Monday, November 25, 2013

Under the Family Tree

I often walk by this tree on the George Fox campus on the way to my office. Some mornings, when I'm thinking about what discussion questions to ask in my Intro to Literature class, I walk right past it, as if this magnificent tree didn't even exist. Other mornings, I notice the tree, taking the time to admire its striking size and symmetry, taking the time to pray, as Mary Oliver says, by paying attention.

Recently I was struck again by the breadth of the tree, the way its lower branches seem to have stretched ridiculously far in an attempt to cover as much space as possible.

The space underneath the tree's spreading branches looks inviting. There's just enough room for a person to stand under the tree--lots of people, in fact. It looks like it would be cozy under there, and perhaps on rainy Oregon mornings, it would be dry.

One morning last week as I approached the tree I had something like a vision. I saw my son under the tree. Well, I didn't literally see Jackson, but I imagined him. Right there. Standing under that tree.

But he wasn't alone. Standing next to him were people he, and I, know well. Some were family members; some were not related to us by blood. Some we had seen a week earlier at his wedding. Some we haven't seen in years. The people under the tree were various ages: some in their thirties, some in their fifties and sixties and eighties. Some of them are no longer living on this earth.

Jackson's grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles were there. His youth minister and a former pastor were there and couples from churches we attended when Jackson was growing up. His teachers were there as were his basketball and soccer coaches. Several of his college professors were under the tree. Two special couples who had boys close in age to Jackson and who helped us raise him were there.

I saw gathered under the tree all the people who have taken an interest in my son's life over the years. There they were, standing next to someone they loved and cared about. None of these people had to care and invest in Jackson's life and well being. But they did. I hope they know what a difference they've made. I hope they know that he would not be the person he is and we would not be the family we are today without their love.

In an essay I have my writing classes read, a mother with an adopted daughter says, "family is defined by bonds much deeper than birth, or skin color, or genetics. Like anyone lucky enough to experience 'found' love, I believe that family is defined only by the heart." Or to misquote Donne, no family is an island, entire of itself. Looking at those gathered under the tree, I knew what every parent knows eventually: you are not in this alone.

I'm grateful for the family tree--that its branches stretch wide and offer shelter to a diverse group. I'm thankful for the people underneath the tree. 

They all looked happy under there--cozy, solid, secure, sheltered, connected, loved. They seemed comfortable, next to my son, under the tree, standing there like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

What I Owe to Jack

November 22, 2013, was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jr. You may know that C. S. Lewis, the British literary scholar, popular apologist, and writer of fantasy fiction died on the same day, as did Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World. The day was also significant for followers of Lewis because the author was honored with a memorial in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner, his marker now sharing the space with those of writers like Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens, and Austen.

This honor is a welcome one, not just because Lewis deserves it based on the quantity and quality of his writing, but also because it provides validation for what a number of Lewis scholars have been saying and writing for years: Lewis was not simply a "popularizer" of the Christian faith; he was a writer of the first rank who made a significant contribution to modern letters in a variety of genres.

All this has caused me to reflect on and be grateful for the role that Jack, as he was called by his friends, has played in my own life, not only academically but personally. Specifically, three areas come to mind for which I'm particularly grateful.

His Christian Intellectualism

Lewis was the first Christian author I encountered who did not make me feel I needed to check my intellect at the church door. I grew up in a church environment that often felt decidedly anti-intellectual. Certain books and ideas were off-limits, or at least considered dangerous. Occasionally someone would question why we even needed to read books other than the Bible--maybe some commentaries, as long as they were written by members of our group, but that should be sufficient.

In Lewis, I found someone unafraid to tackle any concept or idea, whether it was the validity of religions other than Christianity or the efficacy of petitionary prayer. His willingness to examine and analyze ideas fearlessly convinced me that Christian faith and the life of the mind were not mutually exclusive categories.

His Belief in the Primacy of the Imagination

The first book of Lewis's I ever read was Mere Christianity, and it was life changing, giving me a new and more inclusive vision of spirituality and the church than I had yet encountered. Lewis's apologetic books were so influential for me that when it came time to select a dissertation subject, I chose to focus on his nonfiction works including Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves rather than on his fictional works like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Screwtape Letters.

But if you ask me today which Lewis books I treasure most, I'll likely mention his fictional works, especially Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces.

