Sitting Without Striving

During a period of intense spiritual searching during my early 20s, I did a lot of reading about Zen Buddhism. I was intrigued by Zen koans and poetry, words meant to spark awakenings beyond reason. Looking back now, I was desperate for relief from the pressures of my daily thinking, what Buddhists call the “monkey brain” or that “unbridled horse” ridden by those who have no idea of their frantic destination. I wanted a semblance of satori, but I was unwilling to put in the work required by Zen initiates—sitting in zazen. I found it nearly impossible to quiet myself long enough. Even if I had, my motivation would have been suspect, a Western form of endeavoring. This past year, while compiling The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable here for free), I reached out to the San Antonio Zen Center to see if someone would be willing to share their story. What follows are the words of Enrique Valdivia, an attorney at a legal aid center in San Antonio. All these years later, he confirms what I suspected about Zen practices, especially how they are essentially antithetical to striving. Enrique was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time he wrote these words.

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother was Roman Catholic, but my father professed atheism. My mother had me baptized and I went to catechism and confirmation. After that, my father insisted that my siblings and I have no further exposure to the Church. I still went to Mass occasionally as an adult, and I kept a small statue of the Virgin Mary gifted to me by the nuns upon my confirmation.

After leaving home, I attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, a liberal arts school where I majored in philosophy. In the winter of 1978, my sophomore year, I took a class with professor Bardwell Smith, a well-regarded Asian religion scholar focused on Japan.

As part of his course, we did a field trip to the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis. The founder, Dainin Katagiri, had first come to the U.S. from Japan to assist Rōshi Shunryu Suzuki at the San Francisco Zen Center. He then moved to Minnesota to establish his own sangha.

We arrived at the Center the night before and slept in the Zendo. Getting up well before dawn, Katagiri Roshi led us through several intervals of zazen, alternated with a walking meditation called kinhin. We then ate breakfast ōryōki style. The meal’s every detail was done with great care. I was particularly struck by the completeness of it, unwrapping and setting out the bowls and utensils, accepting and eating the food, washing everything afterwards with hot water, then drinking the wash water and wrapping everything back together just as it had been when we started.

That first zazen experience was also memorable, but the practice was far too austere to appeal to 19-year-old me. The Buddha’s way is meant to point the way out of suffering. Perhaps I had not yet suffered enough. That time came much later, in late midlife, when I was living in San Antonio, Texas.

After turning 50, I became seriously depressed. I decided I needed to try everything I could to recover my sense of wellbeing. By that time, various mindfulness practices had entered American mainstream culture, even reaching San Antonio. About two miles from my house was a sangha in the same tradition as the one I had encountered in Minnesota during college. I still had my copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki from Bardwell Smith’s course. I took all this as a sign that it was time to practice in earnest at the San Antonio Zen Center, which I have done now for nearly twelve years.

This is how I would describe zazen to those who have not experienced it. We are not trying to reach an end goal with our meditation. It is object-less. We simply sit and start by counting our breath from one to ten, then settle into our sitting without striving.

This practice connects me to the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence. It helps me stay calm during the vicissitudes of my life, to allow changes to happen, knowing I will arrive at something else. I find solace in not letting myself get worked up over things, for better or worse. I go through emotions like anyone else, and some of them are quite challenging, but I can sit, follow my breath, and things will work out.

Not necessarily solved. There’s a difference. It’s the notion that what I’m experiencing now is temporary, and I find comfort in that.

You can connect with Enrique on Facebook here

Two “sisters” share their spiritual disciplines

My only daughter, Hanna Leigh, has always been an inspiration to me. She has never been content to let the prescriptions of others dictate her life’s journey. She is a spiritual adventurer, searching for the best and most freeing elements of various traditions around her. She is also a gifted singer, with two musical compilations to her credit. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog; Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), she describes how singing has become a Source-connecting discipline for her.

To me, the gift of singing is what I call “embodied presence,” shifting me from thinking to feeling. For this to happen, I need to be truly present in my body. The more I focus on the physical vibrations moving through me or ponder the meaning behind lyrics (like a finger pointing to the moon), the deeper I come into this place of fuller awareness.

On a physiological level, singing regulates my nervous system, either through upbeat songs and sounds that spark me out of a slump, or soothing melodies that calm my frenetic energy and quiet my mind. I like to carve out time to have “sounding sessions” with myself, where I simply sit and make the sounds of whatever I am feeling in my body. Sometimes my mind judges these utterances as weird or ugly, but as I allow them to express what could be more difficult through English, there is relief, healing, wholeness…sometimes bringing tears, sometimes laughter. This is a valuable part of my spiritual and emotional hygiene.

