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Archive for February, 2020

WHAT IS ‘REAL’?

Everything we call ‘real’ is made of things that cannot be regarded as ‘real.’ –Niels Bohr, physicist

When my daughter was young I purchased a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit; it became one of her favorite ‘read it again to me, papa’ stories.  I still have the copy after these many years.

To recap this wonderful story: a stuffed bunny becomes and remains neglected and its sadness grows as it listens to the newer, more expensive toys boasting about their place in the order of toys.  The bunny, immersed in its sadness, turns to an older toy, the wise elder Horse and inquires: ‘What is REAL?’  ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’ 

Like all powerful life-questions, the Rabbit’s entire future rests on the Horse’s reply.  Each of us can relate for each of us yearn to be real and we desire to know what is real.  Tears still come to my eyes when I re-read the Horse’s reply: When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’ 

Today, more than ever before in history, we often wonder what is ‘Real’ (think of all of the prophets of ‘fake news’).  With increasing frequency, we are less and less sure that what we see – a photograph, a computer image, a You-Tube clip – is ‘Real,’ or has it been manufactured.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit we are not sure and we don’t have the wise Horse to turn to.  We watch a movie and wonder what has been digitally added.  We watch a commercial on T.V. and wonder what the model really looks like.  Deep down inside we know that our lack of knowledge does matter . . .or does it?  We become confused, if not outright disturbed.  We find ourselves asking: What can we really trust as being real?

To complicate matters, we don’t have the time, nor the inclination, to try and figure all of this out.  One reason, perhaps the main reason, is that all of this comes at us with tsunami-like force; it washes over us moment to moment.  How can we possibly sort it all out even if we try to do so?

Yesterday a good friend was trying to be helpful and sent me not one link to a sight that might help me but five links and each link contained other links…I was quickly whelmed over and had to withdraw from my search.  Then of course, there is e-mail, twitter, face-book and an increasing amount of information that comes to us via other social media.  We don’t even know if the ‘facts’ on Wikipedia are true and Real (well, we do know some of them are not ‘real’ yet we do not know which facts are ‘real’).

The issue it seems to me is not ‘can we make sense of all of this’ but do we want to – it seems that we don’t.  How could we?  If we are not able to know – or more likely, we choose not to take the time and use the energy to find out – then what is the result?  Do we become lazy?  Do we choose not to do the work that would help us discern?  Do we resign our response-ability?  Do we have a greater tendency to avoid ‘moral’ distinctions because we have opted out of making ‘reality’ distinctions?  If it doesn’t matter whether or not I uncover the deceptions presented to me do I then take another step and say that it doesn’t matter whether I deceive myself, or you?

C.S. Lewis has offered us some hope.  Many years before our media-age he wrote: ‘In fact we should never ask of anything ‘Is it real?’ for everything is real.’  Websites are real, fantasies are real, dreams are real, and acts of the imagination are real.

As the ancients reminded us so many times, begin with self – examine ourselves to see if we have given up on the virtue of discernment.  What excuses am I using in order to not examine my own self?  I can only change what I can control and what I can control is how I develop and how I present myself to my world.  In this case, it really is all about ME; it really is about how ‘Real’ I choose to be.

Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow.  The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. –Abraham Lincoln

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I KNOW FEAR!

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. –Franklin D. Roosevelt

I know fear!  Fear is a main actor in my life.  At this moment I can see fear patiently waiting off-stage, smiling that certain smile, waiting for the cue to step forward onto the center stage that is my heart and soul.  We both know the cues that will summon fear; we both know that I will offer the cue; we both know that fear will not miss the cue.  I know, have learned, the many reasons why fear and I have been teamed up for this life-play called ‘Richard.’

‘The Book,’ especially the New Testament, reveals to me that God’s most persistent command is not about sex or even violence; it is about fear.  ‘Be not afraid!’ is the single line most repeated in the Gospels.  How many people in the Gospels are told ‘Be not afraid!’ — almost all of them (at least it feels this way to me).  Mary is told, ‘Do not be afraid. . .’; Joseph is told, ‘Do not be afraid. . .’; Zacharias is told, ‘Do not be afraid. . .’; Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, announces that God is visiting his people so that we ‘might serve him without fear’; The shepherds are told, ‘Do not be afraid. . .’; my list could go on.

