A Part, Not Apart

On one of our American Road Trips, my wife and I visited the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, where we 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 and awe when immersed in our natural world, even when transmitted through celluloid.

  • 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.

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…

Certain liberating truths, like the encapsulated in the tile of this post, need frequent reiteration. We must 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 of this external bullshit is staggering!

Grading systems, balancing sheets, images of what is beautiful, popular, or 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.

When we internalize even small pieces of this external coding, it can lead to fits of self-effacement. Tabula rasa becomes tabula inscripta.

Sure, 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; using comparison to create a sense of superiority.

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 I have distilled from the wisdom of ages. Share a version of it with your children, your students, 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.

And often, after our talks, a sobering thought 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 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!”

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 America’s Great 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 this 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. I was enthralled. 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, especially as artificial intelligence and the metaverse become realities.

Yet, despite all these “advances,” have human beings really changed that much? Don’t we nurture 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 us to these abandoned places. The whispers of lives from bygone eras. 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. 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. Also, look for our new collaboration – Jesus and Buddha at the Crossroads – due out in 2023.

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, color, education, or experience…

People recovering 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 circle of a Twelve Step meeting reciting The Lord’s Prayer, I have 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 was analyzing the famous 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 healing him. Barclay uncovers another aspect.

“Here is a great law of life. A common misfortune had broken down racial and national barriers. In the common tragedy of their leprosy, these men had forgotten they were Jews and Samaritans and remembered only that 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 that recently swept over our planet. 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 as a pastor, I ministered to people through all 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 reminder of life’s brevity.

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, Washington, 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’s join hands and hearts to support each other with love and grace!

The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters

Here is a link to download a free PDF copy, easily importable into your Kindle device or other e-reader.

I relish hearing the stories of others on their spiritual journeys. For this project, I invited 20 people to share personal experiences from the laboratories of their lives. These are moving and diverse testaments to the overall thesis of this book. Each chapter includes their testimonies under the heading Las Historias de la Gente. If you read only their words and none of mine, this effort will be worthwhile. I thank them for their contributions!

In the stories of others, you will find language and concepts that differ from yours. Some may seem too expansive or “out there.” Others may seem parochial. Please suspend your judgment. Practice tolerance. Give yourself to each person’s journey with a measure of grace. Look for the underlying pattern of liberation. Celebrate with them!

This book arises from a time and place in history shaded primarily by Judeo-Christian teachings. Thus, many of the stories are about emerging from a particular compression of culture. Obviously, it would be different if I were writing from an Asian or Middle Eastern setting. This is why I urge you to see the pattern in each story, not just the details.

Namaste! God bless you! As-salamu alaykum! Mitakuye oyasin! May the Force be with you! Keep on truckin’! LOL!

The Heart of the Matter

An icy wind strafes the South Texas desert as we grab our backpacks and walking sticks. Our guide, Kelly Timmons, has just briefed us on the steepness of our descent to see the White Shaman Mural, a famous example of prehistoric rock art. Kelly volunteers with the Witte Museum which now oversees the preserve, and her sense of responsibility for all of us is palpable.

As we turn to go, she notices two service pins on my jacket.

“You’re a Master Naturalist?” she asks.

“Yes,” I reply. “I completed my training last year.”

“I’ve done the training also,” she says. “I just need to finish my volunteer hours. It will be great having you on this hike. I don’t know as much as I should. I’m sure you’ll be able to point out a lot of features to us.”

I smile, but inwardly I wince. Unlike many other Master Naturalists, I am not a walking encyclopedia of taxonomy. I often rely on others to help me identify animals and plants. My specialty is to offer a strong back at work parties, as well as my writing and editing skills for our newsletter. I’m learning but I often feel inadequate.

As we begin the decline into the canyon, two things are clear. One, Kelly is at home in the desert, walking with a lively, athletic stride. Two, she is modest about her knowledge. Though she apologizes for not knowing the names of a few species, her other observations enrich our hike. She shows us resurrection plants brought to life by recent rain, as well as leatherstem, also called sangre de drago (dragon’s blood) because of its red sap. She describes the many uses of the agave lechugilla by native people. She points out clear imprints of rudist and turritella fossils.

“It’s amazing,” I say, “that we are standing on what was once the ocean floor.”

She nods, scans the vista, takes a deep breath. A huge smile comes to her face.

Down we go, then up a ladder-like set of steps to the cliffside alcove sheltering the mural. It is stunning! Only its original creators know the fullness of its meaning, but Kelly and her co-guide, Lacy Finley, describe the prevailing theories—part origin myth, part solar and lunar calendar. What I find fascinating is that the celebrated central figure is most likely the Lunar Goddess, decapitated and adorned with snakes. The Aztecs had a similar violent myth that described the triumph of the sun over the moon. Lacy recounts how archaeologists climbed down to the mural on the winter solstice. Exactly at sunset, a shadow fell across the neckline of that goddess. It gives me shivers!

