Loving Wastefully

Imagine an inner-city neighborhood on a sweltering summer day. A long draught has baked the pavement and buildings, coating them with dust. An enterprising resident devises a way to turn on one of the fire hydrants full blast. It gushes into the street as people of all ages gather to splash and play. It’s like the Ganges River in the middle of concrete canyons.

A man cries out, “You’re wasting water!” and a woman exclaims, “Exactly! Come and enjoy it with us!”

It reminds me of a well-loved quote from Bishop John Shelby Spong, who died a week ago today.

“If the word “God” can be identified with the Source of Love that flows through the universe, always enhancing life…then the only way we can worship that which we call God is by loving, loving wastefully. Wasteful love never stops to ask whether love is due or deserved, one simply gives it away. The more we can give love away, the more that which is ultimate, real and holy will be visible in us.”

As my friend and co-author, Heiwa no Bushi, says, “Love wastefully. Turn on both spigots and let it run until the soil is good and muddy, until there is a pool that forms where others can be refreshed.”

Yes! How many times have we joined others in singing the Old 100th? Praise God from who all blessings flow. How often have we been reminded to let these blessings pour through us to the world, so that we are conduits for God’s torrent of grace?

For this to happen, we must overcome those attitudes of heart and mind that cause us to restrict our flow, siphoning down the blessings poured into us.

Jesus addressed one of these primary restrictors. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

Let’s be real. We all judge others. We justify ourselves with semantics, saying I’m just discerning, or I’m speaking truth to power, or I’m fighting the good fight.

OK. Yes. Amen. But SURELY every one of us, no matter our politics, theology, or morals can see how judgement erodes our common humanity. Even with noble intentions, we can easily foment division.

Judgment seems hard-wired into our human psyches. I imagine Cro-Magnon tribes already judging who among them was more beautiful, more athletic, AND who they needed to hate enough for violence. From time immemorial, we have certainly inherited the “sins” of previous generations. Just dip your mind into any news-stream on any given day. They literally reek of judgment.

Go even further. Think of how many people project this human proclivity for judgment onto their anthropomorphic images of God. Some point to this very passage from Matthew, settling on the words “you will be judged.” Jesus himself had to break the shackles of judgement, his life culminating in a crescendo of forgiveness even for his tormentors as he cried out, “It is finished!”

This teaching recorded in Matthew is not about crime and punishment, sin and retribution. It is an invitation to light and freedom. It is pure genius.

When Jesus says, the measure you give will be the measure you receive, think of it this way. If our Creator has placed within us a wellspring of love, an inner fountain to refresh every moment, then our judgments restrict the flow of this love not only for others, but for our own experience of joy!

To use a contemporary analogy, consider the ubiquitous smartphones in our culture, attached like appendages every waking hour. They exist within a bandwidth. When we judge others, we limit our ability to stream love from the Source, narrowing our experience from 5G to 4G to 3G to E. Finally, beyond the Edge is a life with no sustaining awareness of connection to our Creator.

Jesus implores us to experience a fuller measure of love that suffuses our lives. To use the image of water again, think of the words he spoke to that Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob. “The water that I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

As Bishop Spong said, when we let this water flow through us to others, even wastefully, what is “real and holy will be visible in us.”

Amen.

Returning “Home” to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, by Rex Taylor Stewart

(Many years ago, I shared a summer of volunteering at Ghost Ranch, an education and retreat center in northern New Mexico that was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church until 2017. I worked alongside many new friends, including Rex Stewart and Carol Rogers. That experience and the Ranch itself cast a long and powerful shadow over our lives. When I saw through Facebook that the two of them had recently returned to that enchanting place, I asked Rex to share his impressions. His words speak to the age-old question: Can we ever really go home again?)

Recently, I was able to return to the beautiful high mesas of Northern New Mexico and the spectacular cliffs surrounding Ghost Ranch Conference Center. Every time I go there, I am transported back to my first glimpses of that sacred terrain. I was a college student in 1978 about to begin a summer of volunteering as part of Ghost Ranch’s annual college staff. The contrast of the yellows, oranges, reds, and browns of its cliffs and mesas reaching up to that impossibly brilliant blue sky took my breath away; I fell in love.