What fascinates me about Lewis's fiction is the power and range of his imagination, the way he can create and populate other worlds, bring talking animals to life in a believable way, and illuminate a spiritual concept through a well-crafted metaphor. In fact, what I learned from reading Lewis's fiction I was able to apply to the apologetics. As I realized when studying Mere Christianity years after my first reading of the book, Lewis uses imagination, not only in his fiction, but also in his nonfiction. To give one example, in Mere Christianity, he uses toy soldiers coming to life and a child's dress up game to illustrate theological concepts. As Michael Ward said in a recent article, Lewis believed that imagination precedes reason and that clear thinking is not even possible without the power of imagination.

His Authentic Life

One of the joys of making C. S. Lewis the focus of my modest scholarly agenda over the years has been the opportunity (or the excuse) to read about his life. While Lewis himself described his life as boring, I've always found him to be an engaging human being.

He wasn't perfect, by any means. For example, his attitudes toward women, as Dorothy Sayers noted, were often silly at best and misogynistic at worst. 

But from what I've been able to discern he really tried to lead a life consistent with the principles of the faith as he understood them. He was a generous man, who spent most of the money he made from his books on charity, often on people he knew personally who needed help. He was loyal to his friends. He promised Paddy Moore, his British army buddy, that he would take care of Paddy's mother and sister if anything happened in the war, and he did, caring for Mrs. Moore until the end of her life--often at great sacrifice of his own time and professional responsibilities. He was a loving brother to Warnie, even when he had to make yet another late night trip to the pub to help Warnie home after one of his drinking binges. And in spite of profound differences with Tolkien on how fantasy stories should be written and other issues, the two remained lifelong friends and supporters of each other's writing.

The play and movie Shadowlands have contributed to an overemphasis on the last few years of Jack's life, especially his romance with Joy Davidman Gresham. But I still love the story, and I appreciate that Lewis followed his heart and married the divorced Joy when members of his church and many of his best friends and his brother advised him not to. The romance did Lewis a lot of good including widening his view of women's roles and capabilities and inspiring him to write Till We Have Faces, his personal favorite of all his fiction and one that features a female first person narrator.

Over the years my appreciation for Lewis as an author has not diminished--but it has morphed. The qualities of his thought and writing I value today are different ones than I valued in my twenties. The certainty of his tone and detailed, step-by-step logic are less attractive to me now than his personal tone, his confessions of doubt and spiritual struggle, and his flights of imagination. I've also discovered other authors whose work and thought are more reflective of where I am on my spiritual  journey these days--Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver, to name a few. Yet, having said that, if you think I'm not extremely grateful for the life and works of C. S. Lewis, then you don't know me--and you don't know Jack.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Wedding Toast for My Son

April Scott and Jackson Tandy, November 9, 2013

 To April and Jackson:

As Jackson’s parents, we knew early on that our son was the adventurous sort. He’s always been up for a new experience and a new challenge. There was the time, for example, when he leapt off the porch with a triumphant yell in imitation of his favorite superhero—only to land in the bushes and get pretty scratched up. Whenever we would take Jackson and Garrison to a playground, the other kids would be playing on the slides and monkey bars while our boys climbed on top of the play structure. Then there was the time I walked out of my class at Cascade College, heard a voice above my head, and looked up to find Jackson perched high in a tree by the soccer field.

In addition to adventure, another word I associate with Jackson is wonder. He’s always had a capacity to be influenced by the outdoors and by nature. He doesn’t just look at the creation; he experiences it, soaks it in, and revels in it, not only seeing it but seeing himself as part of it. Often he writes beautifully about those experiences.                                                                                 

The third word I associate with Jackson is community. All his life he’s had the ability to seek out good people and form communities. His first, built in, community was our family of five, and as a parent, I’m so grateful that Julia, Jackson, and Garrison have always been, not only brother and sister, but also good friends. As time went on, Jackson began to collect brothers from other mothers—first, Kyle and Joel, then Landon, then Nick, then Ean, then Michael, and Brad, and Evan, and Chris, and Dylan, and the list goes on. And he also collected new sisters along the way: Danna, and Abby, and Cori, and Saryl, and Deborah, and that list could go on as well. Everywhere Jackson has lived—from Portland to Oklahoma City, to Ketchikan, to Juneau, to Asheville, to Wrightwood—he has been a part of amazing communities with members too numerous to mention. The fact that so many members of those communities have made the trip to Joshua Tree is testimony to the closeness and enduring nature of those bonds.

And I believe in April, Jackson's found someone who shares his love of adventure, wonder, and community (though I'm thinking she has more sense than to dive off the porch headfirst pretending to be wonder woman). So my toast is this: April and Jackson, I wish you a long, happy life together. May you continue to pursue adventure, may you continue to stay close to and be one with this good earth, and may you continue to seek out and form communities of good, caring, and fun people who bring peace and joy to your lives.

