Becoming Human

Mic’ed up and with cameras recording, the interviewer asked me point blank, “Do you believe in God?” Immediately, numerous responses flooded my mind, but quickly a question formed. As if I were having an out-of-body experience, I heard myself ask, “Which God?” 

There was a short pause and then the conversation continued. It meandered about in numerous directions, while my internal dialogue continued in the background. Eventually the mics and cameras were turned off, small talk ensued and finally warm goodbyes were exchanged. Then, as if nothing significant had occurred, life quickly returned to normal. However, in the background, my internal dialogue continued to ebb and flow. Why had I asked, “Which God?”

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Loaded to the Hilt

When replying with a question, I wasn’t trying to be cheeky or snarky. I was sincerely searching for a context. Which one? Allah? Yahweh? Vishnu? Ganesh? Jesus? Apollo? Ra? The Universe? Ether? And we wouldn’t want to exclude women: Athena? Aphrodite? Sophia? The Holy Spirit?

In that moment, it would have been helpful if the question had been phrased, “Do you believe in my God?” After all, if this conversation had occurred centuries ago with the Jewish Patriarch Abraham, he undoubtedly would have asked, “Do you believe in…MY GOD…the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”

Obviously, the topic of “believing in God” is always personalized and often loaded to the hilt with emotion. As it concerns Allah, one has to establish which version is being inquired about. Sunni? Shia? Khumra? And we shouldn’t exclude the marginalized Sufis. Personally, I’m a big fan of their witty and humorous poet, Hafiz.

When it comes to Greek or Norse gods, our modern day society has largely decided to retire them to a mythological status. However, they are experiencing somewhat of a big-screen revival thanks to CGI and millions of contribution$ from Marvel, DC and Warner Brothers. The scads of obscure island gods have yet to claim the same mass fame, largely remaining on small, local stages entertaining gawking tourists. However, I’m hoping Aquaman can open a door for a few of them.

Continental gods, such as those throughout South America, have largely died from starvation, due to a scarcity of young virgins and bleeding hearts. On a small scale, eastern gods have extended their lives by appealing to hippies and hipsters. In India, it seems no amount of deities have proven sufficient enough to provide an upper hand or leg up. And recently, the Judeo-Christian Jehovah has been stumbling a bit, first with the Holocaust and now with ceaseless conflict in the Middle East. However, he did manage to get a win in the 2016 Presidential Election. #MAGA

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Cherry Picking

When it comes to Christianity, many assume the discussion would be obvious and understood. But with a disputed 30+ thousand sects active around the world, it’s proven to be quite the opposite. For those of us who’ve gone on short-term mission trips, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Located within blocks of one another, you’ll often find a dozen, maybe even twenty or more denominations competing for converts. They all read from the same book and practice faith in similar ways. Though rarely, they are on speaking terms. Why? Financial support aside, their ideologies keep them far apart as the east is from the west.

Orthodox? Catholic? Protestant? Baptist? Pentecostal? Charismatic? Methodist? Lutheran? Fundamentalist? Conservative? Liberal? Progressive? Prophetic? Apostolic? Non-denominational? Inter-denominational, Unitarian? Universal? Whew! I’m out of breath and I haven’t even gotten started! Obviously, the divide is massive. Maybe now’s a good time to admit: we’ve been cherry picking sacred texts for a long time, crafting preferred versions of the Divine we either could defend, or stomach for a season.

With such an admission, I know I’m asking a lot. After all, confession is rarely easy. For me, it took a few years of self-searching and decluttering. In the beginning, it seemed heroic to dismiss and ignore all the divine decrees regarding diet, menstruation, fashion dos & don’ts, polygamy, celibacy, justified violence and slavery. As a matter of fact, I was often praised for doing so, and encouraged to continue.

Later, when I was willing to relinquish the pro-misogamy references, I experienced my first serious pushback. But the heat really got turned up when I did the same with anti-LGBTQ references. All I can say about that is, “WOW!” Nonetheless, each experience caused me to dig deeper. Eventually, I could no longer ignore the countless contradictions, both within the Bible and within myself.

beinghuman_us Being Human – One of my all-time favorite series depicting the struggles of a vampire, ghost and werewolf reclaiming their humanity. It portrays the ugliness and beauty of finding love, forgiveness and redemption.