Their fear, like my fear, is the most daunting obstacle to these good people carrying out God’s will.  In fact, no other obstacle is mentioned; none seems to fit the situation like fear does.  By the by, the examples I just mentioned above all occur within the first two chapters of the Gospels.

When I act with fear in my heart and soul the effects are quite painful – for me and for others.  The Gospels also relate to us some of the effects of fear.  Here are a few of them: Fear keeps Herod from rejoicing in the newborn Savior; Fear keeps Nicodemus from following Jesus in the light of day; Fear keeps the Pharisees from dealing openly with Jesus; Fear keeps the disciples from recognizing Jesus as he walks on the water; Fear keeps Peter from continuing his walk on water; Fear leads the apostles to abandon Jesus when he is arrested; Fear keeps Peter from affirming his relationship with Jesus.

Don DeLillo asks: How is it no ones sees how deeply afraid we were last night, this morning?  Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent?

 Far more than I would like to admit, Fear is the motivation behind my actions.  I am fearful of losing friends; I am fearful of not having enough income producing work; I am afraid of disappointing others – especially my close friends and my children; I am fearful of looking ignorant.  The different types of folks I have been fearful of would fill this page.  Most of all, I fear myself.  I fear my anger and rage.  I fear my being alone.  I fear dying a bitter man.  I fear my lack of will and at the same time I fear my will.  I fear the darkness, the evil that resides deep within me – and that at times pokes its head out (or its tongue).  Oddly, I do not feel hopeless.  The fact that the Gospels (to say nothing of the other scripture writings) are crammed full of fear-full people; and the fact that, over and over again, the admonishment of ‘Be not afraid!’ is stated so clearly gives me pause and hope.

When I call fear into my heart and soul from off-stage I know that I am not open to God’s guidance – at times, I call fear forth because I do not want to hear or be open to God’s guidance.  I am also aware that my anger is a cover for my fear; when I reflect upon why I was angry I generally identify the root as being one of fear.

Not all fears, of course, are ‘bad.’  Healthy fear enables me to lock the door to my apartment at night.  Healthy fear enables me to ‘keep my mouth shut and my tongue silent’ in certain situations.  Joseph’s fear of taking Mary as his wife was well-founded given the context of the times – he had good reason to be afraid.  This reminds me that sometimes God calls me to engage something that is truly fear-full.  But with God’s guidance and grace I can choose not to be led or fed by that fear; I can choose to act as if God knows what God is about.  Ahhh….this is so difficult for me to do.

Even as I type these words I can see fear, standing off-stage, smiling that smile, waiting for the cue to enter the stage of my heart and soul….Not so fast, sparky!  Not right now!  I turn and take a step away.

Be not afraid! –God

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THE ONE WHO IS SILENT. . .

God is the friend of silence. –Mother Teresa

At times, my ‘prayer-time’ requires that I am in solitude and silence.  When I am in solitude and silence I have the opportunity to be in the presence of the One who is Silent.  To encounter one who is silent is to experience the power of silence.  During my adult life I have been in many situations where I was with a group of talkative folk and in our midst was one who remained silent.  The one who was silent listened – intently and receptively – in order to understand all voices.  Often the one who was silent exerted more influence on the group than the most talkative ones did.

Jane Addams knew what the presence of one who is silent did to one.  It has been said that when she went out to give a talk about Hull House she would often take with her a woman of the neighborhood; a woman who knew what Hull House was all about – what it was doing and not doing.  The woman only sat silently throughout Jane’s presentation AND in doing so she was a powerful reminder to Jane of what was most important.

I am deeply moved by Dostoevsky’s writings.  In his Brothers Karamazov there is the scene with the Grand Inquisitor.  This scene captures for me the power of the One who is Silent.

Once again, Jesus appears; he is standing before the great cathedral in Seville.  The very bricks in the plaza are still hot from the burning of a hundred heretics to the glory of God the day before.  Once more Jesus begins to heal.  He instantly becomes the center of attention as a rejoicing throng of common folk recognize Him.  The cardinal who is the Grand Inquisitor is passing nearby, hears the commotion and enters the plaza.  He immediately also knows that He has arrived.  The cardinal has Jesus arrested.

