Old Words, new understanding

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In my last post I talked a little bit about prayer, and what many historically call the “Lord’s prayer” (in Christian tradition).  My thoughts were generated by the “group recitation” of those words at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth 2; the crowd quietly repeating them raised a question in my mind as to how much they really had thought about their meaning – and then, considering what they mean to me. I decided it was time to share about that here, and it leaves me feeling – vulnerable, inadequate and nonqualified! As I approach 65, with a lot of life changes in my last few years and more than one reminder recently that life is unpredictable, I am more aware than ever that we can never know the answers to many questions that individuals and societies have asked throughout history.  But being raised in what, back in the 60’s, in a “conservative” church, the lessons of Sunday school, and later Bible studies, continue to resonate in my memory and to color much of how I see our world, and my life, and our place in it.  They are a part of my tapestry of life, and those colors still are vibrant, and the harmonies still echo. 

I don’t know how to write about spiritual matters; I don’t have a theological background.  I would never pretend to be certain about anything, or to try to defend my own precariously balanced beliefs through debate; there are people I love in my life who think and feel very differently on many issues, and I treasure them and our relationships much more than “being right”. Perhaps that guiding principle is one we need to seek more in this time of divide, and yet … I feel like somehow, sharing my reflections on what is, for many “people of faith” who follow Christian tenets, is foundational scripture … is worth expressing.  So … this is very much just “me”, ahead.  Just what comes into my heart when there is quiet, or when I try to find some sense of order and hope in all the jumble of a life that seems to be constantly shifting.  Lately, that is happening more than I would like.

A point of reference – I use the word “God”, and the “He/His” pronouns, primarily because that is what I was raised with – but I realize there are many words, many names and that gender is just another frame of reference with many cultural implications.  I would hope that the reader would be kind and overlook differences they may have with this approach, because ultimately, it’s not those words are not what we should be focused on but, individually or together, seeking truths our hearts can acknowledge. Truths that lead to a better life for us, and for those we love. My reflections will be segmented in the way that makes sense to me; I see four major components to the prayer – Identity; relationship; entreaty; and praise. 

“Our father, who art in heaven; hallowed be thy name.  Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. 

The prayer begins not with focusing on what we want, but a recognition, a statement of overriding truth – that there is a Creator, and that our relationship with Him is likened to a parent and child – one based in love. These few words comprise a foundational acknowledgement that there is something greater than my understanding, known by many names, that brought me and all of us into being.  Admitting this includes turning to that source of life with reverence, and in worship. Following this statement of faith, is another acknowledgement – that seeking His kingdom is meant to be a focus in our life – but what is the Kingdom of God? So many have claimed that their vision of the “kingdom of God” justifies war, hatred, exclusion – but if we just look at this as a whole, I see a different perspective. The “kingdom” of God on this earth is not one made of buildings, or systems, or churches or corporations or cults; it is our spirits, which we choose to surrender, ongoing, as we seek our way through life. To let that kingdom “come”, to have His “will be done”, is each of us making a choice – to give that loving source of life our acceptance, our broken, tender and lost little hearts, as best we can, and sharing it with others while we are able. To give God, as we understand God, that authority in our life daily, is the closest to heaven on earth that we can, for now, experience and offer one another.  For His kingdom on earth to be realized, His will to be accomplished, requires our choice to be His agents; to give Him our hearts, and to let them be used as channels of that greater Life.  A firm declaration of God’s nature, and our place in His kingdom.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors

After this statement, an acknowledgment of God’s identity, comes an admission, an acceptance of our relationship to Him.   First – we will always be dependent on our Creator for our needs.  We are not and never were in control; we can only work towards what we are able but there will always be a gap between our hopes and our realities, and it is to God we must turn, in faith, to bridge that gap. It is a daily hunger, it is a daily need, it is a daily journey, one step at a time. It is a willingness to say, yes, this is my way of life; in a culture that elevates knowledge and certainty and self-sufficiency, this is a daring refutation, a defiant reshaping of our thinking and expectations – that our relationship with our Creator is fundamentally walking in trust without answers and dependence instead of strength.  As to how we relate to those who enter our lives in many ways – we must recognize and live out the truth that our relationship with others requires forgiveness, from us, and to us.  We need one another, and only with forgiveness can we create the world we long for; only by acknowledging our imperfect, often failing, humanity, can we turn to one another and together build anew.  Receiving forgiveness, in wholeness, requires our sharing it freely as well; our standing in love and trust with that source of life, cannot be complete without offering it to one another. Can there be a greater challenge to our ego than to admit I have failed, and to accept that others have failed me?  It is the deepest forgiveness that comes at the highest price, but that we yearn for. In two simple phrases, filled with powerful truths, we are challenged to live in dependence and trust towards a Creator beyond our fully knowing – and to give others forgiveness without demanding more, in order to know that grace ourselves fully.