Saturday, August 31, 2013


As I prepared for the beginning of the fall semester, I watched through my office window as this scene unfolded. Three people:  a new student, a mother, and a father. Father embraces son, then backs away so the mother can get her goodbye hug. I keep my eyes on the dad, an athletic looking fellow wearing a baseball cap. As he steps away from his son, his shoulders drop, and his hands move to his face to wipe away, not sweat though it is a humid day in Oregon, but tears. The dad stretches his arms high above his head. He removes the baseball cap, placing his other hand over his eyes. Mom, who has just finished a long embrace with her son, notices and hands him a tissue.

Transitions. Goodbyes, see you laters, and godspeeds.

They happen all the time. When you reach my stage of life, you've seen--and experienced--a lot of them. As I shared vicariously this family's moment, I thought of some of my own most poignant goodbyes. Like saying goodbye, for the last time, to first my mom, then my dad. Those goodbyes have a finality to them like no other, and you never forget. My mom's been dead for 10 years, but I still catch myself occasionally picking up the phone to call her on Saturday mornings, as I did every Saturday for 28 years.

Many goodbyes between parents and kids contain a mixture of excitement and sadness. I'm sure the parents I watched hugging their boy outside Minthorn Hall were excited about the opportunities ahead for their son. I'm sure they were also beginning to face the reality of what their lives would be now without him as a consistent presence in their home.

Goodbyes become harder when you're not totally comfortable with the transition your child is undergoing. One of my all-time toughest goodbyes was to my daughter as I left her in a remote Alaskan town for her first teaching job. The principal at the high school told me that they closed school when temps reached 40 below. This information was not comforting to me. My wife, who rode back to Oregon with her after she completed her teaching year, later told me that if she had been the parent on the trip up, she would not have left our daughter there.

As I watched the family outside my office window, I also reflected on my role as a college teacher. At some point in my college days, I remember being introduced to the in loco parentis concept. It's the idea that faculty and administrators at colleges and universities function, to some extent, in place of the parents. As a student, I thought the concept was a sneaky way to justify policies I didn't like, such as curfew. But my years as a teacher have led me to believe there's more to the in loco parentis idea than that. I think of the faculty members at my undergraduate college who opened their offices to me and listened, with interest and without judgment, to my hopes and doubts about God, and church, and life. I think about scores of students in my 21 years in higher education that I've connected with, and I hope, mentored. And I think about the 23 students in my First Year Seminar class, who I met for the first time on Friday after they had said goodbye to their parents, and I hope I can connect with a few of them. (I did promise to do anything I could for them--except lend them money.) I guess I believe that part of my role is to ease the transition a bit by trying to be, not a substitute parent, but a good listener and co-learner with my students.

I'm not sure why these thoughts of goodbyes and transitions are so much with me these days. Maybe it's because our youngest son graduated from college last spring and was the last one to move out of the house. Or maybe it's because our older son will get married in a few months--another transition. Though both of these are joyful transitions, they are also, as all parents know, filled with sorrow that we are letting go of people we love, and that our lives will never be the same again. And even though we know the letting go is right and good and necessary, a part of us still hates it. Or maybe I'm just a sentimental fool, as my much younger friend called herself in a recent blog post.

I suspect, however, that I'm not alone. A colleague posted on Facebook that looking at the photos of new student and parent goodbyes on the college's web page made her cry as she anticipated the time when her sons would make the same transition.

As I reflected on the family saying their goodbyes outside my office, it occurred to me that I've probably not been sensitive enough to those who were saying goodbye to me as I took off on a new adventure. Often the person leaving has a lot to be excited about and a lot to look forward to. That excitement about the future can sometimes overshadow the sadness of parting. Perhaps, then, it's the parents who have the toughest road ahead in this scenario. 

It reminds of a day long ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Janet and I had married three months earlier. We had loaded all our earthly possessions in my orange VW Super Beetle and were driving to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I would begin my Master's program. We had said our goodbyes to her mom and dad with hugs and many tears. While I think I understood something of what her parents must have been feeling as they watched this guy drive away with their only daughter, taking her to a place far away, I now realize--because of the goodbyes I've said since--that I really didn't have a clue.

