And as the semi-official state religion of today?

Church and synagogue attendance and membership are declining as the population turns gray, but that doesn’t mean many younger Americans aren’t worshiping something. It just might be an unacknowledged idol rather than the God of the Bible.

So what is the idol? One befitting the state, or secular society, rather than what’s more strictly defined as religion?

~*~

The first clue might come it that nemesis for Sunday school programs – soccer and softball leagues, which schedule many of their games and practice sessions on Sunday mornings. (Parental visitation in divorce decisions further affect the youth religious training.) It’s fair to ask just what values are the sports programs are giving our children.

Sports, of course, points to professional athletics, and if you tune into any of the radio sports talk shows, you can get a taste of the ways the players and games are worshiped by adult males. Just listen to the passion and attention. It’s fair to bet few of them have engaged spirituality with such devotion.

Beyond that, consider how much of their identity arises from their chosen team. Where I live, it’s not uncommon for an obituary to list a person as an avid Red Sox or New England Patriots fan (or Celtics or Bruins). Sometimes the following even extends to a favorite sportscaster.

Many of the teams, we should note, play in arenas and stadiums built with taxpayer money or similar concessions.

Sports also points to the cult of physical fitness – people who can find five hours a week to spend at the gym but not an hour a week for worship. Sunday mornings often turn into fundraising walks or races, too.

~*~

Another, but more passive cult idolizes celebrities. Generally, the figures are venerated for their physical beauty or sexual magnetism, which are parlayed into the entertainment or fashion business. Some professional athletes cross over into celebrity status, while a perplexing few more are simply born rich and have no talent at all other than being celebrities, kind of like royalty without the responsibilities. No scientist, surgeon, teacher, corporate executive, senator, governor, or other working leader can match the recognition a typical celebrity possesses.

For much of the envious public, following their contortions occupies a lot of time and brain space.

The whole scene looks to me like a modern-day cyber-Parthenon full of semi-mortals.

~*~

Less obvious is the way art has become a semi-official state religion in America, now that state and federal funding exists. There’s long been the recognition of the fine arts as an adjunct to wealth, for whatever reasons. Many sense an abstract “goodness” in the products of art – chamber music, art museums, Shakespeare festivals, opera, poetry, the “book” that so many people dream of writing – even if the artist himself/herself remains (often with good reason!) somewhat suspect, a shady character. Perhaps that’s why these big institutions stand between us and the rest of ourselves, as artists and audiences.

Something abstractly “good” even when they themselves admit they don’t know much about the field. Contrast that to the lesser state religions in America: collegiate and professional athletics, Hollywood movies, and rock concerts, wherein no one actually advocates any common wealth.

I raise this to point out the materialism we, even as starving artists, are enmeshed in – one way or another.  It is so easy to hold the artist up in some idealized light – or the product itself – as the object of worship, totally forgetting to turn to the source of all. The dilemma of the news photographer: Should he rescue the victim and lose the opportunity of taking a great photograph? Or remain instead “professional” and observe the world as an outsider? This holds for all artists: at one point are we being selfish in our pursuits? At what point is our solitude essential for the well-being of all?

Gets complicated, doesn’t it.

Cleaning out the pantry

Our Eat Vegan Before 6:00 approach to Advent, adapted from Mark Bittman’s book, has led us to a refreshing side activity. We’re trying to use up a lot of items we already have in our pantry rather than shopping for more.

We’re digging out a lot of legumes and grains and beans that got pushed to the back, for one thing, as well as home-canned fruits and vegetables, for another.

This “use it up” strategy is actually fun, extending to other parts of the household. It’s boosting efforts at decluttering. Do we still need this or that? Do we know somebody who can use it? Does it go into our yard sale now planned for May?

To be honest, we still have a long way to go. Guess I’ll just have to use more jam on my toast in the morning.

You don’t have to take it as gospel

Despite of having read all of the Bible – and wrestled with many of its passages – I had never read it straight through until a few years ago. (Rather, it had been piecemeal. Seeing it in the larger structure presents some unique hurdles and troubling assumptions, as well as an evolving comprehension of the Holy One and faithfulness. )

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been retracing that experience with a new post each week at my As Light Is Sown blog. My reflections, as you might expect, are quite unorthodox, and in the books of the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament), they’ve been augmented by heartfelt insights and confessions by some wonderful Jewish poets and novelists – not  the stuff commonly encountered in Christian circles. You don’t have to be a believer to be engage with these stories. Think of them like Shakespearean or Greek drama, if you will, filled with human drama.

It’s a much different approach than reading it as law, one filled with more punishments than rewards. No, this is essentially about life itself.