And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

Finally, after acknowledging, confessing truths that may not fit what we were taught, or represent the dreams and wishes we desire – it is time to ask. I like the word “entreaty”; it is defined as an earnest and humble request. It’s more than a hope, or a wish; it is a plea, one that acknowledges we need help. How odd that we should have to ask God to NOT lead us into temptations; after all the shaming and lecturing and moralizing about our evil natures, for centuries this phrases has challenged our understanding.  Funny, in a way, because when you sit down and go honestly through most of the narrative stories in what is called our Bible, there are so many instances of God defying expectation, seemingly even delighting is disappointing hopes, in refusing to be predictable and yet, demanding faith.  Why on earth would we need to ask God to not lead us into temptation?  I cannot say with certainty, and apparently neither can the recent announcement by the Pope that this should be rephrased (you can find more about this here).  But experts in those ancient texts are adamant that this is exactly what it says – please, God, don’t tempt me.  Perhaps the best I can take from this is some comfort in knowing, as it says elsewhere in scripture, that temptation is (gasp) normal; failure to be perfect is pretty much standard (No!); that my weakness is a fact of life that God’s love is big enough to overlook. Perhaps it somehow makes a difference as we struggle with our weaknesses to acknowledge that daily, to admit I need help. As far as deliverance from evil – historically, evil has done pretty well on this planet, and again sometimes I have to admit I am a part of that – with anger, with selfishness, with bitterness. I find myself asking – could it be that this plea for “deliverance” is not one of “save me from someone else’s evil towards me”, but … “free me from that within me that seeks to commit evil, and help me to be a greater agent of Your love despite my imperfect heart”?  In short – these few, mysterious words acknowledge that I need help to find my way – I need light in the darkness.  Right now, that seems truer than ever, for us all.  We seek that light in many different ways, but there is one ultimate source….

For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Glory, and the Power, Forever – Amen. 

And so we close with a final, full statement of the ultimate authority and power of our Creator, as best we can know Him and His will. Apparently, this is considered by some to be “added on” doxology.  Perhaps so!  Perhaps someone who thought they were doing good felt it added an exclamation point of sorts for dramatic effect.  It sure makes for a crescendo in that closing hymn arrangement!  I’ll never know – but it speaks to me.  It is a towering, overriding exclamation of faith – one that says let go of trying to have it all, because He already does.  He holds the keys to the kingdom, He has the answers.  Sure, for some, that can be seen as an easy “cop out” – just give up.  But I see it as an act of worship and faith – acknowledging that whatever greater Power is out there, by whatever name we might best understand it, endures, and that a purpose which we may never know is working in us, through us, loving us and one another beyond.   All the things that I often am drawn to strive for, to worry about, to bicker over, fade away when bathed in the brilliant light I just need to stop and look up to realize surrounds it, and us, all.  This final statement is one of undiluted, unlimited, and honest praise.   

One final observation, for now …. As I pointed out, there is really only one “ask” in this prayer. It’s not about wish fulfillment or the kindly old grandpa in the stars granting requests of the pious. Of course, there are many times in Christian scripture where people of faith asked for more specific needs, but … perhaps prayer isn’t really about asking for something as much as it is trying to connect with that source which is itself, the only answer we really long for? And … did you notice that, outside of the references to God, the Divine, the Creator – everything else isn’t “me”, it isn’t “I” – but us. OUR father; give US this day OUR daily bread; forgive US; WE forgive OTHERS. Prayer is as much of an acknowledgement that we exist together in community, we seek answers together, we struggle together – not alone. Again, we need one another.