Had I been choosing the background music that day, it would have been Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."  I now understand the song that was actually playing on the radio as we pulled away was much more appropriate. It was Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Falling Upward: Reflections Upon Turning 60

 Walt Whitman

There's something about turning the big Six Zero that makes you reflective, I suppose. Your friends and family don't help, with all those questions: How does it feel? Do you feel old? Were you able to get out of bed okay this morning? Our American culture, which favors youth over age by a large margin, doesn't help either. We seem to see 60 as some sort of watershed, which leads people to say things like "Well, at least you don't look 60"--but, really, what does sixty look like?

Even though we know, intellectually, that there's no typical 60-year-old (just as there's no typical
teenager or young adult or millenial or baby boomer), the notion persists. My brother, who will soon turn 65 (speaking of old), wrote in his birthday greeting to me that he had no problems with turning 40 and 50, but somehow 60 just sounded really old! More encouraging to me was this note from a good friend: "Welcome to the 60s where great music and free love and flowers in your hair abound; may this be a decade of fun, freedom, and good health for you." Well, I'm not sure about the flowers in my hair, and I think they meant something different in the 60s by free love, but, overall, I much prefer this vision of the 60s. Let's hear it for fun, freedom, and good health!

While there are perils and unfair stereotypes that come with turning 60, I suppose there's also a bit of freedom as well. Richard Rohr in his helpful book, Falling Upward, suggests that we experience life in two halves. During the first part of life, we are concerned with what he calls building our container (getting an education, finding a career, building safety and security for us and our family). But once those things are attended to, Rohr says, we enter the second half of life. At this stage we have the opportunity to jettison much of the stress and strain that come with building and maintaining our reputations and securing our place in the world. Thus, we have the freedom, and perhaps even more time, to focus on the big, meaningful issues of life. Among these Rohr includes things like compassion, relationships, service, and creativity.

We also, Rohr says, become more secure in our own skin so that we care less what others think about us. This doesn't mean we become the cantankerous old fart who says what he thinks regardless of who gets hurt. Rather it means that we are no longer so concerned with "proving" that our beliefs and opinions are the right ones and that everyone who holds different beliefs and opinions is wrong. In fact, folks in this stage of life are free to become "both-and" rather than "either-or" kinds of thinkers. Because we have "seen so much and lived so long," in Shakespeare's words, we are in a better position to understand the deep-seated contradictions and paradoxes of life, and even to embrace them.

So, in the spirit of Rohr's book, here are a few things that surprise me about myself as I enter this decade of the 60s.

I'm surprised at how good I feel and at how little I want to retire.
I know people my age are commonly expected to be chomping at the bit waiting for retirement, but I have to say I'm not there yet. I love my job teaching literature and writing; I love the colleagues I get to work with; and I love my students. I experienced a profound re-invigoration when I came to George Fox University four years ago. I'm excited about becoming a better teacher, scholar, and faculty member, and I've got lots of stuff I want to write. I'm grateful to be in a creative community with writers and artists who inspire and encourage me. If my hearing and faculties remain intact, I don't see any reason why I can't be teaching at 70.

I'm surprised about how much I've learned about my wife since our kids left home.
Yes, that empty nest phenomenon is real. Our nest, which has been vacated and re-inhabited by our kids several times over the last five years, is, for the moment, empty. Only in retrospect have I become aware of how busy those days were when we had teenagers in the family. The days of going to multiple sporting events and performances to watch our kids are over, and that means we are saying to each other, in effect,  "What do we do now?" and "Who are you, again?" This experience is both exciting and scary. In my case, it's involved becoming reacquainted with Janet's passions and interests, some of which were put on hold as she helped care for our kids and supported our family through her work. It hasn't always been easy, especially since we tend to have very different interests, but the fun part has been seeing her light up about her art class or about landscaping plans for the yard. For the first time in years, we've had the time to sit down and engage in long, intense discussions about books and theology, and we continue to learn new things about each other.

I'm surprised about where my spiritual journey has taken me.
I was raised in a fundamentalist and sectarian religious group, and that has shaped my spiritual and religious experience in profound ways, both for good and ill. I was taught that the boundaries of the church were very narrow, specifically that only those who worshiped like us, read the Bible like us, and behaved like us would enter the kingdom. Our mentality was very much us and them. We were the (true) church and they were the world and never the twain should meet, unless of course we evangelized them. As I result, I felt I couldn't accept my Baptist, and Methodist, and Assemblies of God (and, of course, not the Catholics) friends at school as fellow Christians; rather they were part of that worldly crowd who needed to be converted. Also, I was taught that women were not equal partners in ministry, and I never learned in my church that social justice was part of the prophets and the gospel. It amazes me now that as a teenager in the 1960s, living in a highly segregated city in the middle of the country, during the height of the civil rights movement, I never heard a sermon or a Bible class about racism!