As with other art forms and spiritual practices, when I’m truly immersed in the expression, I’m not worried about how I’m going to fix something of the past or achieve something in the future. I spiral into a deeper connection with myself and the living world, opening my senses. I realize that this organic connection was here even before I started singing. It is always here. I just need to tune in and ride the wave.

A beautiful elder and song-leader named Laurence Cole, who has inspired me and many others to sing in circles together, calls singing “a technology of belonging.” When we sing together in a group, we come into a resonant field and remember that we belong to each other. Some of my most powerful memories of growing up in the Christian church are moments of group singing; raising our voices in praise of the glory of a greater power that animates the world. This same impulse continues to inspire me, just as the birds rise at dawn to offer their songs to the web of creation.

You can connect with Hanna on Facebook here, Instagram here, or here website here

I met Ann Averbach on the island of Maui while staying at a commune called Lokahi, which means harmony in Hawaiian. It’s a beautiful place. One night while sleeping in a bamboo hut, I heard the booming sound of humpback whales playfully slapping their fins on the water of a nearby inlet. Ann is a longtime practitioner and teacher of yoga. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters, she shares her insights on why it is such an important part of her spiritual journey. I especially resonate with her description of those moments when we get elevated visions from the peaks still ahead of us.

Yoga is a lifestyle, a discipline, a path, and a constant practice. Many people in our modern world debase it to a series of postures designed for physical fitness. We all need healthy bodies, but the truest benefits of yoga are in our subtle body, our pranic body. Yoga is a full mind, body, spirit discipline whose goal is to bring us home to the luminous peace of our true nature. We are all gods and goddesses and have unlimited potential lying dormant within us. We are powerful beyond measure, and we can activate this power through practices which awaken our kundalini energy—that life-force lying dormant at the base of our spine, waiting for us to raise it up to our higher energy centers.

 Like any practice, the more we commit ourselves, the deeper we go. As well-known yoga teacher, B. K. S. Iyengar, says, “Practice and all else is coming.” I tell my students that three times a week is the minimum to keep our practice in balance. If we really want to progress, I recommend five to six days a week with a day off to rest. Anything worthwhile or beautiful in this life takes commitment and dedication.

The wonderful thing about practicing yoga is that it changes with our lifestyle, the seasons, and the seasons of our lives. It adapts to our ever-evolving needs. At first, we may have to force ourselves to practice. However, as we realize that we are more energized and centered, our discipline—what we call our daily sadhana—becomes a joy that gives back to us a thousand-fold!

For many others and me, it is often through crisis that our practice grows. Yoga became my absolute lifeline and saving grace during my mother’s final months on our planet. Losing her was one of the greatest challenges I have faced in this lifetime. Along with my aunt, I was her constant caregiver, and the one activity I had for personal space was to go to my yoga classes. It’s so true that in order to care for others and not burn out, we must first care for ourselves. During this extremely difficult time, I realized how yoga saved my life. It deepened my daily practice and commitment exponentially. Often, when we start inventing reasons why we are too busy or unable to come back to our mats, that is when we need it the most.

Many of yoga’s practices, especially working with the subtle body, are nebulous and theoretical at first. For example, working with the bandhas, or energetic locks, when we first learn to breathe into our pelvic floor. Most people can’t even bring their breath to the low abdomen. However, as we purify ourselves physically, we are able to purify ourselves mentally, energetically, and spiritually as well. We start to tune in to increasingly subtle realms and have “aha moments” and breakthroughs.

I would illustrate it like this, based on my personal experience. We may have times where we are climbing and climbing the metaphorical mountain of our spiritual journey and it seems as if we are so far from the summit. Then, one day, we suddenly fly to the top and have an awakening where we can see from an elevated state, experiencing bliss, samadhi, nirvana. We may slide back down to where we were previously climbing, but that glimpse from the top inspires us carry on, to chop wood and carry water as the Zen Buddhists say. We return to our practice 1,000 times, a thousand times, until eventually we make our way back to that highest summit of spiritual experience and elevated awareness.

You can connect with Ann on Facebook here or Instagram here

Freedom Is Your Birthright!

I met Shine Tretter and her sister, Emily, at Lokahi, a communal living compound in Maui. Both of them grew up in a loving family that taught traditional Christian values and practices. When those values no longer spoke personal truth to them, they had the courage to follow their own stars. In many ways, the following words from Shine encapsulate the call to freedom at the heart of the book, The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here).

My life today is a unique fairy tale, quite different than I imagined when I was a child. Sitting here on my back deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean at sunset, coconut trees waving in the breeze and the sound of children giggling and playing, is a dream come true. A dream I didn’t even know I had.