Friends, remember this – faith only really matters when you have doubts without “proof”, questions without certainly. There are, as with any matter of faith, countless perspectives on whether the individual we call Jesus said these words, or which words, or to whom and when. All valid questions, that cannot be answered with factual documentation, really; out of the four “gospels” which have different histories and inconsistencies of many events of Christ, only two have the prayer, one at the crowds attending the “Sermon on the Mount” and another at a gathering of Christ with only his disciples. The two have differing phrases, the “original Greek” texts are inconsistent (and were themselves hardly contemporary), the Catholics and Protestants of course have their own versions, and of course there are numerous translations of the Bible. Talk about a multiverse, Marvel does not have the only claim to different representations of reality!  Here is a link to a 1988 article about doubts as to veracity of just about everything I just commented on – https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-10-18-mn-4561-story.html

For your reference and perhaps edification, or to raise even more questions that evade simple answers, I am providing links to two resources – first, a “comparative” presentation of different Bible “translations” of these passages – you can download the pdf here …. https://wartburgproject.org/mdocs-posts/the-lords-prayer-in-five-versions/

And, a fascinating history of the “evolution” of translations over the centuries … food for thought, or perhaps evidence that there is ultimately no final “right” answers … https://www.csdirectory.com/biblestudy/lords-prayer.pdf

For now – as I write, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Just as we sometimes rush through a day that, at least in someone’s original intent, was to take time to remember our blessings – setting that aside to check the upcoming sales, and plan for social events – it is far too easy to avoid thinking about issues that raise hard questions; disappointments and bitterness with teachings that didn’t seem to fit reality; pain from the loss of love that we had held dear, and regrets for choices that we thought would make dreams come true.  It is hard to be thankful when our challenges engulf us.  Perhaps, it is now, we need to pray the most.  I hope my simple reflections perhaps raise questions, even tough ones, that ultimately you can choose to face and work through – or, to ignore. Choices are what create our own, ultimately personal, truths – our lives are our prayers, lived out, shared, or hoarded and kept shut away. Ultimately prayer has the power to change our hearts, and through us, to give hope and love to others seeking the same.

I will write more soon about my own battles with prayer, with faith; my own unanswered cries and beyond that, my choices to continue to shape and define me. Until then …. thank you for sitting a while with me, wherever, whenever you are; I hope you never give up seeking answers, and finding those that help you share just a little bit more of whatever light you find. I’ll be looking alongside you.

A tisket, a tasket- what’s in your easter basket?

I will preface this post with an acknowledgement – there are posts that I spend time editing and structuring until they are not perfect, but good enough. And then there are those like today’s, that reflect far more thought than what ends up being written; that I wish I had the eloquence and skill to resonate more deeply, but ultimately, have to just release and let them be what they will be. Please know, as you read this – I respect, value even, the differences that mark my many relationships.  I have family and friends who have diverging perspectives from me on just about any matter you can name – politics, music, COVID, sexuality, and of course, the “big questions”.   Lately with all the changes that continue to be a part of my life, I’ve had to think a lot about what I truly believe – and I feel it is important for me to write about it.  Maybe some of you will get something out of it, but whatever your own place may be as you make your own way through life, I definitely make no claim to having any particular insight or answers as I work towards finding my own.  

Growing up in non-metropolitan southern California in the 60’s, I think most of the people around me were pretty similar.  White, middle class mostly (although my household was less so than most) – families getting started out bought homes in our little community.  Most probably considered themselves Christian, although there was a Jewish family down the street, and I was grateful they welcomed me into their lives.  And of course, many people were not church folks – but my parents were of a generation where that was routine, and we were regular attendants at the small local Methodist church where the beautiful stained-glass window of Jesus with the lambs shone brightly.   Some of the traditions of that time survive, but I think are practiced less now – having palm fronds at Palm Sunday a week before Easter;  musical pageants; acolytes with candles beginning the service; I remember the warbly voices of the primarily old, primarily female adult choir singing “Christ the Lord is risen today” every year, as we followed in our hymnal dutifully.  My husband remembers that Easter often meant new clothes for the Sunday service – and for both of us, family gatherings, meals, easter egg hunts in the yard, and a belief that there was, for a while, a large bunny who brought wonderful treats for good boys and girls.  Among my treasures is an old “Ideals” publications with photos of baby rabbits and kittens decorating eggs and delivering flowers. 