Fairly early on I began to question much of what I was being taught at my church, and I began to read everything I could get my hands on--from C. S. Lewis to Karl Barth to Paul Tillich--seeking desperately for another perspective on Christianity that might speak to me. In Lewis's Mere Christianity, I resonated with his description of mere Christianity as the hallway and the denominations as the rooms. For Lewis, the hallway represented essential truths that most Christians could agree on. Once you've found your room, he wisely said, be kind and graceful toward those who have chosen other rooms. As Lewis says elsewhere about himself, this vision of Christianity was broader and fuller than any I had known: to me, it was meat and strong beer!

I was 17 when I read Lewis's book, and it changed forever my view of Christianity. The years between 17 and 60 have been an ongoing search to find a spiritual vision and a religious practice that feels right for me, and I can't say I've arrived by any means. Like Walker Percy's Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, I can at least say I've become aware of the possibility of the search. What I can say is that my journey has been characterized by these trajectories (I am further along on some of these than others):
  • From exclusion to inclusion
  • From narrow boundaries of salvation to universalism
  • From certainty to doubt
  • From faith as doctrinal belief to faith as action
  • From inequality to justice
  • From patriarchy to feminism
  • From God as personal and located to God as mystery and in all things
At 17, I think I imagined that by 60, I would have it all figured out. I would at some point become confident in my faith. I supposed that, like William Wordsworth, I would leave the radicalism of my youth behind and become more conservative politically and religiously. But it hasn't worked that way for me. If anything, I have more doubts today than I had in college: about God, about the authority and reliability of scripture, about the efficacy of prayer, about heaven and hell. And I'm learning to embrace the doubt and the questions, believing that to be a more honest and fruitful path than pretending the doubts aren't there It's a frightening thing to follow where your faith (or doubt) lead you, but it's also a more exciting journey than settling for an orthodoxy that seems to fit like a pair of pants you used to wear before you put on a few extra pounds. As Tolkien said, "Not all who wander are lost."

I'm surprised at how much hope I have in spite of many good reasons for despair. 
Anyone who can see lightning and hear thunder knows there's much cause for despair these days. My list may be different than yours, but there's lots in our world to worry about. Among the things I worry about: the continued acceptance of war and the glorification of violent solutions through guns; the ongoing harming of planet earth and the refusal of many to accept and address the reality of climate change; the continued inequalities for women and the injustice that prevails in most parts of the world. But what I worry about the most, and what I think is most tragic, is the failure of Christians and churches to love: failure to love the poor and the immigrant, failure to love the gay and lesbian, failure to love the enemy, often when the enemy is a fellow Christian with either conservative or liberal views. I have less faith in the institutional church than ever to address this fundamental failure.

And yet---in spite of all the causes for despair--I'm surprised at the hope I feel. Much of this comes from the students I teach and the twenty-somethings I know. They seem to understand intuitively some things it took me years to comprehend. We hear cries of despair that this group is leaving the church, but can you blame them when you look at the shape our churches are in today? The students in my classes seem to understand justice, compassion, and humility (see Micah 6:8) as preeminent values; thus, they have few problems accepting and embracing differences in ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, unlike my generation. Many of the twenty-somethings I know may not go to church regularly, but they understand the importance of doing meaningful work and the value of community, they have a heart for the poor and marginalized in society, and they still believe they can change the world. These folks inspire me and give me hope that all is not lost. And my colleagues, many of whom still believe against all odds that the university is a place where we search for truth, encourage me to live a life of intellectual honesty and to put my faith into action.

"Old men should be explorers," said T. S. Eliot, and Tennyson suggested there's more faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds. I'm hanging onto those two poets as I enter this new decade as well as my old friend and teacher, Walt Whitman:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Leaves of Grass

Monday, January 7, 2013

Relinquishing for Peace: The Peace Pilgrim Project, Part 4

In previous posts, I've summarized and commented on Peace Pilgrim's steps toward inner peace, covering the four preparations and the four purifications. Though it unfortunately breaks the alliterative string of titles, this post will look at four relinquishments that she believed were necessary to attain spiritual maturity and inner peace.