I grew up with loving parents in a wonderful home, but I felt a lot of anxiety as a kid. Anxiety about school, church, and the soccer games in which I competed. We lived in a sweet little neighborhood, and I spent a lot of time outdoors. I felt a strong connection with the wooded area behind our house, so I spent hours by a babbling brook that had a mysterious, magical appeal. It sparkled with a sense of freedom that matched the freedom within me. A sense of freedom that over time grew dull and dim, eventually stuffed so far away that I had forgotten it existed.

So, at 25 years old, I walked away from my life as I knew it. I left my job as a social worker living in the city. I sold most of my belongings and drove out West. Something was calling me, something I could no longer ignore. It was the call of freedom.

From where I sit now, 30 years away from that enchanted little girl in the woods, I believe our society has evolved (or devolved) to diminish freedom. Imagine if we all followed the deepest calling of our souls. Would we allow ourselves to be cooped up in an office all day? Or sit in rush hour traffic? Or spend only two days a week with our families and the rest working? I have come to realize that the conventional trajectory of so many folks might have an allure of freedom, but in reality, it’s a life chained to materialism and starved for fulfillment. Fancy cars, designer clothes, and that condo on the beach sparkle with illusory joy, but do they bring us any closer to love, truth, or our deepest selves?

Finding the courage to step outside of the norm was the biggest obstacle between me and my dreams. This was something I had never done before. Even though I always wanted to shine my true colors, I was afraid of what others might think. I played it small and quiet to avoid judgment, but I had a mediocre life, feeling safe but empty. I believe the first breakthrough happened for me when I ended an uneventful relationship. This was something I held on to for so long, thinking it would change, but it finally fell loose, leaving me light and free.

This had a domino effect; I suddenly had ample time to focus on myself. I dove heart first into books, practices, and events that fed my soul. Then, when I moved to the West Coast, I began to find my soul family. I traveled around to music festivals and gatherings that had a common theme of spiritual growth and self-development. Eventually, I made an impromptu trip to Maui, where I landed in a small, intentional community focused on spiritual development using sacred plant medicines.

During the five years I lived there, I went deep into physical cleansing and emotional healing. I woke before the sun to practice kundalini yoga. I fasted on coconuts and cleansed my liver. I sat in ceremonies with ancient-plant teachers to illuminate the truth within my soul and clear my spiritual lens. Something inside me merged with the natural elements around me. I became highly sensitive and intuitive. Perhaps I had always carried these gifts, but they had gone undeveloped. I was able to manifest anything I desired into my reality: financial wealth, a beautiful home by the sea, vibrant health, and eventually my partner with whom I now have three beautiful children.

I believe we all have the capacity to make our wildest dreams come true. It takes courage to step beyond our edges and trust that life will meet us there. It requires shucking off the baggage we carry and freeing ourselves from inhibition.

The freedom we chased as children is our birthright. We simply need to claim it!

You can connect with Shine on Facebook here or Instagram here.

“These families have tattooed my soul.”

I met the Rev. Dr. Helen Boursier while serving on a committee she chaired within our denomination. Since then, I have admired her deep devotion to a group of people she would never have met without a faith that compels her to action. She has let these people “tattoo her soul.” Frankly, her witness continues to convince me of the need to act in my own life. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), she shares the arc of her journey.

Since 2014, I’ve been a volunteer chaplain with refugee families seeking asylum. Together, we have talked, laughed, sung songs, shared time in worship, made artwork, wept, and prayed. Most of these asylum seekers have been young women with small children who are fleeing violence and death threats in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Serving as a volunteer chaplain is my Christ-centered response to Jesus’s proclamation: “Whatever you have done for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.” (Mt 25:40)

The preparation for my spiritual journey of love and hospitality started long before I first visited the detained families. It began over a decade earlier with my sense of disconnect from the Christian church and its increasing disregard for the ethical teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount and many of his parables. Disheartened, I saw that the church is too often a social club of like-minded members who look, believe, and act like people of the world, rather than disciples called by Jesus to challenge and change injustice. However, despite my disillusionment, I still wanted to continue as a Christ-follower.

Ironically, in the middle of my disappointment with the formal Christian church, I sensed God calling me to vocational ordained ministry. After completing the education and ordination requirements, I became the organizing and senior pastor of a new church start in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The job came with no funding, no building, no land, no people: go build a church from scratch! It felt like God was calling me to “put up, or shut up,” challenging me to put into practical action Jesus’s teachings so that “right belief” intersected with “right action.” Community Fellowship Presbyterian Church in New Braunfels, Texas began with core values to be uplifting, friendly, welcoming, spiritual, fun, Christ-centered, and culturally relevant. The church’s DNA was to welcome every possible type of diversity with radical hospitality and unconditional love. The congregation responded to the community with a spirituality of love and hospitality by being fully present in whatever capacities and contexts.