Becoming Human

In the end, I was left holding onto a very thin sliver of what some still considered sufficient for faith. It was largely a collection of metaphors, a bit of sacred poetry and a few words of wisdom. I lovingly held it close for a season, until one day I had an epiphany: My relationship with supernaturalism was over, and I would survive. Heck, I might even thrive! So, with the same veracity of commitment and moral devotion of my religious past, I decided to pursue simply being human and all it entails.

It wasn’t long until I discovered, my humanistic endeavor was considered by many as heretical and foolhardy. In some faith circles, simply being human is actually tantamount to committing a crime. Nonetheless, I’m undeterred. After all, everybody is a heretic to somebody. In my defense, I like to point to the fact that most religions share a similar narrative: at one time or another, many of the gods (including “God”) pursued the same thing—becoming human.


Postscript

I’m not so naive to think that this article will answer all my critics, or for that matter please every one of my supporters. What about NDE’s? The afterlife? Eternal punishment & reward? OI VEH! For now, I suggest we stay on point with what it means to be human. Personally, I feel this topic is far from being exhausted. Here’s a few links to get things started:

Ze Frank: Are You Human?

Daniel Wendler: What Being Autistic Taught Me About Being Human

Erwin Raphael McManus: What Makes Us Uniquely Human?

Sonia Sanchez: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Bob McDonald: What If Everything You Know Is Wrong?

 

Killer Conundrums

Her unfamiliar face and obvious baby bump solicited stares and hushed whispers. She was new and different in a community which wasn’t accustomed to the like. The only new and different things making an appearance were those speeding through the only four-way stop in my tiny town. However, here she was at a full stop, parked in my home room with a compelling story very few were willing to approach or inquire about.

Cigarettes & Short Skirts

Sadly, I confess I never spoke to her. Her “condition” was far outside of my comfort zone. Besides that, my parents would have grounded me if I had done so. I was already out of their good graces for coming home smelling like cigarette smoke. My girlfriend had borrowed my jacket, lit up and left me with the lingering odor of rebellion.

In case you’re wondering, that is the truth and surprisingly my parents actually believed me. Nonetheless, I was buried alive under loads of extra-chores because… having a girlfriend was forbidden! The fact that she was a cheerleader made my offense seriously grave. My parents cringed when they thought of how every Friday night she could be found dancing around the gym floor in a short skirt before a rowdy home crowd.

Sternly, they warned me how I was to “live in the world” but “not be of this world.” From now on I was to avoid scandalous relationships, which could potentially screw me out of experiencing God’s perfect plan for my life. Clearly, I would have to be careful around the new girl in my home room. Thankfully, I had a lengthy chore list in hand. My dad believed firmly that manual labor would cleanse my soul, and I honestly had no reason to doubt him.

Inoculated

My off-the-beaten-path public school was a perfect place where pregnant teens could lay low for six months. Then, as spontaneously as they had appeared, they disappeared, arriving home alone as if returning from an exchange student program. Sorry to say, due to the general ruse and temporary nature of the situation, befriending them wasn’t a high priority. Furthermore, heavy doses of religious fear, swallowed three times a week on Sundays and Wednesdays, served to inoculate me against having a conscience.

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The drama of teenage pregnancy is as old as the Bible and still much older. During the Christmas season, it’s rigorously celebrated with ritualistic fervor. For weeks on end, the airwaves swell with tunes and melodies extolling the pregnant maiden who was whisked away by her gobsmacked fiancé to give birth in a stable. Certainly a scenario like this today would prompt someone talking to someone, an intervention at the very least or maybe even criminal charges. But who wants to be a “scrooge” by disparaging a beloved tale?

Killer Conundrums

Amidst plastic replicas of singing angels, serene barnyard animals and eastern wise men illuminated by a cheap star blinking overhead, the matriarch of teenage pregnancy is enshrined. People of faith worldwide gather to stand silently in reverence before the blessed maiden and her holy child. They rehearse her story with hushed whispers and humbly bow to the fruit of her womb, a molded plastic baby representing the “Sacrificial Lamb,” a.k.a the ultimate human sacrifice.

Obviously, to this day, remnants of ancient blood rituals live on in the religious psyche, enlivened by centuries of sacred paranoia. These time-honored superstitions serve to provide irrational justifications for a host of killer conundrums and bad behavior. Sadly, opportunities for dialogue, understanding and meaningful relationships often get placed on altars of blind obedience.

