The Joy of Non-Attachment

Neal Crosbie tries not to take himself too seriously. I am an irritation, then, in that I see things revealed in his work that reflect the struggle to bring love into the world.

Which I take very seriously.

The challenge is to moderate our natural instincts, with the cerebral cortex being the tool that brings discipline. It’s a struggle because our bodies are designed to enjoy animalistic behavior. It’s a war because the spirits that preceded us don’t want to cede the stage of evolution to us.

And why should they? Evolution is about competition, and they serve a purpose is resisting our rise to dominance.

In the Native American tradition, the coyote is the most pitiful of the animal gods, getting his way only by tricking his betters. Trickery is a way of transforming situations, and so through his weakness, eventually coyote becomes the most influential of the gods.

As climate change withers the ecosystem that supported them, how is this supposed to happen? Animal gods have fewer bodies to manipulate, and so less means for reorganizing spirit.

A possible answer was proposed in some of Neal’s recent work. Compelled by a dream, I bought this one two weeks ago (sorry for this drab image; the color is vivid in the original):

CoyoteTransform

What struck me is the shadowing of Coyoteman’s color fields in the abstract construct on the right. I read this as a soul shadow. In this image, the color sprays emanate most obviously from the soul shadow. It’s not clear whether they are being assimilated, projected or expelled. That a transformation is being undertaken is suggested more strongly by the two elements on the right: the Buddhist circle of completion and the “greater vehicle” of Mahayana practice.

In conversation on Sunday, Neal explained that he is completely worn out upon returning home from the Art Walk. He has many deep conversations, his booth and eclectic art serving as a magnet. His joy is infectious. When I tried to suggest that he was engaged in spiritual service, he became hostile – and more so when I illustrated my point with Christian scripture.

But trickery is amusing. It provides us a release from tragedy. Contrast this with Siddhartha, who sought to conquer pain through asceticism. What’s the attraction in self renunciation? Joy has qualities that make it the more potent tool to achieve non-attachment

.I see this, then, as coyote’s essential contribution: through absurdity to guide us away from suffering into the harbor of joy. While the construction of that harbor is a weighty matter, I wouldn’t denigrate the guide. In fact, I wouldn’t want more to serve for any purpose than to shelter the spirits he inspires – not least because they inspire by their creativity.

Is Neal’s art then a method for implementing coyote’s transformation? I believe so.

Abandoned

The leading residents of the camp call it “transitional housing.” Established on the site of an abandoned smelter, the concrete foundations of the demolished buildings are ideal for motor homes. A discard pile looms over the camp, an acre of tailings piled thirty feet high that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is scheduled to remove in a couple of years. That’s going to involve heavy equipment, and many of vehicles are situated so as to interfere with the work.

The regulations for official motor home camps prohibit vehicles more than ten years old. As I walked amidst them, I say those rusted and lying low on deflated tires. I doubt that some of them can be moved, even if a place could be found to hook them up to services.

Cher, the first of the residents, parked her motor home ten years ago. At the time, the owners were still local residents, but unpaid property taxes have put the land into the hands of the EPA. Once the pile is removed – extending the salt marsh owned by the Nature Conservancy – the lot will revert to state and local ownership.

It seems an ideal site for a homeless camp. A corrugation plant sits just adjacent, and the sewage treatment plant is across the street. City officials find the inhabitants unpleasant, and of course many of them have criminal histories. They’ve found reasons to disallow garbage collection on site, and trash has piled up over the years, creating a serious public health hazard.

I’ve been going out there with the local churches, standing watch as residents are fed lunch and sift through the clothing and food. Unfortunately, the foremost of the organizers had concluded that the camp needed to be cleared. He also had some theological disputes with me, and asked me to stop attending.

But I went out two weeks ago looking for Cher. I had contacted the sociology department at the University, suggesting that her experience would be valuable to those seeking to provide alternatives for our growing homeless population. She wasn’t there that week, and I was busy with other matters last week.

Yesterday morning, my thoughts turned to her again, but I waited until after lunch to visit. When I arrived, she was standing out on the sidewalk talking with a man who had pitched his tent just outside the lot. I sat down with her, and she poured out her troubles to me.

She had gone up to meet her man when he came out of prison, but he acted as though he didn’t know her. They had planned to move into a shared living arrangement, but after his probation appointment on Monday, he disappeared. Cher contacted the office, and they said that he was fine, but wouldn’t be seeing her again.