Then, in 2014, I received an invitation to chair the Mission Outreach and Justice Committee for 150 Presbyterian churches located in central and south Texas. I had been so busy planting a church that I hadn’t realized what this committee oversaw. I did some homework and research to familiarize myself with its areas of concern. This included an immigration task force formed in response to the large influx of unaccompanied minors and young families seeking asylum at the southern border of the U.S.

I began volunteering with many of these families as Pastora Helena. As Dr. Boursier, I had been writing about the racist policies and practices centered on immigration, but this was firsthand experience. As thousands of detained mothers shared their personal stories of trauma, courage, and love, it suffused my academic perspective with deep love and compassion. As one ministry colleague said, “Your experience with these families has tattooed your soul.” These families became my lifelong forever friends.

Their witness to my spirit intersected with the words of Dorothee Soelle, a prominent German theologian who began teaching after the Nazi regime ended. In her memoire, Soelle said she was appalled by the complicity, through silence, of the German people and their repeated excuse, “We didn’t know…” She made it her life’s mission to ensure that people around her would never again give that same lame excuse regarding injustice in our world. Her words and work inspired me to unmask the racist policies and practices meted out against immigrants seeking asylum.

To this day—through teaching, public speaking, and advocacy—I bear witness with these families. I hope and pray that my writing provides historical documentation for future generations. Each book I research and write becomes a learning experience that reinforces my spiritual journey of solidarity with these wonderful mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are desperately seeking asylum in the United States of America.

You can find out more about Helen and her ministry at her website.

What keeps me going is the “knowing.”

Le Anne Clausen de Montes is a Presbyterian pastor living in North Iowa. In the following words, she characterizes herself as unsuccessful. That begs the question: what is success? Laboring behind the scenes as a volunteer, she is co-creator of the Iowa Faith Leadership Network, the Farm Crisis Ministry Network, Spectrum Spirituality Project, Family Welcome Centers International, and We Parent Together. She has studied, volunteered, or worked with organizations such as L’Arche, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Middle East Council of Churches, the International Solidarity Movement, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, and Women Against Violence (the first Arabic-speaking women’s crisis center in the Middle East). In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), she speaks about the forces that propel her to work for justice.

At this stage of my life, I may not be anyone’s definition of success. I’m in my 40s and I’ve never owned a home. My car is ancient and slowly dying, with 270,000 miles and a lot of rust. In 2015, I became a struggling solo parent of a low-income family. The first few years, we were an extremely low-income family, living in public housing, and although I was working all the time, we needed a lot of assistance to make ends meet. What I remember most from that time is the exhaustion and the mice.

I took a break from parish ministry when my youngest was about to be born, my second child was showing signs of autism, and members of the congregation I served were not really supportive. My spouse was going through his own behavioral health struggles, and we ended up separating, then divorcing. I’d hoped to return to parish ministry when my youngest was ready to start school. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 changed plans again.

People these days might mistake me for “white trash” when they see me out and about. I do look the part sometimes, with worn clothes and a worn face. They may not realize until they get to know me the adventures I’ve had in the past, or the social justice work I do today, about which I am so passionate.

Between college and seminary, I was a human rights worker in the Middle East and on the U.S./ Mexico border; I was among the first investigators to discover what later became known as the Abu Ghraib scandal. Later, in seminary, I spent a month in maximum security as a federal prisoner of conscience for my nonviolent protest of torture at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia—a facility that teaches torture tactics to militaries from other countries. While imprisoned, I translated and transcribed letters from women facing deportation who were writing to their lawyers, friends, and families.

Although away from the parish, I found other ways of doing ministry. I “shared life” with adults with intellectual disabilities in a L’Arche community. I worked in a school for children with severe behavioral health disorders. I started a storefront hospitality ministry for families with young children. The friendships were wonderful, but the heating bills ate us alive that winter, and the roof leaked. I redesigned the ministry so that we could operate without building woes.

Throughout college and seminary, three pastorates, and even in poverty as a solo parent, I keep finding ways to work for peace and justice. I work for racial equality, for the homeless and hungry, and for the well-being of families with young children, especially those whose children have special needs. I find that this work often dissolves my despair over the brokenness of the world. It has also led me to many wonderful people and places.

I recall a few poignant moments in my youth that propelled me to work for justice.

I remember the 1991 war on Iraq, when I was in sixth grade. The teacher rolled in the TV cart so that we could watch the airstrikes. The class cheered for every explosion as bombs hit the city. I felt sick to my stomach.

I remember the racism on my college campus, toward Black students in particular, as well as students from other countries and religions. Fundamentalism drove the LGBTQ+ students off the campus after my first year there. I felt both rage and fear at the harm being done. Fortunately, I had friends who knew how to organize and were willing to teach.