Over the years, through much of my youth and adult life, I attended many church services – because I am just the kind of person that keeps looking for answers that satisfy some calling within me, even though they don’t really seem to be enough to resolve my own uncertainties.  I have attended evangelical churches that were started by beach hippies in the 60’s “Jesus people” movement; denominational mixed race services that were primarily Hispanic, or Black;  I visited a small church once where the pastor proclaimed, quite emphatically, that they were the only congregation going to heaven (not just their denomination, their location!!)  I have been to the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City to hear the music of praise, to Israel to see the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, and to deserted pagan temples in the Mideast where other gods were worshipped, in ways very different from my small town.   I have prayed for the Holy Spirit to descend upon me in congregations where speaking in tongues was routine; I have attended teenage rallies to be pure for Christ, and visited group homes where young men were gathered to find a way to be healed from their attraction to others like themselves;  I have had hands laid on me to deliver me from demons, and I have celebrated a different kind of closeness to God in my own times of intimacy with men in a way that no church ever would have considered sacred, or holy – and yet, to me, they are a connection with that which is eternal and divine in a way more real than any church service.  

I have read books, and sung songs, and prayed in the darkness and danced with joy at the fervor of the promise of deliverance.  Last night, watching the recent, and outstanding dramatic film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” after it’s well deserved Oscar recognition, I remembered many such broadcasts that my mother would watch at home – crippled with debilitating arthritis, her limbs and bones distorted, her heart wounded by griefs I could not understand then, she was looking for hope, for healing, for encouragement.  She surrounded herself with a small group of friends who prayed for one another- and for me.  They brought me, a lonely boy with few friends, delicious birthday cakes for years – they were loving and accepting, to the degree they could be.  I have long since forgiven them for their view of a God whose love could not extend beyond that which they knew, and hope I can grow in doing better on that front as well. And when I attended bible studies at local homes, and was baptized, I believed – not entirely understanding, but still, wanting to take that step, to belong.  I longed for acceptance and love – from my family, my church, my society – but I never felt that I had found it, really. 

I have read and studied, and continue to reflect, but I have no real answers to the big questions. I know many have been hurt by what others consider faith and truth – I know that pain, in my own way, but everyone’s is theirs alone, somehow.   I realized that even the words “God” and “Jesus” and most of the traditions practiced for the past few centuries are adopted from other cultures, bandaged into what some group of men, somewhere, once decided was truth;  that other groups selected from writings what they concluded was holy scripture, and left out other pieces; that translations are incomplete, even wrong, and that the familiar sayings that are easy to spout for simplistic answers to tough questions really do more harm than good.  Ignorance is not bliss, but neither is half witted rebaked magical thinking.  Like Elvis, the genie left the bottle a long time ago. 

I also see in those who practice a different faith – and there are too many for any of us to even know or comprehend, in our own little circles of belief – can be just as sincere and devoted, even more desirous of finding those elusive, yearned for answers.  I recognize that much damage, cruelty, and destruction has been accomplished under the guise of a loving god.  The news is filled with the ugliness of what we can do to one another – and, sadly, I am a part of it, knowing full well that the values I claim to hold dear – love, forgiveness, hope, caring – are not fulfilled in all my walks of life, that I have just as many flaws and chasms within me that show clearly the duality of what I say I believe, and how I behave.  In short-  I know the mess inside me is there, and as much as I wish for some magical force to transform me into someone else – it ain’t gonna happen.  But every day still offers choices for growth, and new direction. 

So when Easter comes around, like Christmas, and I think of the people in my life that I love (and some I don’t, but I try to) – I know they all pretty much have their own beliefs, traditions, questions, and uncertainties.  We may not talk about them much – thinking, perhaps, silence equals respect, or at least keeps the waters calm between us.  Perhaps that is best.  In my own circle of family and friends, there are so many ways of thinking about eternity, truth and what it is to be human, I am both amazed – and awed.  I love these people – I don’t really care if they are agnostic, theists, Mormon/SDA/charismatic Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist (etc etc)  – I have seen enough of their lives and their hearts to know they are not all that different from me, seeking.  Some see truth in the cycles of the planets and ancient practices that others condemn; others cling fervently to remembered scriptures and emphatic exclusion of anything that lies outside the rites and rituals that were passed down to them from origins that many of them have never sought to understand.   It’s so much easier to stay in our little boxes, safely and comfortably assuming we have the answers, and conclude it’s the others who are blind. 

