Welcome to CONSULTING WITH MUSES, a website populated with written pieces on a variety of themes in no particular order.
While working on a writing project, a mentor once told me, “consult with your muses and then work your magic.” His guidance beautifully encapsulated what I believe the writing process is: a union between personal power and a deeper well of knowledge that extends beyond oneself. The name of this website arises from his words.
Writing is a practice through which I come to better understand my internal landscape and the external realm in which I live. My pieces are thus deeply personal, political, and spiritual. They serve as windows and mirrors; openings into new worlds and reflections of present circumstances. My wish is for my words to be aligned with the wills of my muses. I hope you are nourished and stretched towards new places by virtue of your time here.
The following text is a sermon I preached at my church, the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut, on Sunday, July 12th, 2020, while our Senior Pastor, the Rev. Julia Burkey was away. In this piece, I share my perspective on the subversive rational Jesus employed when deciding to use parables as a method of teaching and the ways in which current movements for justice reflect this type of subversion. Among other things, I also talk about how God and moments of change are reflective of one another (rather than buying into the notion of God as an immovable constant).
(Additional context: Rev. Julia’s time with our church is ending, which is referenced at the end of the piece and inspired some of my musings. This piece was also written during a time of heightened social unrest in the United States, namely with regard to racism and police brutality, which also inspired much of the writing).
The scripture passage that inspired this sermon is the Parable of the Sower, including the parable from chapter 13 in the Gospel of Matthew and the science fiction story by Octavia Butler.
Sermon: “God is Change”
May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of all of our hearts
Be aligned with you,
Our Beloved God,
You who are our rock and our redeemer.
Before I delve into musings about the Parable of the Sower, I’d like to contextualize it a bit within the larger Gospel of Matthew. This Gospel is the first in the New Testament, and its writer seeks to portray Jesus as a Jewish King and the Son of God who serves as a contemporary Moses figure offering a reinterpretation of Jewish Law in contrast to what spiritual authorities were espousing at that time. Jesus is working within a Jewish framework, and the use of parables which is so common in the Gospels is actually an element of Jewish tradition. In parables, Jesus uses classic imagery pulled from Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, to convey his message. Unfortunately, Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel as a largely misunderstood and rejected spiritual teacher. Rejection and misunderstanding are what largely lead him to begin using parables as a teaching and communication style.
Leading up to the Parable of the Sower in Chapter 13, the Gospel of Matthew is devoid of parables. Before Chapter 13, Jesus delivers his teachings in mostly prose-like language. While those initial teachings were received well by many, they were rejected by the spiritual authorities and many others. In the chapter right before that of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus has intense conflicts with spiritual authorities over Sabbath and other matters, leading said authorities to decide they must eventually kill Jesus. It is at this point that Jesus switches from using more prosaic language to engaging in the more poetic language of parables.
The word “parable” derives from the Greek words meaning “to throw” and “alongside” which, by extension, has been used to convey analogy, comparison, and illustration. Parables are didactic stories that illustrate instructive lessons. They use imagery that is meant to make us draw comparisons between things. In Jesus’s case, his parables are used as tools to help listeners draw comparisons between the world as it is and what the Kindom of God might look like.
People often portray parables as a more accessible manner of getting information across because they employ imagery that would be familiar to many folks, such as farming metaphors. But that’s not entirely accurate. When Jesus starts using parables in his speeches, even the disciples ask him, “why are you teaching in these unclear ways?” So clearly, even those closest to him were confused by his communication strategy, and we can only assume Jesus’s parables went over many people’s heads. I would argue that this lack of clarity was actually intentional on Jesus’s part, and the timing of when he starts using parables speaks to this, for it is only after a knockdown fight with authorities that he switches to this mode of communication.
Emily Dickenson, the famous poet, once said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” In other words, reveal the truth, but not in a straightforward manner. Indeed, throughout the Bible, for example, we witness God revealing Godself in very slanted ways: through burning bushes, smoke towers, God’s backside, and all sorts of other ways that don’t allow witnesses to see God clearly. Jesus, in using parables, is following in God’s footsteps, using “slanted” imagery to get at the teachings of God. I think there’s a psychological tactic to this.
It’s very obvious that most people most of the time don’t respond much to straightforward facts and information. If that were the case, we would have solved the climate crisis long ago, but instead, many are still debating whether or not climate change is a thing despite the obvious facts that it is. Oftentimes, what leads us to process and integrate information is not facts, but stories. Jesus’s use of parables is a tactic in bypassing the rationalizations and overly logical gateways in our minds and spirits that often prevent us from accessing deeper truths that go beyond the mere intellect. That doesn’t mean that everyone will understand or be receptive to the stories and their teachings — in fact, many won’t open themselves up to them — but such a tactic helps to lower people’s defenses and reach those who have not only a desire to intellectually understand of the Word but a willingness to be moved to their core by the Word. And parables also left those who were hostile to Jesus with less to accuse him of, because, after all, he was just “telling stories.” Jesus’s parables were thus a way of subverting oppressive power while still reaching those who would be most willing to join him in the task of building the Kindom of God, turning mere admirers into faithful followers.
