What Have You Learned from Your “Pets?”

I’m a connoisseur of fine quotes. Here are some choice words about the “pets” in our lives.

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.Anatole France

Without a word, my dog taught me the meaning of love.Leila Grandemange

I’ve come to appreciate how animals enter our lives prepared to teach, and far from being burdened by an inability to speak, they have many different ways to communicate. It is up to us to listen more than hear.Nick Trout

I have needed more than my share of teachers, so I try to hear the creatures in our family’s menagerie. We have two dogs, a cat, fish, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, a tarantula. We call them “pets,” but that’s a weak word. Webster’s defines it as “a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility.” I surely agree with “pleasure,” but our “pets” have a definite utility. They are guides to important lessons.

If you are reading this post, I invite you to share what you have learned from your own family members of another species. Here are a few examples from ours.

Remy

Be fiercely loyal! We found Remy (pictured here, now deceased), a Blue Heeler, at a roadside stand in Mineral Wells, Texas. After a few months, something became very clear. My wife, Donna, was his human. He tolerated me, but his fierce devotion was to her. If he was lying near her and I approached, he would give a low, throaty growl. He never got aggressive. I was in his circle of trust. His message was simply, “You may be the Alpha dog, but I will do anything necessary to protect this woman.” It annoyed me sometimes, but it also caused me to ask a question. Do I have fierce loyalties that are more important than my own life?

Stop and enjoy the belly-rub! We’ve all heard that “dogs have owners, cats have staff.” Yes, cats can seem aloof and imperious, but I have found a bond with them that runs deep. Our current feline, Ryder, often comes to my room in the early morning, jumps on the bed, then waits for a belly rub. Sometimes, I have other things on my mind, preoccupations with my daily schedule. Then Ryder rolls over, exposes his belly and waits. As I begin to stroke his soft fur, his paws curl and uncurl. This is a version of “stop and smell the roses,” and it centers me in the present.

Do your homework! Imagine my chagrin when I woke up one morning to find my beautiful Zebra Tarantula lying on her back. I thought she was dead A little panicky, I reached in and flipped her over, but she was still sluggish. I called my favorite exotic pet store and told the guy what I had done. “Oh no!” he exclaimed, “she’s just molting. If you move her it can be harmful, even fatal.” My only recourse was to turn her upside down again and pray for the best. Thankfully, she emerged hours later like a butterfly from her chrysalis. My lesson: do your homework when caring for another living creature! Too many animals have been neglected, harmed, or abandoned due to ignorance about the full responsibility of their husbandry.

I could offer other lessons, but I want to hear from you. You can respond here on WordPress or (preferably) under this post on my Facebook page.

Enjoy the animals in your lives! They are clever teachers in disguise.

Slow Dissolve

It happened on the Pinnacles Trail of Big Bend National Park.

View from Lost Mine Trail WP

I sat down to drink some water and soak in the panorama of rock spires. It was still, serene, just a whisper of wind in the junipers. As I absorbed a landscape carved over billions of years, the mental and spiritual pollution of human society began to slowly dissolve.

Slowly dissolving…

The trappings of modernity. Plastic bags, plastic smiles, laugh tracks on sitcoms, tickers of every world stock exchange. Social and unsocial media. TV ads, phone apps, Wi-Fi signals. Parasitic technology that consumes our time and spirit.

Slowly dissolving…

Our human divisions of race, religion, class and gender. Every creed and doctrine that separates us. Crosses, grenades, and crusades. Barbed wire, border walls, and the barriers within our hearts. The dueling dualities of partisan politics and their currencies of greed and corruption.

Slowly dissolving…

The most stubborn vestige, my emphasis on Self, the definitions and attachments of identity. Hamster wheel worries and obsessions. My trafficking in words. The Ego gasping for air as it sank away.

A deeper stillness enveloped me, a primordial wellspring of time and place, until I felt merged in kinship to our ancient ancestors. Those who raised their faces to the heavens from Olduvai Gorge. The original people of Big Bend, hunter-gatherers of the Folsom culture.

For a few moments they were gazing with me into the mysteries of eons.

Silence…

Stillness…

Wonder…

A form of communion so rare in daily life…

Sharp peals of laughter from the trail below snapped me from my reverie.

 

The Unspiritual Spirit

A Buddhist gardener risks his life to remove creeping foliage from the pinnacles of Angkor Wat. He believes he is protecting spirits that live within the temple.