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Whn someone asked recently if Easter had meaning for me, the answer is, yes.  Yes, very much so – but a meaning that isn’t really easy so to define, or defend.  I think our culture, at least in the “West” as it used to be called, is to have certainty – to know.  To be “right”.  Yet, I think it is a kind of growth, for me at least, to acknowledge I do not have certainty, and cannot claim to be right – only to be open and seeking.  I realize, even from my very limited knowledge of history, that faith can be both healing, and destructive; that communities of belief can bring strength and hope, but also lead to conflict, exclusion and suffering.  I am getting to a point where I can actually, despite the years of wanting to be someone other than who I am, I can be grateful that I am both inclined to seek a spiritual facet to my daily existence, and reconcile that part of me with my own nature as a gay man that many people who have claimed to love me could never accept as coming from a loving God.  Now, finally, I can accept the many tiny little glimpses of a greater loving force moving through the threads of my life; I am working towards seeing each one of us as being a little reflection of that which is eternal, that creative force that exists apart from time and everything we can know and measure, anything we can ever prove or fully comprehend.  

Perhaps some of you reading this may have reached a point long ago where you found answers that were sufficient – I am glad for you.  Who knows? You may be right! Human history shows an amazing variety of systems of belief – rising and falling, evolving or disappearing completely, lost to time – only crumbling remains and museum antiquities we briefly look at in passing. But in me there is still a yearning to know the answers – and a determination to not stop looking.  I am just more comfortable now accepting that I will never fully “know”, at least not until that time that, like all of us, my time on earth comes to an end – beyond that, perhaps there is even greater mystery, rather than “answers”.   If you are a student of the “Bible” as we know it, when you stop and look at the many examples of God interacting with His children – whether it be the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, or the Roman occupied peoples of the Christian era – or even the “Old Testament” prophets – there are countless incidents where the expectations of the protagonists were, if met at all, not fulfilled in the way they expected.  The very presence and life of Christ as depicted as the promised Savior from oppression was the opposite of what generations expected;  the promise of deliverance was in a form far from what the hopes had promised; instead of paradise, people of faith were faced with oppression, rejection, and despair.  Not exactly a salesman’s dream – and the prophecies of end times are hardly a trip to Disneyland.   I think sometimes God, in whatever form we ultimately understand that which is eternal exists, gets a kind of delight in confounding expectations, just to keep us guessing. 

Just as COVID changed our world forever, that which occurred which is commemorated still by many as Easter – watered down with bunnies, historically questionable and completely unproveable by science – has altered the course of human history, for both good and bad. Even for those who never hear any “New Testament” stories of the lone, itinerant teacher crucified without basis while a guilty man was set free, have been affected over the centuries by those who embraced that faith.   There is one aspect of all this that occupies my thinking as I move through this season, and continue to search for meaning and purpose, understanding and acceptance in my own journey – the realization that the ultimate choice is uniquely ours to make.  Because, finally, there isn’t “science” to follow, there isn’t “proof” of any of the essential elements of most faiths – only tradition.  The “evidence”, many say, is in our lives and how we live it – but we each have a choice to make in what we believe, because regardless of what you ultimately conclude, it finally depends upon a leap of faith.   Even a decision that there is no God, no eternity, no life beyond that which ends when our last breath is drawn – is a choice, a kind of faith.  It is yours alone, mine alone – we can be in congregations, we can repeat chants and practice rituals, we can join together in song but when the time comes – we are all faced with choices that are ours alone.  We may be in a choir, but our songs are all solos, in time. 

Max Von Sydow as Christ in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” – Later, he became “The Exorcist”

My own understanding has much room to grow, as does my heart.  I take comfort from what I believe, even though I have no proof – and I respect that others see it very differently.  I don’t have the same need I did, when young, for everyone to agree with me, to prove that I am right – that I have the truth, and you don’t.  I can share in your joy that you have found some degree of peace, hopefully, in finding your way through whatever you believe – knowing none of us is completely right, and no one in history ever has been.  This morning, as I woke up somewhat before my husband, I came upstairs to find him watching the 60’s “Greatest Story Ever Told” version of the life of Christ on TCM.  Having seen it as a teen in our little local theater, I remembered being moved by the reverence and craft that went into it as a traditional narrative of the life of Jesus, and the events of Easter – complete with the “Hallelujah Chorus” and Max Von Sydow appearing in the clouds.  Like any story, it is not complete – just one version.  But another movie comes to mind – less well known, but also powerful.   “Resurrection” with Ellen Burstyn from 1980 isn’t shown much, wasn’t a hit – but it deals with the same questions we all face, or ignore. Is there a God? Is there life after death? What is the truth?  If you get a chance to see it, I recommend it –  the protagonist, having lived a life that defied the traditions and expectations of her community, ends the film by, in her own unique way, showing love, grace and mercy to a child in need.  But – there is a final scene you will never see.  Years ago, in an obscure defunct film magazine called Cinefantastique, in a profile on the film and its creation, there were pictures shared of a deleted ending; I wish I could find it online but have not.  Alone, the camera follows her into a room filled with the symbols and signs of so many ways of expressing faith; of seeking truth; of knowing that which is eternal, but indefinable.  She has reached a place of peace.  