Again I want primarily to let Peace Pilgrim's words stand on their own so readers can get a sense of her tone and spirit. During her lifetime though she gave many talks and interviews, she wrote little. Since most of her comments were transcribed from her talks, they retain an informality but also the freshness of the spoken word. Peace Pilgrim could not be called a rhetorician or stylist by any means, yet I find in her words a simple elegance and a depth of meaning that reminds me of the best classical spiritual writers.

1. The relinquishment of self-will

Peace Pilgrim calls this the most important step to finding inner peace. She believed that humans have the choice of following the lower self or the higher self. She writes:

You can work on subordinating the lower self by refraining from doing the not-so-good things you may be motivated toward--not suppressing them, but transforming them so that the higher self can take over your life. If you are motivated to do or say a mean thing, you can always think of a good thing. You deliberately turn around and use that same energy to do or say a good thing instead. It works!
She makes it sound so easy!  I'm thankful that elsewhere she acknowledges that "Spiritual growth is not easily attained . . . . It takes time, just as any growth takes time. One should rejoice at small gains and not be impatient, as impatience hampers growth."

2. The relinquishment of the feeling of separateness

Peace Pilgrim begins by noting that our human tendency is to feel very separate and judge "everything as it relates to us,  as though we were the center of the universe." But she suggests that the reality is quite different:

In reality, of course, we are all cells in the body of humanity. We are not separate from our fellow humans. The whole thing is a totality. It's only from that higher viewpoint that you can know what it is to love your neighbor as yourself. From that higher viewpoint there becomes just one realistic way to work, and that is for the good of the whole. As long as you work for your selfish little self, you're just one cell against all those other cells, and you're way out of harmony. But as soon as you begin working for the good of the whole, you find yourself in harmony with all of your fellow human beings.
 I read somewhere that the Dalai Lama begins many of his speeches with this phrase: "We are all connected." I sense that same spirit in the Peace Pilgrim's words. This passage also reminds me of some of the discussions in our last, contentious, presidential election. I suspect one of the reasons the election turned out as it did is that Romney and the Republicans presented a message of "every man for himself" while Obama and the Democrats were able to communicate a theme of "let's all work together and help one another to achieve the common good." I would like to think that more Americans resonated with Peace Pilgrim's vision that we are not separate from each other and that things tend to work better and more harmoniously when we work for the good of the whole.

3. The relinquishment of all attachments

Peace Pilgrim begins the discussion of this relinquishment with what was, for me at least, a very provocative statement:

No one is truly free who is still attached to material things, or to places, or to people.
She begins by discussing material things, noting that material things have their value and they are there for our use, but that "Anything that you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you, and in this materialistic age a great many of us are possessed by our possessions."

She then addresses another kind of possessiveness. I want to share a lengthy quote here because I found it so insightful:

You do not possess any other human being, no matter how closely related that other may be. No husband owns his wife; no wife owns her husband; no parents own their children. When we think we possess people there is a tendency to run their lives for them, and out of this develop extremely inharmonious situations. Only when we realize that we do not possess them, that they must live in accordance with their own inner motivations, do we stop trying to run their lives for them, and then we discover that we are able to live in harmony with them. Anything that you strive to hold captive will hold you captive--and if you desire freedom you must give freedom.

Associations formed in this earth life are not necessarily for the duration of the life span. Separation takes place constantly, and as long as it takes place lovingly not only is there no spiritual injury, but spiritual progress may actually be helped.

We must be able to appreciate and enjoy the places where we tarry and yet pass on without anguish when we are called elsewhere. In our spiritual development we are often required to pull up roots many times and to close many chapters in our lives until we are no longer attached to any material thing and can love all people without any attachment to them.
This spring I read C. S. Lewis's novel Till We Have Faces with one of my classes. Peace Pilgrim's first paragraph here could easily serve as a summary of a major theme of the novel. The main character of the book, Orual, loves her sister, Psyche. In fact, Psyche is her whole world. But as Lewis makes clear, Orual's love is possessive, controlling, and, from her sister's perspective, feels a lot more like hate than love. Lewis's other fiction including The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters is populated with selfish, possessive lovers. Peace Pilgrim and C. S. Lewis seem to be on the same page here.

As a parent of three, I have seen Peace Pilgrim's words played out in my relationship with my children. One of the most difficult roads I've walked as a parent is seeing my child make what I thought were poor decisions and resisting the temptation to try to control. Also, as someone who grew up in church environment where biblical interpretations of the authority of the husband over the wife do, I'm afraid, encourage controlling love, I find Peace Pilgrim's reminder that we don't own other human beings extremely important. I can't help but think that many partnerships and marriages would flourish if each partner took these words to heart.