A Catholic man, one of 242, lifts the 11,000-pound throne of Virgen de la Esperanza, parading it through the streets of Malaga, Spain on Holy Thursday. He endures the pain because, “Life has no meaning without going out under the Virgen.”

An initiate at China’s Shaolin Temple practices Monkey Stick routines and memorizes scripture, hoping to be ordained as a Kung Fu Warrior Monk. His goal is to reach enlightenment.

A young Palestinian man volunteers as a paramedic at Al-Aqsa—the Dome of the Rock—during The Night of Power, Ramadan’s crescendo. By caring for those who have collapsed in the crushing crowds, he seeks to prove himself to Allah.

These religious practices come alive in the PBS documentary series, Earth’s Sacred Wonders: Closer to the Divine. My wife and I marveled at the color and passion of our human family. We have so many rituals, prayers, disciplines, and metaphysical systems designed to deepen our awareness of the One. The forms are as diverse as the plumage on our planet’s species of birds!

I respect faith expressions no matter how foreign they seem to me. But lately, I’ve been gripped by a simple, profound intuition. T.S. Eliot summed it up perfectly in words that many of us treasure, found in Little Gidding, the final of his Four Quartets.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

For me, this knowing, this waking up, is more than just living in the moment. It is an awareness that Presence, Tao, Spirit, God—whatever term you use—surrounds us with love, encouragement, and serenity. It is like inhaling sustenance and light, letting our Source heal us in the deepest recesses of our spirit.

As soon as we start dissecting this experience, giving it names and developing disciplines to grasp it more fully, it can easily slip away. Seeking the “spiritual” often buffers us from Spirit. In the Tao Te Ching, we find these words:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

How hard this is for human brains that want to categorize and control!

Could the end of our explorations really be here, right now? Is it ultimately so simple, so obvious? I believe it is. And this awareness can infuse every task with new meaning. Thich Nhat Hanh says this about his fellow community members at Plum Village.

“When we wash dishes…it is to live every minute of the washing. Wash each bowl…in such a way that joy, peace, and happiness are possible. Imagine you are giving a bath to the baby Buddha. It is a sacred act. I have arrived. I am home. Through these two phrases, you can experience a lot of joy and happiness.”

Eliot’s words are probably true. We will not cease from exploration. We will continue to invent elaborate rituals designed to find the One.

But what if, sooner than later, we discovered we are already home?

presence1

(Image credit: Presence  1 by Angelica Gudino. Find her here)

Don’t Tread on Me!

The Gadsden Flag, an early American banner of the Revolutionary War, has been co-opted by the Tea Party and far-right factions. Forget that static and focus on a central question. Why does it feature a Timber Rattlesnake?

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The answer comes from a piece written in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin for his Pennsylvania Gazette. Great Britain was dumping convicted criminals into the colonies, so Franklin satirically suggested that we show our appreciation by sending rattlesnakes to England. You can read the full text of his 18th century prose here, but consider these highlights about the magnificent Crotalus horridus.

  • Franklin praised her bright eyes, calling her an “emblem of vigilance.”
  • Though her fangs are formidable weapons, she “never wounds till she has generously given ample notice, even to her enemy.”
  • If she is engaged, however, she never surrenders, showing “true courage.”
  • He concludes by calling her a “strong picture of the temper and conduct of America.”

Whatever you feel about his metaphor for our country, I love it for one reason alone. It gives dignity to this beautiful snake! The Gadsden Flag’s motto should come to our minds whenever we see a serpent of any type on our planet: Don’t Tread on Me!

I’m an amateur herpetologist. My collections of reptiles and amphibians have waxed and waned over the years—once filling a two-car garage!—and have always included snakes. Because of this, I try to erase the prejudice summed up as “the only good snake is a dead snake.”

Blame it on the Garden of Eden myth, where Satan incarnates as a serpent. Blame it on their slithering mobility. Blame it on how they hide in cracks and crevices. Blame it on the fact that even though a tiny percentage of species in America are venomous, that sinister shadow gets cast on all of them.

Primordial fear of snakes, ophidiophobia, afflicts about a third of adults, the most widely reported phobia. If a swashbuckling hero like Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes, we’re in good company, right?

Wrong. Did you know that Americans are 600 times more likely to be bitten by a dog than a snake?