What keeps me going is the “knowing.” Knowing that Jesus calls us to this work of feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the foreigner, tending to the sick, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Knowing the suffering of so many people from the experiences and friendships I’ve had. These days, I simply seek to use the community organizing and advocacy skills I’ve learned so that I can work with others to build a better world.

Every breath is a prayer:
for wisdom and courage;
sometimes for rest;
and always for hope.

You can connect with Le Anne on Facebook here

“This is my call, two strikes and all.”

Aisha Brooks-Lytle is the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. She is multi-gifted as a preacher, teacher, and musician, bringing all these skills to bear as she helps oversee 84 congregations and 26 new worshipping communities. She believes her role is to equip healthy and innovative leaders as they live out their passion and purpose. Her inner calling stems directly from her personal life experience which she shares candidly and powerfully in the following excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here).

“Aisha, you have two strikes against you. You are Black and you are female.”

These words casually fell out of my mother’s mouth like two stones hitting the ground as she was combing and styling my hair. I cannot recall the content of our conversation before these words, and I don’t remember the conversation afterwards. I do remember how I felt as an elementary school student hearing them for the first time. “Well, damn!” I thought. My reaction was quiet, internalized, heavy. My mother was stating what was obvious to her and what was a harsh reality for me. No matter how talented I felt, no matter how bright and beautiful I may have appeared, my life would be fraught with difficulty and an uphill battle as a young Black girl growing up in a country with a terrifying history of racial violence and discrimination towards Black and Brown bodies.

Growing up in a Black working-class neighborhood with a single mom offered sociological observations that made a profound impact on me. I could see the disparity on our block. I remember the crack epidemic and watching addiction snatch adults away from their children. I also remember asking larger questions about supply and demand and who profited off the pain of low-income and working-class communities. I lived in a city divided by the haves and have-nots. I knew there was a system at play that benefitted from an underpaid work force, division among the masses, and an unrealistic obsession with excessive wealth. I often thought, “There has to be a better way than this.” I wanted to be the kind of person who was part of the solution, not part of the problem.

While my mother instilled in me the truths about being Black in America, she also instilled in me a faith that is resilient and continues to dismantle the myths of superiority and inferiority. After taking a break from the church, my mother reconnected to her faith in the early ’80s with the rise of conservative white evangelical Christianity. In other words, I did not grow up hearing any sermons about justice, freedom, and the need to march in the streets when we saw harm done in our community. I grew up learning that Jesus was the only way, the truth, and the life. I grew up learning that I needed to live holy, confess my sins, obey God, love others, and be kind. There was not much talk about the gospel of liberation.

Ironically, I found a message of concern for the marginalized in the world of Contemporary Christian music. In the early ’80s there was an artist named Keith Green. He was of Jewish heritage and had converted to Messianic Christianity. He and his wife, Melody, sang with fire and passion about the Lord. By the time I really listened to his music, he had already died in a plane crash in 1982 at the age of 28. His music ministry only spanned six years. For many, his work still speaks to this day.

Green’s song The Sheep and the Goats, a musical interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, captivated me. It’s a stirring rendition of this parable wherein Jesus reveals that we can find him in the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. One group could see Christ reflected in the marginalized; one group could not. I must have listened to this for hours upon end. I listened to it for years! How could people who followed Jesus miss his presence in the most vulnerable of the world? I knew as a kid with “two strikes” that I needed Jesus and the followers of Jesus to advocate for kids like me.

I also knew that there were people in my own city who had it worse than me. This was a cry for all of us, no matter where we found ourselves, to see Christ in those too often overlooked and invisible in our world. It was a call to love them, care for them, advocate for them, and to see them with eyes of compassion. I now know what I only suspected back in the day. I, too, am counted in the number of the marginalized, the overlooked, and the forgotten. I am also a marginalized voice who has come to recognize my position and power in the world. I am situated in this world to be an advocate for justice, to see Christ in the most vulnerable, and to serve Christ among the lonely, hurting, hungry, and lost.

This is my call, two strikes and all.

You can connect with Aisha on Facebook here or Instagram here.

The (Re)Call of the Wild

I met Brad Dodson and his family while pastoring a large church in Fort Worth, Texas. We had a natural affinity and spent many hours discussing faith, our families, our hopes for the future. Brad’s grandfather was a lumberman in the East Texas pine forests, passing on his love for the natural world to his grandson. In this excerpt from the book The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), Brad shares how nature helped restore his spirit during a difficult time in his life.

Brad at home on a Texas river, fishing of course…

I have hunted, fished, hiked, climbed, skied, paddled, and camped across the years. Nature has been a constant element in my life.