I’d love for you to join in the series – and look forward, especially, to your reactions and comments.

Living into the Kingdom

It really is a revolutionary concept, presented toward the end of the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus of Nazareth.

To invoke God’s kingdom on earth as well as in heavenly spiritual expanses takes us way beyond nationalities, social status, even economics. It transcends our experience in everyday relationships. It’s a call for justice and peace, especially.

The idea of kingdom is, of course, unfathomable for Americans, as is a dictatorship or any other form of authoritarian rule. We can try to translate it as commonwealth, dominion, realm, or sphere, each with its own limitations. The Blessed Community comes closest for me.

Some of us take this seriously. What steps can we take to bring this closer? How do we honor the creation we’ve been given? How does governing by love rather than fear really appear?

It’s something we can take baby steps toward in our families and local congregations. It’s not always easy, but we need practice.

I find it a more engaging approach to following Jesus than the question, “Are you saved?”

Especially with the kicker, “as your personal lord and savior.”

I believe the concept of Living into the Kingdom is more essential than the Resurrection.

Yes, that is startling, even as I write it.

But it is also of the here-and-now.

How are you Living into the Kingdom?

On the road less traveled

Many know the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” but few know of its underlying Puritan foundation, expressed in Daniel Read’s 1785 shape-note hymn, Windham, based on lyrics by Isaac Watts. As the first stanza proclaims:

Broad is the way that leads to death
And thousands walk together there;
But wisdom shows a narrow path,
With here and there a traveler.

Frost, in contrast, has none of that grim Calvinist view, one that leads the next stanza to open, “Deny thyself and take thy cross,” and builds to a closing plea, “Create my heart entirely new, which hypocrites could ne’er obtain, which false apostates never knew.”

I can say that singing Windham in a choir is a rigorous experience. And, my, it feels incredible to bite on that final phrase, self-righteous though it can be.

Others can debate which piece better expresses New England terroir, but in contrast to Frost and his leisurely stroll in autumn foliage, I’d say the ideal embedded in the hymn remains the road less taken. Winter here is a much, much longer season than the fleeting falling of leaves..

Sustaining the teaching — and the teacher

Until the next-to-the-last chapter of my novel What’s Left, the resident Tibetan Buddhist master, Rinpoche, stays largely in the background.

He’s a stabilizing influence of Cassia’s family, all the same.

As she realizes, in earlier drafts of the novel:

I am impressed by Baba and Tito’s roles — the entire family’s role, in reality — in establishing the Buddhist institute. Our charitable foundation was established as a vehicle to support Baba’s research time as well as the institute and the new Pan Orthodox church — along with college scholarships for family children as well as those of many who’d worked for us. The foundation, then, was another enterprise from Dimitri’s socialist cognizance as it blended with our growing spirituality.

The family’s financial security was especially important in supporting her own parents through some transformative years:

For my parents, it provided enough income for them to pursue their dreams, even before we kids came along. Manoula’s share of the dividends and, I’m inclined to think, a consulting stipend from the company itself also allow Baba to focus on establishing the Tibetan institute here. For the first year, the Tibetan research operates out of their apartment, along with our publishing setup. And then, with Rinpoche in place, the institute settles into a small house more or less in the middle of Mount Olympus, where the guru can live in proximity to selected students the way Baba had.

But over the years, their individual practice wavered. With Barney, for instance, as Rinpoche explained:

More and more, we argued. Your Baba could still converse with him about these matters, but Barney kept quoting another teacher, far more permissive than me. What he allowed, we wouldn’t. But a few years ago, that guru died of complications of his wild lifestyle. It was scandalous.

As for her aunt Pia?

Rinpoche tells me she attended the weekly sessions with Theos Barney and the rest of the family, but her heart remained with the church.

And then Cassia has more pressing matters:

Pain? You say it’s an illusion, not real.

Oh, I’ve had some long discussions with your priest about that! From a Buddhist point of view, pain’s not real the way material things aren’t real. That doesn’t mean they don’t get in the way. You just have to learn to see through them. You can’t refuse to directly examine an obstacle, though, and expect to be liberated from it. You just have to remember what’s beyond it.

The mountain?

There’s no avoiding it.

~*~

In Cassia’s family her father finds much more than a circle of faith. He gives and receives support in everything he values.

How do you support others? Is there one place you feel is especially important? What causes or organizations do you help?

~*~

Tibetan Buddhist double-dorje emblem. To me, it looks almost Greek Orthodox.