Later that night the cardinal enters Jesus’ cell.  Before the cardinal the One who is Silent sits.  The cardinal is rage-full: Why have you come now?  Why are you hindering the work of the church?  You had your chance fifteen hundred years ago and you blew it.  You might have turned stones into bread and fed all.  You might have flung yourself from the top of the temple and your angels would have protected you.  You might have assumed all power and authority and brought the kingdom of God to the world.  AND people would have followed you; no question about it.  But you didn’t and you blew it.  Why?  Because you only wanted free persons to come follow you.  You asked too much of them.  They did not want this freedom [An aside: see Eric Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom].  They rejected it.  The result: an institution sprang up, the church, and this institution supplied the miracle and mystery and authority, and the people were satisfied.  Now, why have you come to hinder the work of the church?

The cardinal paused and reflected that as a young man he too had dreamed of the freedom that Jesus had offered; the freedom that all are called to embrace.  But he learned that this was a mistake – an illusion – a non-reality.  He came to truly understand humankind.  The cardinal goes round and round; he talks and talks.  Jesus sits in silence and listens.  Finally the cardinal cannot bear to look upon that peaceful, silent, love-full gaze.  He knew how to deal with anger; he did not know how to deal with love – the love he saw in Jesus’ eyes was too powerful for him to hold, to embrace, to accept.  Go and come no more!  Come not at all, never, never, never!

Jesus slowly and silently rises.  He crosses the floor of the cell and he gently kisses the lips of the pale, dead-full, cardinal.  He then departs to be seen no more.

Yet I know in prayer He remains.  If any one leaves it is I who leaves.  I leave because I am not ready to surrender to His love.  I leave because I am not ready to embrace the freedom He offers.  I do know – and this gives me hope when I am near despair – that I may return to Him at any time, day or night.  I know that all I have to do is turn a bit and He, the One who waits in Silence, will be standing there.  His love-full, grace-full gaze will wash over me.  He is waiting in love for me to turn.  I have freedom – what will I freely choose today?  The One who is Silent waits. 

The One Who IS Silent, Waits.

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Gentle Reader, once again, I have decided to offer you my annual re-post.  I re-post in order to remind myself of the power of ‘one step’ taken.  ‘One step’ can, indeed, make all the difference.

I opened my eyes. The room was dark, my soul was darker still – darker than the dark night of the soul. I could not see my hand nor my future. I paused. I turned on the lamp that was on the table next to my bed. I looked at the alarm clock – 1:30am on 21 February, 1965.

I was in the second semester of my sophomore year at the university. I had just switched majors for the third time; it was a symbol of my wandering around in the darkness. I was beyond depression; I was numb.

During the winter months, one of the favorite ways for students to kill themselves at this university was to over-dress, walk to one end of the two lakes on campus (the one that always had a small part open due to the warm water being piped into it from the student laundry) and then to step into the water and allow the weight of the clothes to help drag you to the bottom.

I dressed slowly. I layered two pair of pants and covered these with a pair of sweat pants. I put on my heaviest winter boots. I covered my upper body in four layers of shirts and sweat shirts and topped it all off with my heavy winter coat, fur lined gloves and covered my head with a hat which was covered with a ski cap.

I slowly waddled my way down the steps; I opened the door. I paused. I stepped into the darkness. I had to walk around the first lake – the frozen lake – in order to reach the small opening at the end of the other lake.

On 21 February, 2010 I wrote a poem that captured what followed once I reached the opening in the lake. The poem follows. Following the poem is a photo of that lake.

 Memory

I stood in the dark night of winter
peering into the water that seemed
so inviting. Like a polar bear, I
was covered in layers of warm clothing.

Like a polar bear I was there to take a swim
in the cold winter water. Unlike the polar
bear I was not there to seek nourishment but
relief.

The dark night of my own winter had
become unbearable and so I stood
contemplating one final step into the deep

that would provide relief.  One step.

I pondered. . . I paused. . . One step.