Obviously, I (and you?) have a lot of work to do. That’s why I invite fearful people to try handling specimens in my collection. When I hear someone sounding the alarm about a snake on their property, I help them identify it and highlight its role in controlling rodents. If they show a deeper interest, I introduce them to the colors and shapes of some of earth’s 3600 species of snakes, truly among the most vibrant creatures on our planet!

I’ve had a few breakthroughs.

  • My wife, naturally suspicious of snakes, now sees their beauty and holds them.
  • A class of fourth grade students once visited my “Zoorage” for a field trip. We watched a female corn snake lay her eggs, and the amazement in their eyes was priceless!
  • I used a female Ball Python for a sermon one Sunday, telling parents that their children could come forward and meet her. Many of them had never touched a snake, and for months afterwards they pleaded, “Please bring her back!”

Bottom line? Next time you see a snake, imagine it saying to you, “DON’T TREAD ON ME!”

 

Where is the Habitat of Your Heart?

Studies show that our favorite music—the tunes that stir us the most—come from the soundtracks of our younger years. Musicologist Nolan Gasser, architect of The Music Genome Project, says that even though our tastes evolve, “The music people listened to at an early age becomes their native home comfort music. It will always be a part of who they are, tied in with deeper memories. It becomes a stake in the ground that says ‘this is who I am.’”

This rings true for me. My playlists are eclectic—new age, ambient, 70s/80/90s, jazz, metal, reggae, flamenco, bluegrass, folk—but there are certain classic rock tunes that transport me to another time and place. As Boston said, “It’s more than feeling.” I see this in my parents. On a recent visit, they asked me to sit with them and watch a rerun of an old Lawrence Welk episode. I squirmed in my chair, but they were enraptured.

This kind of organic resonance also applies to our favorite places. In a book I recently co-authored, one of the chapters begins like this:

“Think of a place that has a powerful hold on you. It may be a family homestead, a setting in nature, or a venue in your city where you spend quality time. These locations evoke more than memories; they stir our spirits and connect us with memories of times past.”

Where is this habitat of your heart, past or present? Specifically, where is that place in the woods, the fields, the mountains, or along the seashore that stakes your heart powerfully in time? Tell me its sights, smells, sounds and textures.

For me, the chaparral hills of Southern California, mingled with orange and avocado orchards, will always lay claim to my spirit. This was the playground of my childhood. It’s Mediterranean climate, Santa Ana winds, sage, manzanita, scrub oak, and “warm smell of colitas rising up through air.” Its kingsnakes, alligator lizards, roadrunners. The intoxicating aroma of orange blossoms on a summer evening.

As a geographical transplant, I now have a new heart habitat. 15 years in Texas has led me to a lasting kinship with its Hill Country, especially its cypress-lined rivers. When I feel restless, experiencing what Richard Louv calls “nature deficit,” I drive a half hour north to Bandera. I park at a secluded place on the northern edge of town, then walk to the banks of the Medina River and wander slowly along its course. I am learning the names of trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses in this biome. Its birds, butterflies, reptiles and mammals are becoming family members.

I have taken this walk countless times, savoring every season, but it is always fresh. Here is an image from a recent trips.

Medina River banksI ask again: where is the habitat of your heart? If it’s a childhood place and you still live there, immerse yourself! If you live in a new locale but have not discovered a habitat to cherish, get out there!

As Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

 

 

 

The Sunday that Lepers Became Leapers

When ABC announced it would reboot Kids Say the Darndest Things, hosted by Tiffany Haddish, I chuckled for a couple reasons.

First, I’m old enough to recall the original, a segment of The Linkletter Show which aired until 1969. Even then, I marveled at what sprang from the lips of children when Art Linkletter coaxed them into sharing.

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Second, I chuckled because many of us who attend mainline churches have our own version of this phenomenon every Sunday. We call it The Children’s Sermon, a few moments when young people are invited to hear a simple message crafted at their level of understanding.

I remember so many times when extroverted kids went off on tangents—blurting out surprise (sometimes bizarre) answers, or revealing household secrets that made their parents squirm and blush.

Which brings me to a recent Sunday…

One of the teens of our congregation volunteered to deliver the Children’s Message for the first time. I was thrilled at her courage. When the moment arrived, she had a written transcript in hand, based on Jesus’s healing of the ten lepers recorded in Luke, chapter 17.

She smiled at the assembled children in the front pews and began, “Once, Jesus was travelling through a village when he came upon ten leapers.”

Immediately, many of the adults smiled, our eyes meeting with a wry, unspoken acknowledgment that “kids say the darndest things.”