Later, I was to meet the love of my life, my partner and wife, Carol Rogers, who also worked on the college staff. We became part of an extensive network of friends and family who were all touched by Ghost Ranch magic, a place that unleashed my creativity and consciousness in ways that are hard to describe. Meeting people who valued others and the beauty of nature liberated me from my overwrought anxieties about trying to save the world. I learned to breathe deeply and soak in God’s creation as I hiked the landscape, swam in Abiquiu Lake, lay on the ground in my sleeping bag searching the night skies for shooting stars and satellites, and having deep conversations with new friends.

Four decades later, many of those friends are still close and cherished. Nowadays, however, they have moved away from the Ranch to create lives, careers and families of their own, just as Carol and I have done. Things have inevitably changed at Ghost Ranch since those early, formative days. Such is life—ever shifting and evolving.

And so, returning “home” to the Ranch no longer feels the same as when our old friends lived and worked there. No one there remembers us from our three summers spent working as volunteers in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Going back now feels like when I visited my childhood home in Iowa and introduced myself to the current occupants. Even though they graciously allowed me to enter and look around, it clearly was no longer my home, nor would it ever be again. There’s a sadness and sweetness in such moments, and it’s clear to me now that it is the people as much as the place that make our memories so dear.

What I have decided to do when I return to the Ranch is to put aside my expectations of reunion with beloved friends who knew us back then, even though that occasionally happens. I let myself fall in love all over again with the experiences of new people amid the timeless beauty of those cliffs, mesas, and grand vistas across the valley toward Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain Georgia O’Keefe loved to paint. Rather than looking for our old friends, gazing past the faces of those who are there now, I can meet and enjoy new acquaintances. One can never have enough good friends, right?

No, it will never be the same as it was. What is? Even the cliffs and pinnacles surrounding the conference grounds–recognizable as background scenery in so many Hollywood westerns—have changed in subtle ways over time.

Nothing ever stays the same, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

Rev. Dr. Rex T. Stewart is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Youngstown, New York. You can visit their website here or visit Rex on Facebook here. Rex took the photos featured in this story.

A Part, Not Apart

On a recent visit to the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, my wife and I watched an Omnimax film called The Great Barrier Reef. Told through the eyes of Jemma Craig who grew up on a barrier island, it’s an urgent appeal to preserve this 1,400-mile ecological treasure.

As I sat there, it happened numerous times—those moments of wonder in the face of our natural world, even when transmitted through celluloid. Please forgive my repeated exclamations.

  • Tens of thousands of green sea turtles gathering at their largest rookery, Raine Island. They migrate up to 1600 miles to reach the exact beach of their birth. How do they do it? By relying on Earth’s magnetic fields. Each part of a coastline has its own magnetic signature, which the animals remember and later use as an internal compass. Awesome!
  • Pictures of endangered giant manta rays swimming together, some of them as big as 23 feet wide and weighing 6,600 lbs. Awesome!
  •  The reef’s many species of coral simultaneously releasing their mixture of eggs and sperm into the sea, as numerous as stars in the night sky. Awesome!

Like so many of you, I am drawn to nature because of its perfect intricacy, its reminder to just BE rather than DO, to humbly experience my place in the web of life. As a friend of mine says, this is what “stiches him into the fabric of the universe.”

These moments resonate from deep in my childhood. I remember walking on a hillside covered in wild mustard so tall it reached my forehead. I laid on my back and looked up through blossoms teeming with bees and butterflies, a sky of sailing clouds beyond them. The veil between observer and observed vanished.

I once read a compilation of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s writings that remains with me. He spoke of how our perception causes us to stand apart from the world rather than experience harmony within it. This disconnection is at the root of our cancerous treatment of the environment—bending it, shaping it, paving it to fit the contours of “progress.”

Krishnamurti’s words can seem odd to Western minds riddled with binary thinking. “There is no division between the world and you,” he said. “You are the world.” The key, he said, is in how we perceive, summed in these words.