Rarely do faithful adherents consider what has truly been sacrificed. I should know. For the longest time I never stopped to think, just like I shamefully never thought to speak to the pregnant teenage girl sitting in my home room.

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Lightning Rod

For most religious devotees, their particular faith tradition is inherited and reinforced by their immediate culture, i.e. legacy. Rarely are they challenged to seriously consider another viewpoint. And if they are, it’s generally opposed with extreme bias, lacking in fact and objectivity, i.e. cult, false religion, idolatry, perverts and satan worshipers.

Certainly, this was true for me as an evangelical in the American Midwest. To say the least, my general knowledge was firmly rooted in cliquey, sheltering group-think. It’s taken me years, but I’ve since remedied my deficiencies.

Atheists Know More?

In 2010, the Pew Forum Research Center conducted a Religious Knowledge Survey involving 3,412 participates. Out of the thirty-two general religious knowledge questions, the average participant answered only sixteen correctly.

Recently, I reviewed the sample questions and got a perfect score. The questions were so basic, I was saddened by how poorly participants performed. However, I wasn’t surprised. Ironically, atheists and agnostics got the most questions correct with Christians coming in dead last.

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In 2013, sixty-three related studies were reviewed and the results showed a “significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.” Experts theorized as to why this was so, offering a hypothesis summed up as such: more knowledge = less belief in God.

Open to Experience?

In my opinion, the focus on intelligence versus belief has merit but is narrow. It doesn’t fully capture an understanding as to why people choose to believe in the supernatural. I personally know a number of very intelligent persons who practice their faith with great commitment. For me, offering clearer insight is a Harvard study done by Shenhav, Rand & Greene. Rather than focusing on IQ levels, their research honed in on personality traits.

Their findings suggested that the deciding personality trait is being open to experience. This type of person displays a willingness to re-examine social, political and religious values. If he/she is an intuitive thinker, cultural influencers often steer them in the direction of spirituality. If he/she is an analytical thinker, the same often motivates them to be a skeptic. Clearly, for either type there is more common ground than most are willing to acknowledge.

On a personal level, this explains why my closest friends are either humanists or spiritualists, and why my marriage works so well–me, an amiable skeptic and she a delightful mystic. In contrast, it sheds light on why I, and my spouse, have always been lightning rods for closed-minded fundamentalists.

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Veggie-ligion

I was talking with a friend last night about an upcoming interview I’ll be doing. I’m no stranger to interviews, but this one will be different from those I’ve done in the past. It will be on camera. I’ve always stuck with print and audio only, affording me time to decide which side is my good side—right or left? I guess I’ll soon find out.

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As far as the interview content is concerned, I’m not lacking in confidence. It will focus on something I know a lot about: former clergy who’ve transitioned out of professional ministry, and the adversities they’ve faced in doing so. For many of my peers, the transition has proven extremely demanding and destructive on numerous levels. 

Fortunately, for me, with the support of my spouse, kids and dear friends, I was able to avoid many pitfalls. With that said, I still encountered adversity, setbacks and discouragement, but with each new day I was able to put it all in my past.

Perspective

Last night, I reached out to my friend for some perspective. Although she’s aware of my past, she’s only known me in my current role as a project manager, never as a minister. As we talked, I asked her what she thought about former clergy wanting to leave the ministry? Her response was intriguing:

First, she referenced the few ministers she knew besides me (neighbors) and talked about how nice and capable they were in their roles. Although she herself does not attend their churches or any church, her general attitude was positive towards active clergy.

Secondly, the thought of active clergy desiring to leave the ministry for good had never crossed her mind. And honestly, why would it? But, as a business manager who hires qualified people for high level positions, she felt strongly that ministers offer a wealth of experience for the job market—management, sales & marketing. Her actual comment was, “Why wouldn’t I want to hire a former minister?”

Thirdly, when I asked how she felt about a minister who actually stopped believing in the supernatural, she wrestled with wrapping her head around that idea. Even though she has no desire to actively practice her former Catholic faith, she feels belief in some kind of a higher power helps cope with stress. Tongue in cheek, she suggested a “head of lettuce” might be a sufficient god of sorts.