“Resurrection” (1980) with Ellen Burstyn – the conclusion of her character’s journey of discovering faith

None of us will ever be able to know all the different paths that generations have taken to find their way to some kind of peace.  For me, my Christian upbringing will always echo in everyday life – I am grateful to have it, but also learning that other wisdom remains awaiting discovery. So I am reminded of the story of the apostle, Paul – a traditionally religiously trained “enforcer” of his faith, who moved from being an oppressor of those who followed the radical teachings of the “messiah” Jesus, contradicting tradition – to questioning his understanding, and becoming open to a new way of thinking, a new pathway of faith and understanding.  In writing to one of the emerging bodies of believers, he talks about their conflicts and disagreements – one of which was about what is ultimately the purpose of spiritual maturity.  In one letter, he says the following about our inability to ever completely have the answers we seek to all these questions, at least while we walk this earth.  In part, he shares about how what little we know today will one day be replaced by a greater understanding – (1 Corinthians 13) –   

Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

My wish for all of us is that we can find a place of peace, however incomplete – if not together, in acceptance; if not in unity, in tolerance – with faith; with hope, and ultimately, with love.  We may not know the way, or even recognize we have lost our way now and then, but … keep on going, and as always … thanks for stopping by!   

Until next time, friends ….

Look, up in the sky ….

Friends of a certain age would finish that phrase with “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its SUPERMAN!”  And I have lots of fond memories of those shows, movies, and stories, ranging from good old George Reeves (who my Dad denied resembling), up through the recent expanded “Justice League”.  I’d sure love to have super powers – flying, laser vision,  et al would come in handy for day to day life – but that is of course all fantasy.  But recently, I have been looking up in the sky a bit more, and have some thoughts on what I see there –  starting with our recent trip to Muir Woods, less than an hour north of us in San Francisco. 

I was surprised to learn that John Muir really had very little to do with Muir Woods, but rather the famous naturalist was honored with the naming on his behalf by President Theodore Roosevelt, at the insistence of the land donor, a William Kent.   It was the first national monument created entirely by a donation, and Kent wanted to honor Muir, a Scottish immigrant to California, for his leadership in natural preservation and environmental concerns before the phrase was coined, and a co-founder of the Sierra Club.   I had never visited these world famous “old growth” redwoods; for my birthday in 2020, we had planned a trip north but the park, and most of life, was shuttered days before our visit.  It seemed like a promise kept having the chance to at last drive up a year later, surviving all the tempests in between. 

I had of course heard of the majestic redwoods of the Northern Pacific, and how these trees are among the oldest forms of life on our planet, predating humans by millennia – averaging in age from 800 to 1200 years, but some living for 2000 or more.   My grandfather Richard, a descendant of Oregon pioneers from the first wagon train to settle there, was a virtual stranger to me – but among the items I have from him was a poster from the “Pacific Lumber Company” in 1945, titled, “The Redwoods parallel in history”.   The lumber company itself, based further north here in California, was started in 1863 to provide wood during the civil war; in 1945, they issued this poster showing the “San Francisco Peace Conference” as the top of the chain of historical events over its “lifetime”.    That conference, held in this city where I now live more than 75 years later, led to the United Nations charter. 

My husband had wisely made the reservations for parking and tickets early in the day, but there were many cars in the lot already – still, as we proceeded down the path, seeing these giants stretching like fingers from the earth into the sky surrounding us – we had moments of complete isolation, silent except for the song of birds, the buzzing of insects, and the breeze far above our heads.  This was especially true in the aptly named “Cathedral Grove” where visitors are urged to respect the silence in the oldest trees of the Park.  No architect could create more a more majestic tribute to creation than this natural temple which the earth provided without mankind.  Rather than stained glass windows, the sky overhead drew my attention to that which lies beyond. 