“Can you see with your eyes the tree as a whole? Do you understand my question? Can you see anything totally, or are you always seeing partially? Are so we caught up in our own network of problems, our own desires, our own urges of pleasure and pain that we never look around, never watch the moon? Watch it. Watch with all your eyes and ears, your sense of smell—watch. Look as though you are looking for the first time. If you can do this, that tree, that bush, that blade of grass you are seeing for the first time. Then you can see your teacher, your mother and father, your brother and sister, for the first time. There is an extraordinary feeling about that: the wonder, the strangeness, the miracle of a fresh morning that has never been before, never will be.”

As a Master Naturalist, I join my fellow volunteers in passing on our knowledge of the natural world. We can catalogue flora and fauna; we can name those forces that shape the landscape and atmosphere. All this science surely deepens our appreciation of the planet. But perhaps the most vital thing we impart is to see our world through the perspective of harmony, a vision that instills a desire to cherish, protect, and nurture the gift of Earth.

There is so much dire evidence about the decline of our environment. We see it everywhere. On the very morning I am posting this blog, the U.N. has issued a new warning about the escalation of climate change.

Yet, I cling to the hope that more and more of us can be the change we want to see.

We can be a part, not apart.

My Head Got Stuck in the Clouds, by Desi Mo

“Get your head out of the clouds!” In other words, stop daydreaming, get real, be a productive cog in the daily busyness of life! Really? Perhaps we need to spend more time with our minds in the troposphere. Perhaps we should lift our eyes more frequently and let those shifting billows draw us into the present.

Ever since I met my friend, Desi Mo, through Facebook, she has taught me this lesson. We felt so much like kindred spirits that we crafted a joint blog a couple years ago called That Woman I Met on Facebook (link here). Recently, while enjoying her pictures and posts, I asked her to share a few words and images (scroll through the slideshow!) I encourage you to like Desi on Facebook and let her grace your daily feed with more beauty.

My Head Got Stuck in the Clouds, by Desi Mo

My head got stuck in the clouds
And I felt like I was floating
Gliding
Sailing
Melting
Blending

Oh, to be lost
Yet fully alive
Happily

It tastes like 
Savoring marshmallow
While my nose tickles
From the feathers
Of passing birds

I recall what
My siblings said
That I was always on cloud 9
Now I understand what they meant

Yet, it’s only now that I can feel
Truly feel
The softness of life
And it clouds my mind

Sometimes it even makes me
Feel dizzy
But I swear…

I just love it
In la-la land!

You? No Comparison!

If you truly don’t give a damn about what others think of you, congratulations! If you are so “at home” in your own skin that nothing causes you to seek external worth, rock on!

If, instead, you are like many of us who battle with bouts of self-doubt, read on…

Why do certain liberating truths need frequent reiteration? Why do we need to plant our feet repeatedly on the same foundational wisdom?

Why? Because so much of the world’s messaging conspires to undermine us. The sheer load and volume is staggering!

Grading systems, balancing sheets, images of what is beautiful, popular, successful. Skin colors and sexual orientations held up as normative.

Scripts for living—indoctrination under countless disguises—passed on to us as proper roadmaps by our tribes and families.

Religious dogma that demands allegiance.

Internet news-streams, predatory to our browsing, a bombardment of polarizing headlines. Be very afraid! It’s time to take sides!

Social media casting its desirability web of likes and follows.

Even small pieces of this external “coding” get internalized, it can lead to fits of self-effacement. Tabula rasa becomes tabula inscripta.

Certainly, benchmarks of excellence can inspire us to better our lives. What I’m talking about is when those standards create a sense of lacking that sours our enjoyment of NOW!

As I write these words, countless individuals are evaluating their lives by metrics that are ultimately superficial. I see this clearly in the life of a good friend. Listening to him with compassion helps me in my own struggles.

He’s a remarkable person—gifted with intelligence, awareness, creativity, a sense of adventure that guides him to remote places and experience. He has a devoted wife, children, and grandchildren. I often think of him as a Renaissance person.

And yet, at regular intervals, he finds his mental health unraveling. We have talked for hours about it and eventually it boils down to a single word…

Comparison.

He begins, like many of us, to measure himself against others—internalized notions of where he “should be” at this point in his life. He’s embarrassed to admit that some of it is tied to financial gain. At other times, it’s about how much impact his life’s work has had. On deeper levels, it reaches spiritual dimensions as he wonders why others seem more liberated.