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Ancient Egyptian ceremony depicting lettuces offerings to Min god in the temple of Kalabsha, aka the Temple of Mandulis.

We laughed and agreed that a vegetable would not be the best choice. In talking further, it became clear that religious faith and coping skills are two very different things. To contrast, I can think of a few examples:

The Babble Method

I once worked with someone who, every time she got stressed or mad, started babbling loudly in tongues. When she did so, it was always quite uncomfortable; especially, since we worked together in retail. I remember thinking at the time, this must be her religious form of cussing!?

The Retreat Method

Another friend of mine, when stressed, would retreat to his “secret place” with a jug of water to fast and pray for hours, sometimes for days. I never saw an improvement in his communication skills or marriage. However, upon his return he always had interesting “visions” to share, none of which pertained to his day-to-day life.

The Lecture Method

As a former minister, I often sat in services where peers delivered messages, which were not applicable for the majority of the listeners. Clearly, he/she had issues with one or two in attendance, and had chosen to vent from the platform. This approach is not all that surprising when you consider ministers are primarily trained to lecture.

The Avoidance Method

Other peers of mine often used their “busy schedule” to avoid dealing with challenges and conflict. For many, the avoidance lasted only until things either exploded or they “felt called” to a new position elsewhere. Others used their “busy schedule” to hide the pursuit of unhealthy habits—addictions, affairs, etc. In hindsight. I think their blind reliance on the supernatural and their lack of coping skills drove them to self-sabotage, i.e. implosion.

Think About It

Obviously, avoiding, retreating, lecturing and babbling solve absolutely nothing. Sadly though, religion often not only strengthens these methods, it encourages them. Think about it: 

  • If you’re a stressed out charismatic, you’re told to speak in tongues. 
  • If you’re a stressed out mystic, you’re told to retreat and pray. 
  • If you’re a stressed out leader, you’re told to call sinners to repentance. 
  • And if you’re one of the nameless faces who once attended church, you’re still inclined to seek divine help, maybe even from a… head of lettuce?

Hey, perhaps being a vegetarian is far more than just a lifestyle or diet choice?

#Veggie-ligion


If you’re interested in getting “down to earth” with acquiring legit coping skills, check out these links:

Centre for Studies on Human Stress
Psychology Today
VeryWellMind
Eliminate Stress at Work
Anxiety & Depression Association of America

 

We All Ache

FreshLA: The following is the latest guest submission by my dear friend of 20+ years, Fred Grewe. Fred is a full-time hospice chaplain on the West Coast, regular seminar speaker and published author. Without charge, he’s always mentioned me in the “Acknowledgements” of his books. Actually, he feels strongly I owe him for his tolerance these past two decades and counting. Personally, I think I’m a credit. PAX!


Monday, I visited three people…

The first was a woman who has battled MS for most of her life. Now bedbound with great difficulty in swallowing, when I asked what she wanted prayer for she replied, “I want to be married. I want to be loved.” I prayed, knowing full well that’ll never happen.

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A really nice woman with a quick mind and teasing sense of humor trapped in a body that has never worked well. Her soul longs to be special. To be desired. To be loved.

Next I visited a young man (in his thirties) who was born addicted to drugs. Mom was and is a meth addict. He’s emotionally on the level of an eight year old and terribly afraid of dying. Painful wounds on his buttocks that won’t heal. Ashen white skin wrapping his protruding bones.

When I showed up he was out in the courtyard of the facility smoking. Shortly into my visit his mom arrived. He immediately reached with both arms from his wheelchair and tearfully cried, “Mommy.” She had brought him a bean burrito with no onions from Taco Bell … his favorite.

A life of drug use has left him with few teeth, so my patient was reduced to merely sucking on the burrito rather than biting it. Mom stood by and dutifully squirted taco sauce on it between sucks.

Two cousins an aunt and an uncle joined us in the courtyard. The sky was blue, the sun was shining but it was cold. Everybody smoked but me. It was awkward. These folks who knew each other well and loved each other were on polite behavior as I, a relative stranger and supposed man of God, was in their midst.

I tried to be nice, made a few attempts at conversation, and encouraged them in their love and care for my patient. But it was awkward. They were too nice to just say, “Go sell crazy somewhere else … we’re all full up here.”