Just prior to our return, we have a few moments to examine the mural more closely, taking turns photographing and marveling. I walk to the edge of the alcove and scan the panorama. In the distance, beyond beautiful cliffs, is the Pecos High Bridge—a monumental trestle above the Pecos River near its intersection with the Rio Grande.

Kelly joins me.

“It’s breathtaking, isn’t it?” she says.

Then she sighs contentedly.

“This is my happy place,” she says, and the depth of her love for this desert environment—its  plants and animals, its human and geologic history—is nothing short of contagious.

I think to myself: this is the heart of the matter. Master Naturalists can share copious head knowledge about the natural world. That’s important. The science is not only fascinating; it is key to understanding ecosystems and their preservation.

But on a deeper level, what we impart is our joy of immersion in nature. We communicate our gratitude for its rejuvenating power. As pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson once said, “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.”

Back in the parking lot before departing, Kelly and I bump elbows (COVID-style) rather than shake hands. I thank her for the excellent tour, but later I regret not praising her for conveying that deeper love at the heart of the matter.

Hopefully, she’ll read this post. Thank you, Kelly!

The Necessity of Wildness

In the summer of 2020, my crowdfunding campaign for this book supported the Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Texas. It was a creative way to volunteer during the pandemic, and I’m grateful to everyone who joined that effort. Now, I offer the volume for free. The first link allows you to view it as a flip book. The second link will give you a PDF download. The front cover image is below. I hope your future is blessed with many hours of rejuvenating time in nature!

The Necessity of Wildness (flip book version)
The Necessity of Wildness (PDF version)

Jesus is the Treason for the Season

Despite the cautions about discussing religion or politics at family gatherings, my relatives recently served up a heaping helping of both. Our debate was lively, and a consensus gradually emerged. Religion in any form can breed fanaticism, closed minds, judgment of others. I use this italicized word on purpose: no one’s religious truth should trump someone else’s.

One of my sons said, “It can even be risky to take children to Sunday School. They might get indoctrinated before they learn to make choices for themselves.”

That’s a mouthful from someone raised as a preacher’s kid. And, he has a point!

Early experience of a faith community can be wonderfully grounding for children. We can expose them to concepts of unity, service, and love for all the human family, especially those who differ from us.

But let’s face it. Critical thinking skills fully emerge during adolescence. Until then, when we present myths and absolute truths backed by authority figures, how can children sort it out? How can they know that the pathways prescribed for them are just examples of the many options on our planet?

Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, often spoke of the “post-hypnotic trance” induced in childhood. The weight of what we are taught and how we are treated too often numbs us to our authentic identities.

My parents (God bless them!) had me confirmed in the Lutheran tradition. The task was to memorize and confess the right beliefs. The presiding pastor never encouraged us to think for ourselves, to test every truth in the laboratories of our lives. No one spoke about the sanctity of individual conscience.

That’s why, in my years as a pastor, I approached confirmation classes from a vastly different perspective. Yes, we surveyed the history of Christianity. We examined the scope of the Bible and its genres. We even outlined the polity of our denomination. But we clearly emphasized some central truths. Question authority! Think for yourself! Don’t adopt someone else’s faith unless it makes sense to you!

Which brings me to Christmas. The quaint stories of a pregnant virgin, choirs of angels, and a star spotlighting Bethlehem, arise from ancient wells of legend. In my childhood, these myths were enthralling. I could feel the breathless expectation of the Messiah’s birth, as if nothing in history made sense before that moment. The birth narrative, and later the cross, became portals to ultimate meaning.

With a subterranean sigh, I think of how much time and energy it took to unlearn what they taught me. To realize that all faith systems are attempts to apprehend this mystery in which we live. To critically examine holy writings from historical and literary viewpoints. To move from an exclusive faith to one that embraces the journey of every human being, no matter how different from my own.

Yesterday, I saw a familiar sign on someone’s front lawn: Jesus is the Reason for the Season. I don’t know the residents of that home, but I have met too many who insist on this slogan fanatically. They consider part of their culture war, and we all know their litany. The myths of scripture, including Christmas, are inerrant historical truth. Jesus is the only way to God. Being Christian means being right. Be saved or be damned.

It seems so primitive, doesn’t it?

For me, Christmas is a time to reclaim what it is about Jesus and his message that still inform my journey. His anti-materialism. The way he challenged his own people’s nationalism and religious arrogance. His counterculture stories that still burrow into our souls. His love for the disenfranchised. His victory in forgiving his enemies who condemned him for blasphemy and treason, then executed him on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.

In good conscience, I can still enter into some of Jesus’ story. But I would certainly reshape the slogan displayed in my neighbor’s yard.

Jesus is the treason for the season!