I have also been blessed with companions who pursued these adventures alongside me. One, a childhood friend, became my primary partner each year during late summer and early fall as we hunted migrating doves. We spent countless afternoons sitting below majestic live oak trees, waiting for the birds to come. They would arrive, and we would strive for our limits. But regardless of the outcome, we never missed our true aim: spending time outdoors with someone you appreciate. The smell of the grass, the sound of the retrievers as they bring back the birds, the feel of the last sunlight on our cheeks—it is all etched in my memory. So is the sound of my friend’s voice and the smile across his lips and eyes as he also delighted in those days.

My friend died unexpectedly in our late 30s. As I grieved for him, I found I had no desire to spend time outdoors without him. Instead, I turned my life towards work and remained that way for six years. My father would also leave us during that time. Each year grew more frustrating than the last and I began to question life in ways both large and small.

I became active in my church and found some purpose there, but something was always missing. At a weekend youth retreat one spring in the country, I was standing outside cooking hotdogs and burgers. Suddenly, I heard the call of a male turkey. Almost immediately, a second tom joined him vocally. I went inside, got a few of the kids, and brought them outside. I called the two turkeys to our cabin, feeling alive in a way I hadn’t for years.

Shortly after that, I went to a river to try fishing again. In a dark pool that fed into a small waterfall below a canopy of trees, a rainbow trout took my presentation. The pull of the line as it darted across the pool gave me a smile. It was my first rainbow trout. When I held that fish in my hands, preparing to let it go back into the water, it transformed me. Its muscular energy and desire to swim away were powerful. It was the most alive thing I had ever felt. I fished the remainder of that evening and all the next day, slowly letting my grief dissolve. In the years since, I have not stopped. I have traveled and camped across thousands of remote miles in pursuit of trout.

Fly fishing brought me back to nature. It did more than that; it brought me back to God. Although I was active in my church, I had become numb to what God has created for us on this planet, its flora and fauna that surround us every day. I had neglected to notice the beauty. That fish and those turkeys brought it back into focus and renewed my perspective.

I have come to appreciate that the natural world is God’s earthly gift to us. I have experienced this in so many ways. Watching geese skim the water in flight, then settle next to me as I wade-fished a fog-covered river in early morning North Carolina. Having a beaver swim between my legs while casting in the waters of Wyoming. Sharing five minutes with my wife in the Sea of Cortez as hundreds of dolphins chasing tuna swam past our kayak. Or, simply standing outside my workplace and delighting as a juvenile mockingbird imitated my whistled tunes. These and many other experiences have shown me repeatedly how wonderful God’s love is to have created such beauty, song, light, and motion for us to enjoy.

As a young boy, I watched a lone wolf with my grandfather early one winter morning. “That may be the last wolf you will ever see,” he said. Many years later, sitting around a fire with a dear friend next to our raft in Western Alaska, we watched in silent awe as a lone wolf loped casually down the rocky beach just across the river from us. He paid us no mind. In that place, so remote and seldom visited, we were simply part of the environment. We could hear his call many hours later.

As with all the moments I have had in nature since that first trout, I smiled and thanked God for the gift.

Connect with Brad Dodson on Instagram here.

Embracing Paradox is the Heart of Wisdom

My friend, Rebecca Blackwell, is a creative and courageous soul who has labored, like I did, for many years as a Presbyterian pastor. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), her faith journey highlights the book’s pattern of questioning and emergence.

For the last 48 years, I’ve been on a journey that took me from the solid ground of Christian Fundamentalism to the misty mountaintops of whatever kind of Christian I am now.

The journey has required that I leave some things behind on the trail. I had to let go of certainty, fear, and shame. As my load lightened, I discovered a deep freedom, a peace that passes all understanding, a closer connection with God/The Sacred and the confidence that nothing can separate me from the love of God that permeates the cosmos.

I took the first step on this journey in 1972, when at age 18, I walked away from the church I grew up in. I could no longer abide their sexism, patriarchy, narrow-mindedness and fear-based way of life. Since they taught me that they were the One True Church and the God they proclaimed was the One True God, that left me with nowhere to go. So, I did not affiliate with any church.

About ten years into my exodus, I began to notice that even though I had left “church,” I was still praying (though not in a hands-folded, head-bowed kind of way), and I was missing a spiritual community. Could it be that God was bigger than I had been led to believe? I took what felt like a huge risk and began exploring other churches.

The willingness to explore and to say “maybe” to new experiences or ideas, and to trust my instincts and intuition (which I believe are the way Spirit speaks to us), have been key to this journey. I said “maybe” and then “yes” to the Presbyterian Church (USA); I said “maybe” and then “yes” to the Charismatic movement. I said “maybe” and then “yes” to seminary and ordination in the PC(USA); I said “maybe” and then “yes” to yoga, meditation, Reiki and other practices. I said “maybe” and then “yes” to seeing God at work in the deep dimensions of other faiths.