My final visit was with a woman in her nineties who can no longer remember who she is, or where she is, or why she is. Mercifully she was soundly asleep, saving us both from the uncomfortable chore of trying to converse, so I just sat silently and prayed blessings for her…

The next morning as I was thinking about these folks, and praying for them, I became keenly aware of how alike we all are. These three dying folks and me. The details of my life are a little different but we all share hopes and dreams that will never happen. We all have experienced painful disappointments. We all ache to be loved. To feel special. But often only feel awkward in a world that has no place for us. Frightened lost souls looking for a place to fit… more here.


Fred’s latest book:

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FYI: Featured post pic is of T-Hollywood doing her sunset yoga on vaca in Hawaii.

 

Save Your F**ks

I’m sitting here waiting on a call from someone I haven’t spoken with in a long time: a once fellow evangelical minister.  Like me, he is no longer in Christian ministry.  He lives on the East Coast, and I a few miles west of Lake Michigan. We’ve kept in touch via Instagram. He messaged me earlier today asking if we could talk tonight. Apparently, a lot has changed with him recently.

Oh, my phone is ringing!

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My friend is the analytical type, very thorough and exact. However, differing from others with the same gift of precision, he’s capable of adjusting the level of transferable data according to the capacity of his audience.

Since it was me he was talking to, he started by downloading the 5-minute CliffsNotes version. Apparently I’ve lost some of my intellectual capacity through the years?!  LOL!

Beautiful Disaster

His story reminded me of Kelly Clarkson’s song Beautiful Disaster:

He drowns in his dreams, an exquisite extreme I know… He’s magic and myth, as strong as what I believe,a tragedy with more damage than a soul should see… Such a beautiful disaster.

What he shared was something akin to a tragicomedy, highlighted by abuse, betrayal, false accusations and extreme loss. It had all the makings of the numerous ancient crucified messiah tale.

Apart from the terrible sh*t, he did share some amazing, wonderful shizz. In the midst of extreme pain and loss, he’s experienced his own miraculous version of resurrection! To his surprise, the power that raised him from his grave came via… a lovely humanist!

She shared none of his religious beliefs or inherited convictions. With excitement, he told me, “She doesn’t even believe in God! But, she applies Scripture in context with greater clarity than I ever did as an evangelical minister!”

maxresdefaultHis story is not uncommon. Countless ones have plenty to share, but remain largely unheard. Pop culture is obsessed with the Kardashians and the like. As it concerns Evangelicals, they are simply ruthless when it comes to suppressing objectivity and keeping things hidden. It’s not so much an organized effort, as it is an inherited culture of denial and blame shifting.

They are masterful with the cup and ball game, always distracting attention away from what they are skillfully concealing. Misogyny, sexual abuse, gender biases, impoverishment, racism and mindless servitude shift from one cup to the next. The faithful masses remain entertained by their divine, loving “Father” figure who knows best, while carelessly tossing their time and money away.

A headline mega-church pastor once told me:

What’s happening with the Catholic sex abuse scandal is nothing compared to what will eventually be exposed in the Evangelical Church.

For many, the only way of escaping or surviving the madness is via self-sabotage or silent compliance. For my quoted mega-church friend, it was self-sabotage. His scandal provided Oprah, Barbara Walters, Bill O’Reilly and HBO a momentary surge in ratings. It was big news nationally, but on the local level the grassroots cup and ball games never paused or stopped. The status quo remained intact.

A New Found Faith

Presently, my friend’s relationship with his lovely humanist has taught him how to truly love himself for the very first time in his life. With this, he’s experienced a new found freedom with problem solving and decision making. Furthermore, he’s learned to place his former zealous faith in… wait for it… wait for it… IN HIMSELF!

Recently, he put his new humanist faith to the test and started his own company. Currently, he’s well on his way to financial freedom! #applause

“Even so,” he woefully confessed, “I’m a complete f**k up; seriously man, I’m just a f**k up.”

What do you say to that?

I completely understood where he was coming from. After all, we both share similar religious backgrounds, trained from an early age in the self loathing art of condemnation and repression. However, I no longer practice those dark arts. YouTube sensation “Sweet Brown” famously said it best when she exclaimed: “Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Aint-nobody-got.jpgSo how did I respond? Well, sometimes I surprise myself by saying something amazingly profound. My close friends refer to these moments as “rare flashes of brilliance” — emphasis being on “rare” and “flash.”