He knows the standard advice. He knows how to make gratitude lists, enumerating the people and accomplishments that give his life value. But even in that process, he begins to contrast himself with others less fortunate. It’s the pernicious flip side; creating a sense of superiority to combat inadequacy.

Comparison. Or, to use that old-fashioned word from the Ten Commandments, covetousness in all its ugly forms, those cravings for external validation.

As I said earlier, some truths need frequent reiteration. Like this one. Share a version of it with your children, your students, your parishioners, your coworkers and neighbors. Hell, shout if from the rooftops! 

You are one of a kind, a divine creation, as unique as the whorls on your fingertips. Your particular experience and history are yours alone and can lead you to the fulfillment you seek. Follow your own path! Seize your own destiny! As Emerson wisely said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Back to those talks with my friend. I do my best to help him reclaim his sacred identity and settle into the present with a thankfulness that overflows.

But after our talks, a sobering thoughts enters my mind.

I imagine us on our death beds. No matter how many people surround us in those moments, we will ultimately make that transition alone. And if our lives really do pass before our eyes, we will see clearly the absurdity of EVER wasting a precious moment in unhealthy comparison to others?

Please. Hear it again.

You? No comparison!

The More Things Change…

Like so many of us, I’m drawn to abandoned places. That’s why I’m sitting here on the only remaining wall of a ruined living room in South Texas. A great stone fireplace towers above me and I wonder. What voices once filled this space? What dramas played out against this backdrop…

*                           *                           *

As we recently watched a commercial about the new F-150 Lightning—Ford’s first all-electric truck—I commented to my wife, “What a fascinating time to be alive!”

But isn’t that true for every generation, especially given the rapid evolution of technology?

My father shares his memory of the day his family first received electricity. They were living on a farm in Wisconsin during the Depression. A truck rumbled down their dirt road, unrolling a thick black cable, then fastened it to a central pole near the barn. My grandfather had placed a floodlight at the top, and when he turned on the power, my father still exclaims, “It was magic!” His parents allowed him and his brothers to stay up late, joining the fireflies as they cavorted in the artificial light on that late summer evening.

My father went on to a storied career, part of it as a key component of the Apollo program in the 1960s. Think of it: from rudimentary electricity to a man on the moon! And the dizzying evolution continues! Today, my dad holds a million times more computing power in his smartphone than all the computers that guided our first lunar missions.

The same accelerated technology is evident in the arc of my own life. Phones are a perfect example, as are “word processing” options. I remember when IBM first released its Correcting Selectric II typewriter. Unbelievable! With a push of a button, I could go back to the typo, erase it with a special tape, then proceed with my manuscript. I was liberated from Liquid Paper! As a writer, I felt I had leaped a century ahead.

Think of your own life and the examples of monumental change. Project your thoughts forward and imagine what’s in store for our children and grandchildren.

And yet, despite all these “advances,” have human beings really changed that much? Don’t we nurture many of the same hopes, dreams and desires in our hearts? Aren’t there deep ties of love and grief that still bind us together across generations and millennia? Don’t we all experience the wonder of this life and gasp at its brevity? How can ancient spiritual teachers and holy texts still speak to our deepest longings unless our essential humanity has always cried out for the same answers?

As I said in one of my poems, The Dust

and the air we breathe could be remnants from Caesar’s last gasp

or the final exhalation of Christ.

And the constellations that grace deep space

are the same seen by Cleopatra

and slaves in Confederate fields

and our ancestors from Olduvai Gorge

when they lifted their faces to the heavens.

Back to that moment in the forsaken living room…

I know this is part of what attracts so many of us to these abandoned places. The whispers of lives from the past. The knowledge that even the passage of time cannot completely severe our ties with those who have gone before us.

In an uncanny way, it’s a type of communion, something we can all feel if we settle into the ruins of history. And maybe, just maybe, it will increase our compassion for the living who still surround us.

Because, after all, the more things change, the more they stay the same…

The Six Medicines of BodhiChristo

I’ve discovered,” says my friend, Heiwa no Bushi, “that if Jesus and the Buddha had existed at the same time, they would have probably gotten along very well.”