4. The relinquishment of all negative feelings

Perhaps since she had covered this point earlier in the purification steps, Peace Pilgrim's discussion is brief. She mentions only one negative feeling, worry, which she suggests is common to many people. She notes that "worry is not concern, which would motivate you to do everything possible in a situation. Worry is a useless mulling over of things we cannot change."

She concludes with section with some helpful comments about who controls our emotions:

No outward thing--nothing, nobody from without--can hurt me inside, psychologically. I recognized that I could only be hurt psychologically by my own wrong actions, which I have control over; by my own wrong reactions (they are tricky, but I have control over them too); or by my own inaction in some situations, like the present world situation that needs action from me. . . . Now someone could do the meanest thing to me and I would feel deep compassion for this out-of harmony person, this sick person, who is capable of doing mean things. I certainly would not hurt myself by a wrong reaction of bitterness or anger. You have complete control over whether you will be psychologically hurt or not, and anytime you want to, you can stop hurting yourself.
So these are Peace Pilgrim's steps toward inner peace: four preparations, four purifications, and four relinquishments. She freely acknowledges that these steps are not new and she is not revealing new truths but talking about universal truths in terms of her own personal experience with them. She writes:

The laws which govern this universe work for good as soon as we obey them, and anything contrary to these laws doesn't last long. It contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The good in every human life always makes it possible for us to obey these laws. We do have free will about all this, and therefore how soon we obey and thereby find harmony, both within ourselves and within our world, is up to us.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Purifying for Peace: The Peace Pilgrim Project, Part 3

Peace at Mirror
"One day as I was combing my hair at the mirror, I looked at myself and said, 'You vain thing! Why do you think you know better when you forgive everyone else for not knowing better? You're not any better than they are." Peace Pilgrim

In the last post, I noted that Peace Pilgrim spent 15 years preparing for her cross-country pilgrimage for peace. As she reflected on these years, which she called her "spiritual growing up" period, she later identified three categories of practices: preparations, purifications, and relinquishments. Under each of these categories, she identified four specific attitudes or practices. This post will focus on the practices of purification.

1. The Purification of the Body

Peace Pilgrim focuses here on physical living habits, noting that it was five years after she received the vision for her life before she began to take care of what she refers to as her "bodily temple." Specifically, this involved changing to a diet of "mostly fruits, nuts, vegetable, whole grains (preferably organically grown) and perhaps a bit of milk and cheese."

Was Peace Pilgrim ahead of her time? Consider that she began her pilgrimage in 1953, so the time period she's referring to here would be roughly 1943. I wasn't around then, but I was around a decade later, and I know the standard American family diet was radically different than the one she describes. But there's more.

In the following passage, Peace Pilgrim describes her decision to become a vegetarian:

I began to realize that I was disobeying my rule of life which says: I will not ask anyone to do for me things that I would refuse to do for myself. Now, I wouldn't kill any creature--I wouldn't even kill a chicken or a fish--and therefore I stopped immediately eating all flesh.

I have learned since that it is bad for your health, but at that time, I just extended my love to include not only all my fellow human beings but also my fellow creatures, and so I stopped hurting them and I stopped eating them.

Then I learned from a college professor . . . that it takes many times the land to raise the creatures we eat as it would to raise fruits or vegetables or grains. Since I want the maximum number of God's children to be fed, that also would make me a vegetarian.
In describing her eating habits more specifically, Peace Pilgrim notes that whenever she learned that certain substances were bad for her health, she simply stopped eating them. This included white flour, white sugar, and all processed foods. The list of substances she quit also includes caffeine and highly seasoned foods. I'm going to exercise my editorial privilege and skip over those, however, because I am not ready to give up my coffee or my spicy foods!

Peace Pilgrim sums up her dietary habits by describing her attitude toward food:

I enjoy my food, but I eat to live. I do not live to eat, as some people do, and I know when to stop eating. I am not enslaved by food.
Included in her discussion of physical habits, Peace Pilgrim recommends getting as much "fresh air and sunshine and contact with nature" as we can as well as getting sufficient rest and exercise.

2. The Purification of Thought

Peace Pilgrim begins her discussion of the second purification noting how powerful our thoughts are and states:  "I don't eat junk foods and I don't think junk thoughts!" She notes that positive thoughts "can be a powerful influence for good when they're on the positive side, and they can and do make you physically ill when they're on the negative side."