In those brief moments, I’m often moved to scratch my rare brilliance out on paper. Thinking, later I’ll put it to text on the background of a cool pic and then post it to Facebook? It’s sure to go viral!?!

Well, thankfully in this particular moment the brilliant wisdom of Instagram was close at hand. Thank you high speed internet! Here are the anonymous wise words I successfully transferred to my friend in less than 7 seconds:

You should give a f**k. You really should. But only about things that set your soul on fire. Save your f**ks for magical sh*t.

And with that, we both sighed and exchanged heartfelt “I love you man” valedictions and promises to talk again very soon.

Goodnight. Sweet dreams my friend.

Splash! Splash! Splash!

For those who have been reading my Patheos postings, you’ve no doubt noticed I keep referencing Icarus, the mythological risk-taker who flew too close to the sun and perished from his tragic fall back to earth. The inspiration which sparked my recent article came from an Oscar Wilde poem:

Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight. For the greatest tragedy of them all, is never to feel the burning light.

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Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (ca. 1558) is famous for relegating the fall to a scarcely noticed event in the background — red arrow [added by me] marks the spot.

Lately, I’ve been questioning why I’m obsessed with making inferences to Icarus. After all, it’s a tragic story traditionally accompanied with warnings for the over-ambitious and reckless. There’s even an attributed psychological term called The Icarus Complex: a person who is fond of heights, narcissistic and obsessed with fantastical, far-fetched, imaginary cognition.

Psychosynthesis ties this complex to those whose religious/spiritual ambitions exceed the reasonable limits of their own personalities. They are characterized by self-gratifying, attention-seeking behavior and obsessions with apocalyptic “crash & burn” predictions. Interestingly, they also have an emotional fascination with fire (e.g. burning sexual desires, moral works tried by fire, scorching eternal punishment, etc.).

To say the least, there’s enough with all of this to keep me busy for months, writing and making inferences!

The Red Arrow

As it concerns my recent articles, my chief motivation can be found in the painting above. Icarus’ fall (red arrow marks the spot) is depicted as an unnoticed non-event. Farmers, travelers, fishermen, sailing merchants, they all continue their day-to-day tasks, unconcerned with the tragic splash below.

So, what is it that best represents the uninteresting splash? Without knowing the painter’s intentions, I’ll attempt to offer my own insights.

Splash! Splash! Splash!

Maybe the uneventful splash is symbolized by all the rising/falling religious-spiritual fads, trends, obsessions, predictions and ever changing, contradictory dogmas? You know, the elusive transcendental stuff. If this painting were a contemporary work, we could theorize the splash to be the numerous rapture theories or Zionist Temple Mount predictions featured by Charisma Magazine each month.

Or, we could point to the televangelists’s hyper theatrics serving up hot, steamy love songs to God followed by oratory hell-laced admonitions to the Divine’s captive bride.

Or, our thoughts could turn to Oprah’s recommended reading list and all the eager Super Soul Sunday guru guests.

The splash of week-old TV ratings certainly constitutes as a non-event.

Cable specials about angels and demons, books left out of the sacred canon, dinosaur-sized giants, ancient aliens, Nessie and Bigfoot exposes and alchemy secrets revealed… splash! splash! splash!

The latest, greatest study bibles promising word-for-word translations, religious programming’s annual pledge drives, right and left wing talking points, political call to arms and Church/State promises to use your tithes and taxes to honor God and country… SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH!

Who Gives A Crap?!?

For many, if it doesn’t impact grocery and gas prices, vacation resort deals, or 401K gains… who gives a crap?!?

Week after week, month after month, and year after year, many have learned to ignore the splashes. It’s just entertainment after all, right? Umm…

I’m a romantic, so I like to think the splash is not Icarus sinking into Davey Jone’s Locker. I like to envision him getting close enough to the burning light of reason, he realizes his world is upside-down. He no longer fears falling and sheds his father’s wings. He’s actually flying; for real, he… is… flying!

Think Neo being unplugged from the Matrix.

My romantic self likes to think of the splashes as being all the social, religious, political, inhumane mechanical bodies–the dim promises of transcendent flight–plunging into the waters of stupidity far below. Like Icarus, I envision myself shedding my inherited biases to soar high, far above the superstitious storytellers, religious dogma and prejudiced contemporary philosophers.