With each exploration that resulted in “yes” (and not all of them did), my heart grew more expansive, my faith more inclusive. So, where am I today? I consider myself a Christian, though I hold few of the traditional doctrines (heaven, hell, penal substitutionary atonement and others are gone), and the doctrines I do hold have been significantly re-shaped. My conviction is that the Mystery at the heart of the universe is infinitely knowable through a variety of means. The Bible (especially the stories of Jesus) is the organizing narrative for wrapping my head and heart around this Mystery, and so I call this Mystery “God” and “Christ.”

Should you be on a spiritual journey of your own, I offer the following aphorisms and suggestions in the hope that they will help you.

  • Faith is a journey, not a trip. There is no precise road map, no timetable, no certain destination…the journey IS the destination.
  • Hold everything lightly.
  • Don’t confuse God with any church or religious institution.
  • Your convictions don’t have to make sense or be logical/systematic to be true. Embracing paradox is the heart of Wisdom.
  • Read and study widely…history, spiritual biographies, theology, faith stories, poetry, and great literature.
  • Find some traveling companions, including people of different faiths or no faith at all; people who will talk, walk, think, and sit with you. A good Spiritual Director is an invaluable traveling companion.
  • Trust your inner wisdom, no matter where and how it leads you…it is the voice of the Spirit.

You can connect with Rebecca on Facebook here or Instagram here

Test Every Truth!

My friend, Heiwa No Bushi, is a Buddhist-Christian monk, founder and Abbot of the Thomasville Buddhist Center in Thomasville, North Carolina. A former Christian minister, he has degrees in philosophy and theology. He also received classical training in both Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. He holds black belts in three different Japanese martial art forms, making him, as friends often say, an “official badass.” He places his teachings under the moniker “Bodhi Christo” which means “enlightened Christ,” an amalgam of the two rich streams of Buddhism and Christianity. He and I collaborated on Four Truths on a Crosstown Bus, (downloadable for free here.) In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), he shares some reflections on his journey.

“On this adventure, I remain a lifelong learner…”

This is my story, but I believe it reflects all our stories.

I grew up in south Florida, essentially a preacher’s kid because my grandmother was heavily involved in both the southern and primitive Baptist movements. She was so devoted that when people within her circles wanted to erect a building, she loaned them the money.

By the time I was six years old, my grandmother had become a minister in that church, but she struggled constantly against patriarchy. The congregation was so misogynistic that they wouldn’t allow her to be a regular preacher. However, she was a very clever bird. She decided that every time they gave her an opportunity to fill the pulpit, she would use her grandson to introduce her. It was a way of deflecting all the attention from her, and the result was that I became a phenomenal, entertaining bit of Sunday mornings! People came to hear my grandmother because this young boy really knew how “to lay it out there.”

All that time I worked with my grandmother, I saw the inconsistency between her church life and her home life. At church she was outwardly “righteous,” but at home she would speak in ways normally prohibited. I thought it was hypocritical, but she quoted the Apostle Paul from I Corinthians: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

As grandma’s ministry grew, I began to feel a calling to attend seminary. I received my training and then, in my early 20s, I traveled overseas with the military. It was a time of hands-on experience, what I call “tacit education.” It challenged me to look at the deeper and wider aspects of life on our planet. I encountered many other faiths, not only seeing their beautiful richness, but their many parallels, especially the “golden rule.”

In my experiences as a Christian, I had not encountered a real moral teaching about how to treat our planet, especially “lesser creatures.” As a lover of the earth, I found a much greater connection to creation through other religions, especially Buddhism and its tremendous emphasis on caring for all living things. Jainism also intrigued me. It insisted on not naming “God,” believing there is no particular god outside of ourselves.

These religions lifted up a type of humanity that many circles of Christianity seemed to usurp and ignore. They spoke volumes of higher learning to me, and it seemed to me that Christianity did not stand up in the court of reality. For instance, where in Christian scripture was the insistence on an intimate relationship with all living things that I found so beautiful in Buddhism?

Then I thought of the parable Jesus told of seeking out the one lost lamb. He was saying to the majority, “You hold on tight, I’m going to get the one that matters.” This began to bring out what I call the “more mature” interpretation of Christ that I am trying to live out today.

In my teachings, I emphasize that there are three types of knowledge.

  • Explicit knowledge that comes to us from textbooks, manuals, Sunday school lessons taught as literal. This is a form of cultural programming, even indoctrination.
  • Codified knowledge which is the design of the society around us—from traffic signs to laws to the licenses we need to practice our professions. All this is meant to make sure that we follow the rules and remain in compliance with the status quo.
  • Tacit knowledge which we gain firsthand in the laboratories of our own lives. It can’t just be told to us; we must experience it and adapt it to the reality of our own understandings.