So, what exactly does Jesus talk about in the Parable of the Sower? In this parable, Jesus portrays himself as a sower who is scattering seeds across various types of soil. This imagery relates to a well-known Jewish prophesy, that of Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. These seeds are the budding Kindom of God, namely the message of Christ that is seeking to take root in the hearts of people so the Kindom can spread far and wide. The four types of soil upon which the seeds are scattered are often interpreted as representing different categories of people. The first soil is conventionally seen as representing those who have no interest in furthering the Kindom or are actively hostile towards it. The second and third soils are usually depicted as representing those who show interest but then fail to truly believe and help build the Kindom. The fourth soil is regularly described as “good” and often interpreted as representing people who truly see, hear, and believe the Word, and who will help bear the fruit of the Kindom of God.
While helpful in some contexts, I usually take issue with this interpretation that categorizes individuals as belonging to one type of soil or the other. I think that makes it too easy to fall into the thinking that “only this type of person [namely, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian] is truly faithful.” This can result in us projecting our own lack of receptivity and spiritual insecurities onto others. While it’s easy to think of ourselves as the “good soil” because many of us are believe we are dedicated to the message of Christ and God, I think it’s more helpful to understand each soil as a state of being we each find ourselves in at various times. Sometimes we’re receptive to the message, and other times (like, 75% of the time, according to scripture) we’re not as open to the Word and helping to build the Kindom of God. I, for one, can attest to the fact that I am often disconnected from Christ and God due to anxieties, distractions, intellectualization, and lack of vulnerability, among other things. So a question that I have been holding within myself is how can I cultivate my inner landscape in such a way that the soil in my spirit can become more and more receptive to Christ’s message and the budding Kindom of God?
I think an understanding of land and farming can help to answer that question. When preparing the soil for sowing and planting, one must till it, meaning the land must be broken up and turned over. One also usually puts some form of manure or fertilizer on the soil before tiling to make it more amenable to growth. This means that “good” soil is actually broken, messy, and even stinky. Preparing our hearts and spirits to receive the Word is much like that, in that we have to allow ourselves to be broken, turned over, and covered in unappealing circumstances a lot of the time if we are to allow God to flow through our lives. We are instructed to allow ourselves to be moved, even broken, by change and circumstance, which can include feeling grief and other unpleasant emotions that we often try to avoid. This isn’t to say we should lend ourselves to harmful situations, but rather that we must allow ourselves to experience the unknowns, discomforts, and growth pains associated with change if we are to let God move us towards where God wants us to be. If we focus instead on remaining pristine and perfect and untouched by life’s circumstances, we’re actually closed off from God’s transformative grace. Just like sowing seeds, letting ourselves be transformed by God requires a letting go, not just letting go of the seeds, but letting go of the process and trusting in powers far beyond us (such as the rain, the sun, and God) to do their thing. Great transformations rarely happen through our own efforts alone; they usually happen because forces beyond us are also playing a role in the changes we are undergoing.
Notions of change and transformation are ones that we don’t often associate with Godself. We often think change is either entirely bad or that it is a positive result of God’s actions, but rarely do we think of change as God’s very self. We often think of God as immutable, unchanging, constant. While those portrayals can be reassuring at times, they can also contribute to us avoiding change when it’s necessary. Lately, though, I have been inspired by teachers who offer a different view of God, one that actually depicts change and transformation as inherent to the very nature of God. This idea is actually a core teaching from a modern-day rendering of the Biblical Parable of the Sower, that is, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, who was a Black female science fiction writer. Science fiction and other forms of speculative literature are often similar to Biblical parables in that they draw a comparison between our current reality and another reality that is meant to inform us as to how we can move from where we are to where we want and ought to be. I have been particularly interested in the ways Black and Indigenous thinkers are envisioning possible, beautiful futures as a way to help me envision and work towards building the Kindom of God. In listening to the dreams Black and Indigenous folks have of the future, I think we become better poised to further Christ’s work and message because Jesus always centered those who were unjustly targeted by worldly authorities. In Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the core spiritual tenant put forth by the main character is as follows:
“All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change.”
I find this teaching particularly poignant during a moment in history such as this, when so many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are demanding that we change the way things are so we can live in a more just society (one that I would argue is reflective of the Kindom of God). I think it’s an incredibly potent time to view God as change, as thinkers like Octavia Butler might argue.
Bringing these ideas even closer to home: a question I’m holding is how can I practice trusting that our congregation’s transition with the upcoming departure of Rev. Julia is itself a manifestation of God as change. Further reflecting on the aforementioned quote from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, how can I remind myself of and affirm the ways that Rev. Julia has shaped and changed me and our entire church. Furthermore, how can I reflect on the ways First Church has shaped and changed Rev. Julia, and how all of this interdependent shaping and change might be reflective of godly relationships of mutuality and connection? Even though we are undergoing a physical separation with Rev. Julia, thinking of God as change reminds me that even this change is a chance to further deepen a connection with God by relying on God’s guidance and grace throughout the transition.