In the wintery silence of my soul I heard a
whisper; a tiny voice struggled to be heard
amidst the noise of my silence.

I pondered. . . I paused. . . One step.

I listened. The whisper grew in intensity
and clarity. I listened. Why don’t you
go and talk with somebody?

I pondered. . . I paused. . . One step.

I listened. The question held a bit of
light in the form of a small hope.

I pondered. . . I paused. . . One step.

I turned, I took the One Step, not into
the water of relief but into the dark
that held out a small light of hope. –Richard W Smith, 21 February 2010

  ‘The Lake’ where I paused – then took that one step.

The Lake Where I Paused

 

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Wisdom, compassion and courage are the three moral qualities of men. –Confucius

The third and final difference is, it seems to me, to be the most significant.  Generally, philosophy has tended to present ethics-morality as the response to What & Why: What should we do?  Why should we do it?  These are important, if not crucial questions.  And (remember, Gentle Reader, there is always an ‘AND’), there is a third question that history teaches us (if we are good students, that is) is the most important question (it is certainly ‘the’ ethical-moral question of the 21st Century): What does it take to make people religious-ethical-moral given all of the distractions, obsessions, addictions, temptations and alternatives that our complex human natures constantly offer us? 

If religion-ethics-morality were as simple as they are portrayed by the experts – empathy, sympathy, the objective spectator, doing your duty, obeying universal rules, loving your neighbor, maximizing beneficial consequences, feeding the poor, healing the sick-wounded – then how is it that we continue to embrace corruption, injustice, deceit, exploitation, violence (toward self and toward our ‘neighbor’) and war?  If religion-ethics-morality are so easy then how do they always turn out to be so difficult-challenging-over whelming (dare I say, ‘defeated’)?

The simple is NOT simplistic!

There is nothing inevitable about human virtue!

For thousands of years the sages have reminded us  — continue to remind us – that there are dark forces at work (Think: ‘Star Wars’ was more than just a western adventure set in space): conflicts of interest, conflicts of core values, competition for scarce resources, hoarding of ‘stuff,’ latent and generational hostilities, envy, etc. continue to run amok among us.

The ‘light’ (the antidote to ‘darkness’) is a flame that, at best, flickers in a strong wind – hard to light and easy to extinguish.  Any treatise on religion-ethics-morality is as helpful as a text book on being healthy is.  We know (at least I believe that we know) that being healthy is less about what we know than it is about how we live (how we care for our P.I.E.S.S.).  Knowledge is crucial.  Knowledge without discipline is useless.  Practice, of course, does not make perfect; practice simply makes permanent.  So we need knowledge, we need discipline, and we need ‘right-practice.’  Religion-ethics-morality provide us with the guidance we need.

Consider that a (if not ‘the’) fundamental task of religion-ethics-morality is not only to help us ‘know the good’ but they help us integrate the good into our very beings.  One great value of ‘Scripture’ is that it provides us with the guidelines and commands that enable us to live a life that resides more in the ‘light’ than in the ‘darkness.’  ‘Scripture’ supports the habits of the heart.

We become religious-ethical-moral by integrating a combination of ‘knowledge’ and ‘discipline-practice.’  Here are two simple commands; commands that exists in all faith-traditions, in all humanistic traditions and in many philosophic traditions: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself!’  ‘Love the stranger!’

When we separate religion-ethics-morality all suffer.  When the holy and the good become disconnected we become disconnected from one another and are more likely to move into ‘darkness.’  We do not love our neighbor nor do we love the stranger – at our worst we guilt-free shun them or kill them.

The ‘call’ of the sages was not ‘Be Religious!’ nor was it ‘Be Ethical-Moral!’  It was ‘Be Religious by Being Ethical-Moral AND Be Ethical-Moral by Being Religious!’ 

The ‘holy’ leads us to the ‘good’ and the ‘good’ leads us to the ‘holy.’  The juxtaposition of these two (Religion & Ethics-Morality) creates moral energy and when we disconnect them we lose moral energy.  Rabbi Jonathan Sachs puts it quite well: The holy is where we enter the ideal; the good is how we make it real.

The great moral powers of the soul are faith, hope and love. –Ellen G. White

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