~*~

Magnetic center as a point of growth

I think it was in Peter Ouspensky’s writing that I came across the concept. He argued that having a foundation in  an activity that requires patience and long training is essential for anyone hoping to grow in spirituality.

Simply put, practicing an art, a sport, a craft, a trade, or the like provides the stamina for personal religious enhancement. He called it the magnetic center.

It’s not a passive pleasure but rather active, with deferred gratification in terms of results. It requires doing something for its own nature rather than some final event or production, even though such things might provide inspiration. What’s important is the means itself rather than the end.

These other activities aren’t a substitute for spiritual progress, which can come about by undertaking any number of tested traditions, but it does offer a solid starting point.

Maybe there are exceptions, but I still find it an interesting insight.

What do you love to do as a disciplined practice?

 

Ten ways faith communities are being hit hard

The Covid-19 shutdowns are reminding many of us how much of religious practice involves community interaction.

Yes, personal practice is also essential – we could easily build a list of ten examples – but it blossoms and bears fruit in our interactions.

Here are ten ways those are being impacted by coronavirus.

  1. Communal worship. It’s a coming together in celebrating and compassion. For now, we’re coping with a substitute, one without the touches of shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. We’re not even in the same room.
  2. Streaming our services. Across congregations, we’re finding this to be a mixed bag. It’s definitely not the same as being together in person, but members who live at a distance or recovering from illness or suffering chronic debilitating conditions are welcoming the opportunity to be better connected again. Attendance for morning vespers or the like is also up.
  3. Pastoral visits. Hospitals, especially. Pastors, priests, ministers, rabbis, and other leaders deeply miss being able to comfort those in pain or be with those who are dying, especially.
  4. Funerals and memorial services. On hold, when family and friends could feel the support the most.
  5. Weddings. Baptisms, too?
  6. Choirs. It’s more than just making harmony together, though you do come to feel a special kinship with your fellow singers.
  7. Committees. OK, we are continuing via Zoom, maybe more than ever. But it’s more awkward, and I miss sharing the snacks.
  8. Study groups. This can be done online, but it’s less personally revealing and interactive.
  9. Church suppers and soup kitchens. There’s a reason that Jesus and the disciples are always eating in the New Testament. As one rabbi I know explains, it’s because they were Jewish. Let’s honor our connections through food, when we can.
  10. Festivals and other fundraisers. These require advance planning and working together. Again, food’s often involved and sometimes ethnic identities, too. My favorite ones feature dancing, and that leads to joining hands.

I do want to mention a renewed appreciation for the medieval tradition of anchorites, women who lived in isolation in the church tower itself and prayed unceasingly for the members’ well-being. These days, their writings seem especially meaningful.

OK, there’s no bingo on my list. What else am I missing?

For the first time since 1661, we won’t be gathering face-to-face

The clerks’ table in a previous year in Vermont. The presiding clerk, standing, is flanked by reading clerks and recording clerks as he attempts to summarize the “sense of the meeting” and recognize Friends in the auditorium who wish to speak to the item at hand.

The top level of governance in the Society of Friends is the yearly meeting, so-named because it gathers once a year in decision-making sessions. The constituent local congregations, in contrast, are termed monthly meetings, since they gather in business sessions once a month. (Yes, it’s confusing, since we sit together in worship at least once a week as well.) Everyone active at the local level is welcome to participate in the annual sessions.

Rather than having a single overarching yearly meeting, ours exist independently, originally on a regional basis. Something like the various strands of Eastern Orthodox, for that matter, with the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox the best known of many.

Among Quakers, New England Yearly Meeting is the world’s oldest, founded in 1661, and was held in Newport, Rhode Island, until 1903. Since then we’ve gathered for a week each August on college campuses or other residential sites around the six-state region. In my time here, that’s been Hampshire in Massachusetts, Bowdoin in Maine, and Castleton in Vermont, and I’ve heard tales of the years the event was held in a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

It’s a solemn and joyous occasion, one that many participants – and many families – schedule their work vacation time around. It’s something like a huge class reunion, too, where you reconnect with many people you hold dear. And living in a college dorm, as most of us do, it’s not uncommon to find that random pairings among those of us who go solo turn into regular roommates, year after year.

So I’m still stunned by the announcement a few weeks ago that we will not be meeting in person this summer, due to the coronavirus. Yes, we will be attempting something online, but it won’t be the same.

Among the faces and late-night conversations I’ll be missing.

Just as jarring is the more recent cancellation of summer sessions at Friends Camp in Maine. For many of our kids, it’s a highlight of their year, and friendships they form there sustain them through high school and college. As one of our neighbors says, a camper who became a counselor, the news is a bummer.

Amen.