And that is the source of my title for this reflection, friends … look up in the sky … what do you see?  After a year in which many of us have felt torn between being beaten down by fears, disappointed by unmet hopes, and faced with crises of all kinds in our personal as well as shared lives – perhaps you, as I, have looked up and asked ourselves what is the meaning of all this.  As I have written before, my own history has been undeniably shaped and influenced by the teaching of the faith in which I was raised … a faith which, at times, has led to great pain, perhaps not as often as great hope and comfort.  Our world, filled with an unending variety of cultures and beliefs over the far lesser period of history than the redwoods have witnessed, has birthed many faiths – and by that term, I deliberately try to disassociate the desire to understand that which is beyond understanding from the structure of religious practice.   Some have lasted, evolved, and changed over hundreds of years – others, disappeared without much left to document their impact other than ancient writing, illustrations and practices.   At their best. the tenets of faith have brought peace, comfort, and hope;  but it is after all we humans who can take what we believe to be true and use it to oppress, crush, and control, as well. 

I am blessed with a wide variety of friends (I take them where I can find them, folks!).  I appreciate that they do not always share my perspective, history or understanding – really, more of a lack thereof – in matters of belief.  As I have grown old – surely, not as old as a these redwood sentries standing silently around me – but feeling the passage of time a little differently than a decade ago, I am realizing that letting go of a desire for certainty brings me a greater peace than insisting I have answers.  I certainly know and understand how the tendency of organized religion to excoriate “outsiders” – including those, like me, who do not conform to their concepts of wholeness, normalcy, or any other measures of acceptability – proclaiming the power of love, practicing the principles of hatred, exclusion and condemnation.  

I respect that people in my life that I love believe – or, as some might say, choose not to believe whatsoever – differently than I do.  We do not have to all be “right”, and I dare say none of us are.  Certainly, in the faiths that celebrate,  as in this season what Christians call “Easter”,  Jews celebrate “Passover”, and other faiths holy days –  there are vast differences in beliefs.  For those who hold these beliefs dear, many do not know, or seek to understand, why the history behind the evolution of those beliefs bring into question aspects of their practices which they would prefer to accept rather than open a Pandora’s chest of uncertainty.  I have always respected the line in “Inherit the wind” where a potential juror questioned by the agnostic defense attorney in a case regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools says “My wife tends to the religion for both of us”; the attorney replies with the question “In other words, you take care of this life, and your wife takes care of the next one?”   It is so much easier to not ask ourselves why we believe – just to somehow hold on, clinging onto the buoy we have found in an ocean of uncertainty, pretending we can keep our head above the crushing waters.  I have found that neither pretending certainty nor ignoring doubt gives me any kind of lasting peace.

Because this is a time of holy reflection for so many in our world – in different faiths – I offer you a personal observation from my own history.  More than half my lifetime ago, as I struggled with trying to find a way to conform to the expectations of others, and the teachings of my church and those who truly did love me, but like me, had a less than complete understanding – I took a trip to Israel with a noted scholar of both the Jewish Old Testament writing and faith, and the Christian New Testament history and traditions. It was a wonderful experience, unforgettable in many ways; it gave me a sense of the sweep of time and belief over centuries and cultures in the small corner of the globe that reverberates still today. We visited “both” traditional sites of Christ’s tomb – one, buried in an ancient Greek Orthodox structure, the other a Protestant site oddly positioned adjacent to a parking lot; and, many other sites of various sects and incidents throughout the history of that conflicted land.  Not surprisingly, both were empty (I had to go there).  We also visited the Holocaust memorial; and, farther from Jerusalem, the crumbled remains of a pagan temple with the signs of the zodiac in mosaic, and a crumbling yet still striking crusader castle from the struggle for control of the “Holy Lands” against Islam.  We were diverted from one area – Jacob’s well – because of safety issues relating to Palestinian acts of defiance nearby.  Centuries of faiths gaining and losing power, leaving relics behind, each one proclaiming its unique, undeniable right to control.  The devotion to those sites – and the bitterness between rivals – has not lessened over centuries. 