This awareness lies at the heart of Bushi’s teachings and mission: a melding of the best insights from two great teachers of the past. He calls it The BodhiChristo Path. It is why I asked him to help me on an earlier project, a story about two men – one Christian, the other Buddhist – who have a “chance” encounter on an urban bus. You can read Four Truths on a Crosstown Bus here.

Bushi and I have now collaborated on a second project, The Six Medicines of BodhiChristo (downloadable here). It has been a pleasure and a growing experience to walk with my bold brother through this project. We offer you this new booklet with the hope that it leads to more freedom on your chosen path.

Her Hands

We’re basically alone in this life, she said,
then turned in silhouette,
streetlights streaking the window like frost.
A velvety breeze lifted the curtains
as I reached across the table.
She drew back slightly, then relaxed,
entwining her hand into mine.

I do, she said.
A warm breeze lifted the veil,
her eyes fixed and solemn:
a glider at the precipice,
a diver entering depths.
I took her hand and
placed the gold band on her finger.

It makes me feel helpless, she said,
her hand on the feverish forehead
of our daughter,
Her gesture froze the moment,
a tableau of the ages.
I know what you mean, I said,
then laid my hand on hers.

She stood at the ship’s stern,
its great wake illuminated by sunset.
Wind lifted her grey-tinged hair,
unfurling it like prayer flags.
I’m grateful to voyage with you, she said,
releasing her hands from the railing,
now spotted, mapped with wrinkles,
and lifting them to caress my face.
I love you…

Her hoarse breathing
filled the hospital room.
A few hours at most, the doctor had said.
But remember that hearing
is the last sense to die.
I traced the curve of her cheek
with my fingers,
lingering there as if
willing her to respond.
I took her hand, squeezed it gently,
then bent to her ear and whispered,
You are not alone.

Experiencing Mortality Together

No respecter of class or color

Those of us in recovery from addiction are familiar with this phrase. We have intimate knowledge that our disease affects people from all walks of life, regardless of economic status, racial heritage, political stance, or sexual orientation. We gather in our diversity to face the challenge of restoration, releasing our pride and division to embrace new strength together.

Many a time, as I’ve stood in the closing circles of AA meetings reciting The Lord’s Prayer, I felt an overwhelming communion of humanness.

I recall some words from the classic Bible scholar, William Barclay, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke. He is analyzing the story of the ten lepers who implore Jesus for healing, a mixed-race group of wandering sufferers. Most sermons on the passage focus on the rarity of gratitude, the fact that only one leper returned to thank Jesus for a miracle. Barclay uncovers another aspect.

“Here is an example of a great law of life. A common misfortune had broken down the racial and national barriers. In the common tragedy of their leprosy they had forgotten they were Jews and Samaritans and remembered only they were men in need. If a flood surges over a piece of country and the wild animals congregate for safety on some little bit of higher ground, you will find standing peacefully together animals that are natural enemies and at any other time would do their best to kill each other. Surely one of the things which should draw all people together is their common need of God.”

Yes, a great law of life! And it applies not only to facing calamities like the COVID-19 pandemic. Our common humanity spans the entire breadth of our shared experience: birth, childhood, the pangs of adolescence, the stirrings of love, the bonds of family and friendship. Laughter, tears, and longings. Asking big questions; getting mired in minutia. The inexorable forces of time and aging.

All these, yes, but also our endless warring and division. Our tribalism that continues to fracture humankind and the planet itself. As anthropologist, Lawrence Keeley, said in this book War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, “Our common humanity, viewed realistically, can be as much a source of despair as hope.”

Given this duality, I will always choose hope. I will continue to pray that someday we will rise up, shake off our primordial animosities, and embrace a unity that transcends divisions. I wrote about this plea in my book, Invitation to The Overview.

Many of you reading these words have echoed the same question. When will we fully awaken to our shared journey on this fragile vessel called Earth?

Throughout three decades of ministry, I attended to people through the vicissitudes of life. Aging and death were part of my daily rounds, especially when I worked as a Hospice chaplain.