I told her about the university contact, but it became clear that she had more pressing matters. She felt that God had abandoned the camp, and wanted to move her vehicle out to Las Vegas where her granddaughter lived. She needed to repair the lights. It seemed clear that she needed a phone, but the last time she had signed up for one, it never showed up in the mail. I offered to drive her out to find the free phone kiosk. We bounced from the 99-cent store to Wal-Mart, and were headed out to a third location when she spotted the pop-up tent outside the Goodwill.

Unfortunately, the system said that she already had a phone, and would only allow her a SIM card. Hoping either that we could buy a cheap T-Mobile device at Wal-Mart or find a spare at the camp, she accepted their offer. Wal-Mart didn’t have any T-Mobile devices, so I dropped her off, promising that I would try to find something and drop it off to her Thanksgiving morning.

During our wanderings, we talked about Revelation. She had never read the book, so I summarized it for her. Regarding her situation, what seemed important is this: love came to Adam and Eve 7000 years ago, and the selfish personalities that had dominion over the earth for the prior billions of years know that they have lost the battle. That means that they have nothing to lose, and they have set out to make the end as painful as possible. It’s upon the poor that the burden falls most heavily.

As she gathered her purse, Cher thanked me, sharing that she was in a much better place than before I came by. It was almost alarming, being told that she refused to get out of bed when her daughter reported that I wasn’t with the service crew. But she needed to eat, and found herself pulled to the curb just before I showed up.

She is shifting her hopes to me, and I know that I can’t respond. It appears that a phone will run at least $200, and who knows how much it will take to get her vehicle road-worthy. Her social security check arrives on the 3rd, but even now she’s eating noodles.

And through her I see millions more.

Last time I saw her, I told her that I just wanted her to see herself as God sees her – as a bright light shining in the darkness. She shared that she had meditated on that yesterday morning. I shared the story of Peter on the water, and she admitted that she didn’t have much faith in herself, either – time and again she had sabotaged herself.

I don’t know that she can be rescued in this life, but as I drove away, a passage from Revelation came to me. It comes in the chapters that describe the suffering brought to humanity by tyrannical government, and the loving response of the Lamb. Chapter 14 ends:

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”

“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Would that have any meaning to her, this abandoned American citizen, hoping that someone from among God’s saints will provide for her? When the body is abandoned, what strength is there in a promise of salvation for the soul? I have confronted that recently, I was moved to reject spiritual compromise. But while not rich, I have physical security and comfort. She has been without for ten years. What does that do to a soul? Can she still feel God’s hand reaching down to her?

Steven Fry’s Challenge

Rocket Kirchner addresses Steven Fry’s critique of God out at Dandelion Salad. Fry interprets the existence of suffering as proof that the Christian God is a fantasy. My response to one skeptic follows:


Here is the conundrum: If the “fantasy God” made a perfect world in which everything unfolded according to his will, then there would be nothing to love, because his will would be all. Since love requires an object to exist, the creation of such a universe would be a form of self-annihilation.

So we are granted the option to not heed the will of God – we are allowed our own free will. Unfortunately, many of us chose to play at being gods ourselves, and it is in imposing our will upon others that sin occurs.

The Christian proposition is that if we learn to submit ourselves in service to one another, we obtain access to enormous amounts of power. I won’t bother you with how that manifests in the New Testament – you’d simply assert that science disproves the possibility of the events that transpired. But to the person of faith, the healing accomplished by Jesus and the Apostles indicate that many ills that we suffer are not of God’s will. In fact, if we surrendered ourselves to the dictates of love as Jesus did, those ills would be unable to obtain purchase upon us.

So Rocket is right: we are misguided to refuse (or worse, misuse) the gift of love and then decry the consequences of its absence. And it is hypocrisy for Fry to say “God, you didn’t intervene to save the children!” when God created Fry and gave him wealth to so intervene. We were made in God’s image, which can be interpreted as “we are his intervention.”

And, given the huge amount of charitable work and giving provided by people of faith, to challenge faith is also counter-productive. The faithful understand that the world is imperfect. We simply choose to keep on giving, in part because we feel our hope sustained by the endless love that arises in our hearts.

To Have Meaning

In Islam, Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet, testified that there are three kinds of faith: that rooted in fear, that motivated by the promise of reward, and the faith of service.

When I first re-engaged the Catholic Church, the priest challenged me “Do you want to die, or live forever?” While that didn’t reach me deeply, it ties together the first two inducements: fear of death and the promise of eternity.

According to Jesus’s teaching, both outcomes will be implemented by God. For this reason, the Protestants sought for signs of God’s favor in this life.

But for most now living, fear is rooted in this life – in the pain of deprivation, or the reality of physical abuse. For those that suffer, it is not powers and principalities in the afterlife that stand as rewards, but simple justice: that those that prey upon them will be cast down, and comfort will be offered.