But it was more than that for me. Even as part of my brain listened to the familiar story of ten who were healed, only one who gave thanks, another part vaulted through the portals of imagination.

Leapers! Yes!

I thought of Isaiah’s prophecy that in the days of the Messiah, “the lame will leap like deer.” I thought of the power of God’s healing love, focused so clearly by Jesus. How it raises up the lowly, empowers the disenfranchised, brings hope to the downcast.

I thought of countless people whose journeys I have shared during my ministry. Addicts and alcoholics who turned back from the abyss to find joy in serving others. Grieving loved ones surprised by resolution and new life. Lonely folks who discovered a faith community of gracious fellowship. Homeless immigrants who found a pathway to sanctuary. Souls suffering from depression who experienced a dawning of God’s light. Young and old, gay and straight, people of all classes and colors lifting their voices and hands in worshipful celebration!

Then another thought entered my mind that can only be filed under “adults think the darndest things.” I saw Shadow, a pet goat I had as a child. When I let her out of her pen, she would follow me around, just wanting to be close. One evening at twilight, she couldn’t find me until I called her name. I saw her silhouette turn, orient to my voice, then gambol towards me. Gambol, meaning to leap with boundless joy. She seemed to be clicking her heels in mid-air she was so delighted!

Back to that Children’s Message. When the teen closed with prayer, many of us spontaneously applauded. I was tempted to go a step further. I almost stood up and blurted out:

Yes! You had me at LEAPERS!

Praying for Donald Trump

There’s a scene in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi that I will never forget.

Gandhi is strolling along a sidewalk in South Africa with his newfound friend, Anglican priest Charles Andrews. Up ahead, some thugs gather to enforce a law that prohibited people of color from travelling on public pathways.

Gandhi strides resolutely forward, but Andrews suggests that they turn aside. Gandhi replies, “Doesn’t the New Testament say that if your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the left?”

“Why, I, uh, think perhaps the phrase was used metaphorically,” says Andrews. “I don’t think that the Lord would…”

“I’m not so sure,” interrupts Gandhi. “I have thought about it a great deal, and I suspect he meant you must show courage, be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back, nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that, it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred for you decreased, and his respect increased. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen that work.”

When they reach the ruffians, Gandhi will not yield. There is a fierce clarity in his eyes, a mixture of determination and love that causes his would-be attackers to relent.

That moment bored into me like one of Jesus’s parables.

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You see, in my 32 years of ordained ministry I have aggressively refuted Biblical literalism. I have challenged those who use “proof texts” to oppress women, discriminate against my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, or demand allegiance to unjust authorities. I question those who treat ancient myths like science. I insist that scripture is story, a collection of writings conditioned by their times and places. We must read them with both historical knowledge and current insight through the Holy Spirit. Literalism is often the death of evolving spirituality.

Yet, there was Gandhi, internalizing the most seminal teaching of Jesus—love your enemies–and applying it SO literally that he eventually sparked a nonviolent revolution that ousted England from India

It begs a question. Are we sometimes remiss in not taking scripture at face value?

This brings me to Donald Trump….

I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say that Trump is an affront to everything I hold dear. You could even say that, symbolically, he is an enemy of mine.

I also have a confession. Except in perfunctory petitions for elected leaders, I have never prayed personally for our president. This is true even though I know Jesus said, “Do not return evil for evil,” “Love your enemies,” and “Pray for those who persecute you.”

I wonder what would happen to the polarized climate of our country if every one of my progressive Christian friends prayed daily for Donald Trump. I am not suggesting that we dampen our struggles for justice. I am saying that we do so even as we pray sincerely for our enemy.

Many of you will dismiss or disdain this suggestion. What’s the point of praying for someone whose narcissistic personality will never change?

If you are among those, I ask you to remember these words from Soren Kierkegaard, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

And so, I have begun to pray for Donald Trump with sentiments similar to these.

“Loving God, Giver of Life, you cause the rain to fall on all of us. A thousand years are like a single day in your sight. You are the final arbiter of justice, and you call us to practice love even when it is difficult. Right now, I pray for Donald Trump. I pray for your Presence to enter his heart and the hearts of his family members. Fill them with a surprising new awareness of your love and grace, those gifts lavished freely on each of us, even when we don’t deserve them. I pray this in the name of Jesus, the one who modeled love for his enemies. Amen.”

Will you join me?