Together, we live without regret in the brilliant light of free thought and discovery.

Have I peaked your interest?

More romantic, sentimental musings to come soon… #Icarusflew #noregrets

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Daedulus and Icarus drawing by Lyle Saunders – click pic for link

I Work With Death Daily

Fred Grewe has been my dear friend for 20+ years. Our friendship, through many seasons in life, has enriched my life in countless ways. Fred has a new book out right now, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in London and Philadelphia: Time To Talk About Dying. He’s a brilliant storyteller and his insights about life and death are always thought provoking.

Check out his Amazon Author’s Page here.


Why is the Grim Reaper so Grim?

By Fred Grewe

I work with Death on a daily basis and over the years have come to know him quite well. On an average week I visit about twenty dying folks, more than three hun51eiXTG4j-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgdred terminal individuals annually, and over the past twelve years I have provided spiritual care for nearly two thousand people who have died.

I’m a hospice chaplain.

A little context might be helpful. Nearly all of the folks I meet and serve are north of 70 years of age. Most often, people in their 80’s, 90’s and even 100’s. Also, I work in a relatively safe middle-class environment. By and large, the people I serve have at least had a shot at a good life. These facts color my experience with Death. I’m sure ministers who work with dying children or in places of great poverty and privation might have different feelings about my friend Death.

Now generally I don’t tell people what I do for a living. I mean, when you tell someone you’re a hospice chaplain, they tend to just tilt their head knowingly and look at you with big doe eyes like you’re Brother Teresa.

And I’m not.

It’s not that I don’t love what I do or am not proud of it. Actually, I find my work both inspiring and refreshing, inspiring because of the courage and strength I witness everyday by patients and family members.

Refreshing in that I encounter very little in the way of nonsense. By the time I get to meet our patients most of the nonsense has been kicked out of them – either by a doctor’s terminal diagnosis or by some painfully failed therapy – or both.

Most clergy by and large have to put up with a lot of nonsense. I sure did when I was a pastor. It usually sounds something like this: “Why do we have to sing the same songs every Sunday?” or “You know, if we could just get out 15 minutes earlier we could beat the Baptists to all the good restaurants.” or “That was a wonderful sermon pastor, one of your best!” Pure nonsense.

Hospice patients know they don’t have time for such silliness. Every alert minute takes on profound importance when you know there are precious few left. I find the brutal honesty of conversations with such people incredibly rich and refreshing. There’s so little pretense, so little posturing. The sacredness of such moments often demands my full attention and it feels as though time simply stands still in silent homage.

That’s not to say such conversations are always serious. They’re not. But what they are is real.

For example, I remember when Carolyn was telling me about how depressed she became after her doctor told her cancer was inoperable and she only had a few months of life left.

“I stayed in bed for three or four days just crying,” she said. “I didn’t get dressed or shower – I just cried. Then one morning my daughter Jennifer came in and brought me breakfast. I started yelling at her that I didn’t want any God damned food, and if I’da had a bag I’d just put it over my head and end it all right now!

‘Paper or plastic?’ Jennifer asked.

Well, how can you stay depressed when someone treats you like that? So I got up and ate and decided to continue living until I can’t anymore.”

Such folks are daily reminders for me to live intentionally now – while I can. Because the reality is none of us is promised tomorrow. I would say this is the supreme lesson the dying have taught me about living. I call it the dying well paradox: contemplating my death compels me to live a fully engaged life now and living a fully engaged life now is the best preparation for my death. I imagine you’ve heard something like this somewhere before. So the real question is how do we engage this wisdom to actually impact our day to day existence? How can this insight shape our spiritual maturation?

Vital Signs

What can be considered as evidence of spiritual maturity anyway? Church attendance? Tithing records? Number of memorized Bible verses? Faithful rotations in the nursery? I suggest signs of an authentic spiritual life must go deeper than these.

Now one of the drawbacks in being a minister is most everyone lies to you at a first meeting about their life of faith. For example, when I meet a new hospice patient or their family as a chaplain and ask, “How is everyone doing?”

They usually all say, “Fine.” Or, “Praise God, I’m good … I’m just waiting to go to heaven.”

Often those are simply deflections.

Those are the responses we’re all trained to tell the minister to keep him or her far away from doing any harm. If we actually tell the truth, the minister would likely try to probe deeper and unearth all the little tawdry dark family secrets that have caused enormous pain for years – and no one wants that!