In the faith of service, we surrender personal fear – fear for our fate in the afterlife – and devote ourselves to bringing relief to others. The question is how we can best fulfill that role, for it has many aspects. The prisoner of fear may not be capable even of living outside the walls of their cell. The experience of freedom confronts them with choices that they are unprepared to navigate. So to simply provide for their needs is not enough to liberate their souls.

The wisdom of the Buddhist path is to encourage the sufferer to realize that if they can lift their heads up to study the world around them, they can make one small change after another until freedom is realized. A friend can help them make that journey, a journey from dependence to independence.

The danger is that in the context of tyranny this effort will flare into violence – either violence against the oppressor (whose children then become victims), or violence against those seeking freedom. Once violence is engaged, the dynamics of material power rule, and the oppressed are most likely to be destroyed. We see this everywhere in the world today.

How than are the oppressed to rise above fear and into service? As Jesus says that to serve is necessary to eternal life, how are we to achieve that reward if we are denied the means to serve? Life appears to be completely meaningless, and faith misplaced for all except the privileged.

The answer to this dilemma is that in suffering we serve.

It takes both great courage and great faith to so suffer. But when Jesus proclaimed “Pick up your cross and follow me!”, this is exactly what he meant. So to any offering service, the question must be “How do we support the determination of those that suffer?”

To serve in faith is to allow love in our hearts to control our decisions in life. It is to demonstrate that to offer ourselves to the redemption of the world is a source of greater joy than any material reward. To one that suffers, heart-broken, this appears impossible. Their heart lacks the strength even to redeem themselves.

My testimony of service is this: Only God can heal that wound.

So this is the ultimate act of service: to take into our whole heart the broken heart of a brother, and allow them to meet the healing power of God within us. It is to provide an irrefutable experience that there is no wound that God will not suffer with us, and finally no wound that God cannot heal.

The difficulty to those that serve in faith is that it hurts. They may have forgotten what it was like to be broken. They live in community that protects them from harm. Their defenses are weak.

But it is not upon us to survive this experience of receiving a broken heart within us. It is upon God. Ours is only to be available in that moment when grace can be received, and allow it to flow through us. Indeed, to try redeem another of our own strength is folly: it is to surrender ourselves to their experience of life, and so to be consumed by their weakness. No, ours is only to be the material manifestation of God’s love that wakens hope that change is possible. Once God moves into the sufferer’s life, the person of faith needs to get out of the way, lest the limits of human endurance infect the redeemed with doubt.

Only God can offer certain guarantee of meaning to those that suffer. Only He can say with assurance “You have meaning to me: there is no suffering that I will not share with you, and indeed reward eternally for your service in redeeming the world!”

Darkened Lives Matter

I experienced it first through the grace of a young Caribbean prostitute that I know only as “Princess.” She opened her heart to me during a dance celebration, and I saw spread before me the cane fields, the hearts of the slaves calling out for justice. The only offering I had for them was a caress of inadequate consolation.

“You are not forgotten.”

What else would have been expected, two thousand years into the arduous working out through the flesh of our dependency on sin? What would it be like, to return to that? The familiar molten tears of shame and grief – “they suffer in silence in honor of MY promises!” To see the long years of suffering under the lash set against those few hours of torture. “Who am I?” The tearing at the heart as they shed their burdens, passing through that narrow gate into the kingdom of peace. The great cry, as I lay on the floor consumed by the desolation of the cross, screaming “Whyyyyyyyy!?!? WHYYYYYYYYYYYYY!?!?!”

These thoughts tormented me this morning as I listened to Amy Grant sing “I’m With You.” Recalling the woman that surrenders her child for a few coins in Master’s pocket, weeding the fields where the shoots sprout:

Love is a hunger, a famine in your soul
I thought I planted beauty but it would never grow
Now I’m on my hands and knees
Trying to gather up my dreams
Trying to hold on to anything

Of the genteel middle class, confronting the barbarity of the public lynching:

You do your best to build a higher wall
To keep love safe from any wrecking ball
When the dust has cleared we will
See the house that love rebuilds
Guarding beauty that lives here still

That beauty, in contradiction of the claims of those that ridicule faith, being found in the great convocation in the heart of Christ, the conviction of the faithful overwhelming the scientific fact that for the vast majority their thoughts were not found worthy of recording:

Who can say I’m left with nothing
When I have all of you, all of you
In the way you always love me
I remember

Yes, you were forlorn in a world dominated by those that pillage the fruits of love. But you tendered your devotion to Christ’s promise:

You and me, me and you
Where you go, I’ll go too
I’m with you
I’m with you
Until your heart finds a home
I won’t let you feel alone
I’m with you
I’m with you

Oh, take courage in the remembrance of that future! As Martin Luther King Jr. testified:

And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

In God’s Hands

My book signing on Saturday started off slowly. The venue is a wonderful place to browse, though. (If you live in the Thousand Oaks area, please stop by and check out The Open Book in the Oaks Mall.) So, to avoid filling the air up with anxiety, I tried to find the second part of The Tales of Genji (alas – they had sold the collection of vintage books that I had pulled it from), and ended up perusing a collection of 19th century horror stories.