But as we all know, firsthand experience with loved ones is often the most poignant.

On April 13, 2021, I flew to Las Vegas to be with my mother on her 89th birthday. The day after I arrived, she took a fall that fractured her hip. I’m grateful I was there to help her and my father, and every day as I spent time in her hospital room, we discussed memories from our past.

She spoke of holding me on her lap while sitting on the stoop of their apartment in Seattle, awaiting my Dad’s return from graduate school. Our eyes met, and the passage of time was so compressed that it took my breath away. I saw in her face that foreshadow of what awaits us all.

Later that evening, a friend of my parents from their church sent a simple message of encouragement: “May God’s comfort be with both of you as we experience morality together.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

We. Are. Experiencing. Mortality. Together.

Let us join hands and hearts to support each other with love and grace!

The Gift Geology Has Given Me, by Gary Poole

As a boy, I, like many people in their childhoods, collected rocks. Or so I called it. Mostly it involved picking up unusual specimens, applying some fantastic origin story to the rock, and then putting it in an increasingly heavy box. Hematite nodules became meteorites, banded chert became fossilized wood, and strangely eroded pieces of limestone became dinosaur bones.

At some point, my folks took me to see the original movie version of the book, Journey to the Center of the Earth (I realize I’m dating myself!) and I became enamored with the idea of caving, with the sense of adventure inherent in the act. Later in my adult life I became an avid spelunker, caving in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico primarily. Being actually within the matrix of living rock only enhanced my fascination with the origins and nature of this material, whether it was limestone, marble, gypsum or basalt. To satisfy this curiosity I read books, took college geology classes and continued my improvised field reconnaissance. That’s right, “picking up unusual specimens, applying some fantastic origin story to the rock, and putting it in an increasingly heavy box.”

As I fed my love affair with geology and caving, I began to do nature multitasking. While driving from cave to cave in Mexico with friends in my Volkswagen camper, there would always be a copy of Birds of Mexico and Central America between the front seats along with a pair of binoculars. Or, when visiting ranchers in the limestone hills of Uvalde County looking for caves, I’d carry Roadside Flowers of Texas by Wills and Irwin, my first plant book. Those field excursions often took forever because every splash of color on the roadside necessitated a stop and examination!

Over the years I have tried to grow my knowledge of all facets of nature and the relationships among them. But through it all, my love for geology has remained. And this is not just because it is the foundation upon which so much of the natural world is built upon or derived (e.g., soil), but because the rock is a chronicle of events that have shaped the evolution of the planet and its life. It is a calendar, time capsule, and snapshot if we have the skill to read it.

When I come to a creek or a river, I love to stand on the bedrock of that channel, connecting myself to the bones of the Earth in that spot, like I’ve wrapped my arms around a Sequoia sempervirens but immeasurably older. I look for the story of the planet at that point in time and in that place. The sauropod dinosaur footprints in the Glen Rose Limestone of the Blanco River tell me that this place was an intertidal, marshy landscape 105 or so million years ago when giant herbivores fed on the margins of a shallow sea. Walking in the shallows of the Llano River on a bedrock of twisted gneiss and schist, I hear the faint echo of a billion-year-old tectonic plate collision, raising a mountain range and suturing a continent together.

The geology of a place tells us what was happening there on the stage where life was playing out—evolving, adapting to new conditions, indefatigable. However extreme the conditions or the change, whether single-celled or multicellular, life was building a path to us and our current co-habitants of the planet. And building past us as well. The deep time of this resiliency, its patience, has long been a comfort to me. It is a part of my genome as well as my consciousness. And it reminds me that my heritage has almost nothing to do with my national origin or the accidents of birth and everything to do with this magnificently old story told by the rocks.

Geology is like comfort food for my soul. It reminds me that whatever the catastrophe—giant asteroid strike, massive volcanic flood basalts, humanity—life will go on, creating wonderful new forms within the constraints given. I find this certainty calming and hopeful.

For me, nature is not some narrow experience, balancing on the knife edge of time, beautiful and miraculous but oblivious to all that has gone before. Nature is a network, woven of the past and the present, which holds me close to everything that is and has been. And expectant for those things to come. This is the gift geology has given me.