another 35 more years before that time. The stories that I can tell from this journey thus far are amusing, hearbreaking and inspiring. I look forward to the stories I will collect in the next 35 years.
After a cold start, we got underway. 59ish miles and 6000+ feet of elevation. I scouted the front half of the course a couple of weeks ago and I kinda knew what I was in for. I only had to completely walk two climbs, one, my legs told me to fuck off, so I took a huge bolus of carb drink, finishing a bottle. Once I got to the top of the climb and recovered, my legs apologized for their rudeness and we had a string finish. Overall, a great ride and my longest organized gravel ride to date. I finished in 5:44.
A stop in Ohiopyle on Friday brought me to Cucumber falls