Being clever people, the staff had set my table up in front of the New Age and religious inspiration section. I had a few chances to say “hello” to those that stopped to browse the blog posts I had reprinted or look at the book covers. The reactions weren’t always encouraging: one man simply scowled and went around to the New Age section. Another woman engaged me with a hostile tone of voice, asserting “Love works because people make it work.”

This was beginning to feel like my first book signing, when I spent most of the day dealing with the baggage brought by people who had found reasons to stop believing. Feeling a little food coma along with the disappointment, I stepped out to buy myself a coffee. When I came back up from the lower floor, I found the scowler with a new book, sitting in an armchair across from the store. I smiled and remarked “Well, you found something!”

A little uncertainly, he said that his brother had survived a near-death experience, and while he wasn’t quite sure about the whole business, he wanted to investigate. As we discussed religion and spirituality, I learned that he had been raised Christian, but was an atheist. Without prompting on my part, he explained that he suffered from a form of spinal arthritis. For most of his life, he had prayed to God for relief, and never received an answer. Then he had found a doctor who took interest in his case, and received treatment that made life bearable.

I couldn’t preach in the face of this testimony. There is nothing more difficult to bear than suffering that has been laid in the hands of God. But I did offer that God works through people, and that I was glad that his doctor had shown the compassion to take interest in his case. Then, hoping that somehow he’d find his way back to the source of Divine Love, I encouraged him to continue to study spirituality.

We parted amicably, and I went back into the store. When I reached the table, all of his loss and pain came pouring down on me. All I can do in those situations is try to breath, and let it settle through me into the floor. It passed in two great waves, and then I looked back into the doorway. He was staring at me, and I lowered my gaze to the floor. When I looked back up, he was gone.

For those in similar situations: don’t keep your eyes turned up to heaven. Yes, leave your suffering in God’s hands, but understand that, as Paul experienced in Damascus, his response is often to allow a compassionate person the opportunity to receive your gratitude. That is the great gift that the meek offer to those that bring them respite. Don’t deny it to the world!

Healing is a Messy Process

I was heading to San Francisco Airport to catch a flight out to Washington D.C., and was glad that I had left early. Traffic down the 580 to the 238 was an absolute disaster. I could feel the tension and frustration in the air as traffic crawled forward. I put out the thought that we should try to give that energy to the emergency crew working to clear the accident. When I finally reached the scene, they were just loading the victim – a motorcyclist who had gone under a car at high speed – into the ambulance. I could feel his spirit swirling in the air, terrified of the prospect of re-entering the broken body. Firmly, I projected, “It’s time to put yourself back together.”

“Why,” we might ask ourselves, “why does God let things like this happen?” All the wasted time, the pain and frustration: can’t he do any better than that?

I can’t give a answer that is going to bring consolation. The only answer I have is of the “that’s just the way that things are” kind. Unconditional Love, which is the foundation of God, does not judge. Why? Because if it judged, it would justify the use of force, which would give authority to destructive spirits.

So what can Unconditional Love do? It can echo the “yes” of things that feel joy. It can enter into productive and healing relationships and support them with its presence. Jesus put it this way [NIV Matt. 18:20]:

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.

Not with one alone, but in even the smallest group.

Simply, Unconditional Love supports things that work for us together, but it’s up to us to find those things. It doesn’t prescribe for us – it doesn’t want us to kneel and pray if that doesn’t work for us. It doesn’t want us to bear lashes if that doesn’t satisfy our sense of justice. But neither will it deny the martyr the grace of surrendering life to prove to the tormentors that love is stronger than fear, and thus to infect them with love.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Really, because their light is needed in the darkness. Yes, it’s painful, but if in those moments more of us took the attitude

Dear God, help me to shine brightly so that the captives can see freedom, and those that persecute me can see that their abuse only serves to liberate my spirit into knowledge of you.

Well, things might go a little bit faster. No, we won’t avoid pain, but we will have the security of knowing that our suffering has a purpose, just as did the suffering of Jesus. No, not every tormentor will chose healing, but when the light becomes bright enough, they will be forced to flee.