Peace Pilgrim identifies two specific actions we can take to purify our thoughts:

  • If you're harboring the slightest bitterness toward anyone, or any unkind thoughts of any sort whatever, you must get rid fo them quickly. They are not hurting anyone but you.
  • You must learn to forgive yourself as easily as you forgive others. Then take it a step further and use all that energy that you used in condemning yourself for improving yourself.
She illustrates this first principle with a story of a 65-year-old man who was still harboring bitterness toward his father, who had been dead for many years. The man's bitterness sprang from the fact that the father had paid for his brother's education but not for his. As she listened to the man's story, Peace Pilgrim was able to help him see that his father had done his best under the circumstances and had not intended to harm or create a disadvantage for his son. Once the man was able to release the bitterness he had been harboring toward his dead father, the man's chronic illness faded  away and eventually disappeared.

Her second principle reminds me of C. S. Lewis's discussion of forgiveness in Mere Christianity. Lewis suggests that a key to understanding the dynamics of forgiveness is the biblical phrase "Love your neighbor as yourself." His point is that I continue to love myself even when I don't like the things I've done and suggests that we should extend this same attitude of love and forgiveness to our neighbor. Peace Pilgrim's point is different. She found that it was relatively easy for her to forgive others, but that she was often very unforgiving toward herself. I suppose each of us will have to decide which approach speaks to our condition: Peace Pilgrim's or Lewis's.

3. The Purification of Desire

Here Peace Pilgrim asks a hard question:

What are the things you desire? Do you desire superficial things like pleasures--new items of wearing apparel or new household furnishings or cars?
Well, yes, I do. And perusing my friends' Facebook posts, I'm fairly certain most of them would be right there with me. But Peace Pilgrim offers a different path:

Since you are here to get yourself in harmony with the laws that govern human conduct and with your part in the scheme of things, your desires should be focused in this direction. It's very important to get your desires centered  so you will desire only to do God's will for you. You can come to the point of oneness of desire, just to know and do your part in the Life Pattern. When you think about it, is there anything else as really important to desire?
4. The Purification of Motive

This purification involves more hard questions and sayings from our spiritual teacher:

What is your motive for whatever you may be doing? If it is pure greed or self-seeking or the wish for self-glorification, I would say, don't do that thing. Don't do anything you would do with such a motive. But that isn't easy because we tend to do things with very mixed motives. I've never found a person who had purely bad motives. There may be such a person, I have never encountered one. I do encounter people who constantly have mixed motives.

I talk to groups studying the most advanced spiritual teachings and sometimes these people wonder why nothing is happening in their lives. Their motive is the attainment of inner peace for themselves--which of course is a selfish motive. You will not find it with this motive. The motive, if you are to find inner peace, must be an outgoing motive. Service, of course, service. Giving, not getting. Your motive must be good if your work is to have good effect. The secret of life is being of service.
Peace Pilgrim tells another story to illustrate this practice of purification.

I knew a man who was good architect. It was obviously his right work, but he was doing it with the wrong motive. His motive was to make a lot of money and to keep ahead of the Joneses. He worked himself into an illness, and it was shortly after that I met him. I got him to do little things for service. I talked to him about the joy of service and I knew that after he had experienced this he could never go back into really self-centered living. . . . A few years later I hardly recognized him when I stopped in to see him. He was such a changed man! But he was still an architect. He was drawing a plan and he talked to me about it: 'You see, I'm designing it this way to fit into their budget, and then I'll set it on their plot of ground to make it look nice. . . .' His motive was to be of service to the people he drew plans for. He was a radiant and transformed person.
She concludes this section by remarking that while some people may need to change jobs in order to change their lives, more often people merely have to change their motive to service in order to change their lives.

One of my colleagues noted about a previous post in this series that Peace Pilgrim's practice of waiting and preparing for her pilgrimage reminded her of Advent and the waiting associated with that season. As I was writing this post on New Year's Day, it struck me that Peace Pilgrim's four purifications may be particularly appropriate for this season, a time when we often make personal resolutions for a new year. I don't know about you, but, for me, many of her practices challenge me in areas of my life I spend a lot of time thinking and even stressing about. Peace Pilgrim's words challenge me, but they don't make me feel defeated. They resonate with some of my deepest longings, but they don't produce guilt in me. They give me some simple and true rules to follow, and her tone gives me hope that I might just be able to make some progress in this "spiritual growing up" process. And, finally, her words remind me of this essential truth:

There's only one person you can change and that's yourself. After you have changed yourself, you might be able to inspire others to look for change.
Happy New Year, fellow pilgrims. May it be one of growth and peace for us all.