The bottom line is that we must test any truth for ourselves! Examine it in the light of our minds, hearts, consciences, and personal experience. I feel religious institutions, especially the Christian church, should be some of the most unregulated organizations in our society. They should always call us to the high adventure of exploring a fuller spiritual life.

On this adventure, I remain a lifelong learner, carrying on something my grandmother taught me long ago. “Go beyond what educational systems teach you,” she said.

Take on the world. Tacitly hold it, experience it, live it and understand it!

You can connect with Heiwa No Bushi here.

Called by His Ancestors

I met Joedy Yglesias while training to become a Texas Master Naturalist. He calls himself a Bodhisattva of the Earth, someone whose compassion extends to every living creature. It is his calling. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (free download here), he shares the journey of how he came to this place in his life.

Joedy at Big Bend Ranch State Park

My parents raised me as Catholic during the ’70s and ’80s, a time when Chicano Americans were having an existential identity crisis. For those of us on the left, it meant consolidating our power, supporting La Raza or the United Farm Workers. For conservatives, it meant identifying more with their Spanish colonial roots and ignoring the indigenous aspect. The Catholic church and the government had always done a good job of separating us from those roots, which led to internalized racism. For my own parents, who wanted to make things easier for their children, it meant giving their children English names. This was part of the American Dream as they saw it.

I was quite involved in our local parish church. I taught catechism and sang in the choir, all the while trying to deal with my gay identity. I eventually thought I might join the priesthood as a way of circumventing that issue, essentially shutting it down.

Then, one day while visiting Austin, Texas, I saw a poster advertising a group called Shaman’s Circle, hosted by gay activist Toby Johnson. Toby had an earlier association with Joseph Campbell, having spent time with him in northern California. He had been a Roman Catholic priest but gave up his ordination and dedicated his life to focusing on gay spirituality. Like Campbell, Toby understood religion as myth and metaphor, and he introduced me to a much wider awareness of my spiritual journey.

I attended their shaman drumming circles and discovered that it was all white men. I approached them with the idea that even though I couldn’t afford their retreats, I could join them as a worker and bring a different ethnic perspective to their group. It was a great experience! Toby took me under his wing like a spiritual father, teaching me some of the primary truths from Campbell, like the journey of “the hero with a thousand faces.”

I came to understand how important my indigenous heritage was to me. I discovered that many of my relatives had practiced indigenous rituals in the past, but they hid it because the culture considered it pagan. The more I delved into it, the more I developed my own unique spirituality as someone who is half Native American.

Toby convinced me that the priesthood wasn’t right for me, so I joined the Navy. I loved the adventure. I saw it as a challenge to participate in the military from the inside, showing how the LGBTQ community could bring honor to the institution. I was still practicing my Catholic faith, operating as the lay leader on ships, but after I returned to America from one deployment, I saw a Unitarian Church flying the rainbow flag. I visited their fellowship, and it blew my mind how they welcomed the spiritual writings and traditions of so many faiths. I began to attend there on a regular basis.

 After a final deployment to Iraq, I returned to live in San Antonio, Texas, suffering from PTSD. To get my head clear, I began to visit a number of Texas State Parks—camping, volunteering, and eventually receiving my certification as a Texas Master Naturalist.

I believe that the universe opens up to us at just the right time. While touring Seminole Canyon State Park, I saw, for the first time, the ancient pictographs for which the park is famous. When I looked at them, I instantly had a connection. I intuitively understood what they were really communicating, an awareness that amazed our “expert” tour guide.

As I spent more time outdoors, everything seemed to fall into place. Even the snakes, tarantulas, and vinegaroons emerged when I was there. I felt a deep connection and kinship with my indigenous roots, especially in the Trans-Pecos desert region of southwest Texas. I knew I was home.

Today, I am working with Texas Parks and Wildlife at Big Bend Ranch State Park, a remote and beautiful region of our country. It’s where I belong right now, and I feel it is part of my journey to help protect this majestic landscape. Our natural resources are under attack through neglect and development, and although I know I can’t fully stop it, my presence can help preserve the spiritual magic of nature for others.

My ancestors call me here, and every time I go into the canyons, I sing a prayer song of the Lakota Sioux to let the spirits know I am present.

Tunkasila wamayanka yo
Le miye ca tehiya nawajin welo
Unci Maka nawecijin na
Wowah’wala wan yuha wauwelo.

Grandfather look at me
This is me standing in a hard way
I defend Grandmother Earth
and I come humbly with these ways

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