To circumvent the social niceties that deflect against really getting to know folks I’ve developed a list of spiritual vital signs to help determine what’s really going on inside someone’s soul. Here’s my list of spiritual vitals: gratitude, generosity, submission to reality, and an ability to shower the people you love with love. (I know I stole that last one from James Taylor.) These are the qualities I look for in meeting a new patient to help determine the relative health of his or her soul. These are signs I look for to see if someone is really alive.

Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has famously promoted the mantra, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” A brief scan of the TED Talks library gives you an indication of the growing awareness on the importance gratitude holds for spiritual and mental well being. I’ve learned that gratitude is something we cultivate. It’s also magnetic. The more I express gratitude the more I find to be grateful for. Sadly, I’ve also learned the same is true for ingratitude. The more I bitch – the more I find to bitch about.

In recent years there has been a growing body of research to demonstrate that simply doing three kind things a day for others can help lift depression, improve sleep, and increase spiritual resilience. Generous behavior is evidence of a soul that has been humbled by the reception of grace and understands the deep connection we all have with each other. I have never met a truly generous person who was not aware of how much they have been given as gift and the natural response is to share that gift with others (see the story of the four lepers in 2 Kings Chapter 7). Conversely, stinginess and a sense of entitlement are symptoms of a grace starved soul.

By submission to reality I mean one’s ability to simply and humbly accept the impermanent nature of life. All living things die. Over the years the folks I’ve met and served who can accept this fact generally die a much less painful death. Those who insist on fighting the inevitable, who refuse to give up when the end is in sight, often need far more analgesics (heavy duty pain killers).

In serving nearly 2,000 departed souls I have never once had someone say to me, “I wish I had gone to more football games.” or “I wish I had spent more time on line.” or “I wish I could have gone shopping more often.” What matters most to those at the end of their life are the people they love and those who love them. Jesus taught there is no more important investment we can make in this life than loving God and those whom God places in our lives (see Mark 12:28-31). For so many years as a practicing Christian I thought this is what I needed to do to make God happy. To my joyful surprise, I have discovered that this what truly makes me happy.

So these are my spiritual vital signs, signs to give me an indication of how really alive someone’s soul is. Are they truly awake to the wonder of life? Or are they asleep, simply eking out an existence without truly engaging this miraculous gift?

Why is The Grim Reaper So Grim?

In the years that I’ve worked with Death and felt his presence at the bedside of a dying patient, I’ve thought about his costume. I mean, what’s with the hooded cowl?

I wonder if Death uses the cowl to hide his own grief, grief at having to come and collect folks who have never really lived? Never given their hearts freedom to love and be loved? So afraid of what others think, seduced by culturally unachievable standards of wealth, beauty, and knowledge, or traumatized by painful life experiences that they spent their limited precious moments in a self absorbed sleep walk. Why is the Grim Reaper so grim? Maybe because he aches so deeply for the missed opportunities we all had to really live?

Of late I have been working to strengthen my own spiritual vital signs. I want to be alive while I still can. So I look for opportunities to be generous, especially with my time (which is very hard for me)–surrendering to the things I cannot change, battling the ones I can and praying to know the difference between the two. I start each day praying for the grace and courage to be Chaplain Fred for yet another day and ask God for the openness of heart to use the day as a treasure hunt. In the midst of my tasks – the daily phone calls, traffic, charting, emails, meetings – I pray to really see at least three people this day. I mean really see them, see what is beautiful and special about them, and then find some kind way of communicating that to them. Then as I sit for prayer in the evenings I try to reflect on those folks I saw and pray for them. What I find can be big or little – but I want to find and bless at least three people. I so want my life to be a blessing for others.

I have come to the realization that all I seek at this point in my life is to be a good man. I want to spend my remaining days telling the people I love why I love them. I want to reflect back to them the beauty I see within them. I want to be a conduit of God’s grace rather than a participant in the fear of “not enough.” I want to be kind and generous – trusting that if I give myself to these tasks I might become the son God dreams me to be. I want at the end of my days as I lie on my deathbed for the last words to cross my lips to be “Thank you.” I want my friend Death not to be crying when he comes for me – but to have a gentle smile and knowing glance indicating that I really lived.

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