As I reflect on that visit now more than half my lifetime ago – and today, as I stare up the seemingly endless length of the towering trees surrounding me in this chapel of nature – I realize that there are many in this world, many of my friends even in my daily life, who have abandoned, discarded and in some cases would if it were within their power would eradicate the concept of faith in something beyond. They see only the destruction and pain that history records. The words that are holy and sacred to some, are for them the names used to curse and hold in contempt.  The practices and teachings, used as weapons to pronounce judgement are wounding for them; at times, they have wounded me, as well.  It is so hard for us to see the little acts of grace, the kindnesses between strangers, as acts of God, through the pain and despair that seems to pile up daily. I cannot tell my friends they are wrong, and I am right, that I continue to believe we are as much spirit as we are physical beings, or that there is a reality beyond that which is measurable, observable by “science”;  our knowledge on this earth is insufficient to capture all truth, and much of what we experience, we know alone, in a silent place in our deepest consciousness, where no one treads and where the light is often hard to find.  I am not a good example of a person of faith; I serve better as a disciple of worry, fear, and uncertainty – yet I still, somehow, believe in that greater source of power – of life – and yes, love.  That which is eternal, and unknowable – but is present, when I look up in awe at these trees, or see it in the beauty of a brief smile, or an emerging seedling, or a faded petal – or in the slumped body of another child of God on the streets around me.  It does not make sense – but perhaps faith lives apart from that which does.   I can only say that my sense of that love, that grace, that power – in whatever limited understanding of “truth” that my mind can encompass – carried me through.  Carries me, still.  Gives me a glimpse beyond, and some sense of peace, and hope. 

I have not been a regular attendant at church for many years; the hymns of my youth were old even then and are mostly not sung today. In fact, being an old man now, I admit I crankily abhor the dependence on other methods of “worship” and entertainment in church gatherings, and the ignorance and lies that are often spoken as truth to congregations of people who trust in their leaders to know better than listen to something deeper speaking to their souls. But I believe there is a value in the tradition of people of faith, as they understand it however imperfectly and incompletely, to gather in churches, mosques, synagogues; to break bread together; to mourn together, laugh together, and pray for one another.  These practices are the real love in action, where each heart In offering the small glimmer of light it struggles to keep burning inside gathers with others and creates a greater light, a common hope.  

In 1984, director/screenwriter Robert Benton created a film, more of a reflection of the lessons of his rural Texas depression upbringing than a memory, that touched on these elements – struggling, flawed, desperate individuals and families dealing with poverty, racism, unfaithfulness and grief – uncertain lives, abandoned and rejected individuals looking for a moment of hope, coming together.  I remember seeing it in Hollywood, and marveling at the depth of compassion shown by these otherwise unexceptional everyday people, just trying to get by, trying to make sense of a world that did not work, did not always show that love, or justice, or hope, prevails.  It features two hymns that I remember from my childhood in the Methodist church – “Blessed Assurance” at the beginning, before an act of violence ends two lives and sets in motion events affecting those who remain.  And, at the end, as a communion service closes the film in a small church where the choir sings “In the garden”, and the minister reads about love from Paul’s first letter to the tiny, outlying church of believers in a radical new faith in Corinth –  we realize suddenly that there are people in the service that weren’t there a moment before; that somehow, they are together even though they are not in that moment. The last two faces, passing the sacred elements to one another as the light fades, are those whose deaths began the film, joined together.  If you have not seen it recently, or before – it is worth a visit one quiet day. Here is that final sequence from Places in the Heart …  

Today we too are faced with the challenge of survival, and at times, it seems overwhelming. Threats surround us, bury us, choke our hope and our joy. It is so much easier to give up on facing the big questions in life.  We can’t really come up with answers as much as make peace with the uncertainty.  But in believing, as I do, that there is a greater source of love, perhaps our goal should be – at least, for those in our little circles of life, coming in and out seemingly randomly – to try to let that love come through us without putting up more barriers.  For Easter this year, Steve Hartman of CBS “On the Road” shared some reflections on faith – how it is shared in this time, how it survives, why it matters still, to many.

The sentries of time in Muir Woods have endured centuries on earth in a way that you and I will never know; staring up at them, knowing they have witnessed more sunrises and sunsets than I can count, leads me to reconsider my own perspective and priorities. As I look “up in the sky” at the vast expanse beyond these ancient witnesses of our world and hear the hymns that the birds sing to ears more able than my own to understand their joy – I truly sense the presence of that greater love that lies beyond daily perception.  I feel it as I hold my husband’s hand and begin another year of life; I believe that greater love brought us together, to what end, I may never know. I believe that same love is reaching out to each of us, even though we cannot see it or prove it or measure it or hold it.  I cannot say what you should look for as you raise your eyes – but I hope you will keep looking, and that in time, we shall all see what is hidden, and know what we have longed to understand.  One day, we all will know – perhaps, gathered together, in a tomorrow beyond anything we can imagine.  I hope to see you there, and smile, again.