With all of the change happening in our lives, our church, and the world, I pray that we allow our souls and the soul of the church to be tilled through these changes and become prepared for sowing so the seeds of the Word can take root within us and blossom into wholesome fruit. May we remember that God moves through change, that God is change, and that by trusting in that change, we are allowing God to flow through our lives.
Thank you for listening, and peace be with you. Amen.
Apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning “to reveal.” An apocalypse is an uncovering more than it is an undoing, helping us see things as they are and as they have been for a while: fractured and disconnected, centered on profit instead of community, individualistic, unsustainable, harmful, etc. The systems we have been living under are collapsing under their oppressive weight.
The COVID-19/coronavirus crisis is an era of death, not just of physical bodies but of the myths we’ve absorbed about our existence (namely, the myth that we are independent individuals as opposed to interdependent collectives). We are experiencing the death of our world as we’ve known it because the social structures and stories we’ve known can no longer hold themselves together.
Yet this time can also be a moment of birthing. We can bring a new world into being if we let ourselves process what is happening and tend to the seedlings of transformation that are seeking to take root and sprout. There isn’t only death in our midst; life is stirring under the soil, desperate to burst forth. Like compost, we can create new growth from the debris of our past.
We must help this burgeoning life to emerge by taking big and small steps towards a new world. We must nourish resilience if we are to bring a new, more sustainable, and equitable world into being. We must harness the tension that’s accumulating during this crisis to propel us forward into a new era of social, political, personal, economic, spiritual, etc. transformation. The tools for a revolution of love are here and the stage is set. Let’s do this.
In addition to basic hygiene guidelines like washing hands and self-quarantining, here are some ways you can practice helping new life emerge in this time of death and dying:
Stay connected emotionally despite physical isolation. Reach out to your people in whatever ways you can through digital means, letter writing, social media, etc. Connection is crucial during crises and times of imposed isolation.
Prioritize your wellbeing. Don’t give up your responsibilities to others, but make clear to yourself and your community what you can and cannot offer at this time. You are a human being with limits on your capacity. Your burnout will harm the people you care for, so be clear and real about your boundaries. Be very diligent when it comes to caring for your physical, emotional, and mental health.
Permit yourself to be where you are. Whether you feel panicked or calm, how you are feeling is a reflection of the ways your body and psyche are processing this experience based on past traumas/experiences. There is no universally appropriate way to be feeling in light of all this. Grieve the losses this situation has thrust upon you and celebrate the silver linings. Give yourself wide berths as you navigate these waters.
At the same time, try to make decisions from a place of love, rather than fear. If you’re feeling unsettled, engage in healthy self-soothing until you can make decisions from the perspective of, “what’s the most loving and life-giving thing I can do for myself and others right now?”
Do less, not more. Our nervous systems are more sensitive than we realize, and they need lots of love right now. Our brains are overwhelmed, and we need to give ourselves space to literally clear neural pathways. What’s the least you can do right now to get by? What tasks can wait or be removed from your list of to-dos? Sleep as much as you need (though if you struggle with depression, don’t stay in bed more than you need to avoid the onset of an episode).
Create some structure amidst the chaos. Our brains need at least a small amount of order to feel safe. Try making a daily schedule for yourself that’s not overtaxing but helps you stay focused on the things you really need to do.
Model healthy crisis response. Children learn how to handle crises by watching how the adults around them do so. If you manage this time by moving from a place of love over fear, you will be teaching another generation how to better care for themselves and the world.
If you’re healthy, offer assistance to vulnerable folks, including the elderly and immunocompromised. Create local community networks where resources and tasks can be shared (like getting groceries for your vulnerable neighbors). We must engage in physical distancing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other out responsibly.
Let this moment radicalize you. To be radical means to address something “at its root.” This crisis wouldn’t be so drastic if we had universal healthcare, paid sick leave, and many other social systems that valued people’s lives over monetary profit. This situation is a political crisis as much as it is a health crisis, and we must address the root causes (namely, social policies) that created it. Donate to a political campaign that is pushing for radical social reform, even if it’s $5/month. Call your representatives demanding that evictions be banned for the duration of the pandemic, that utility companies not be allowed to shut off power/water/gas, and to prioritize the most vulnerable. If your local politicians are enacting progressive crisis response strategies, demand that those stay in place after the pandemic has passed. Organize. Vote accordingly.
Cultivate joy and allow yourself to feel pleasure. Yes, there’s a crisis happening, but it won’t get any better by being depressed or angry or anxious all the time. The idea that we aren’t allowed to experience happiness while others are suffering is codependent nonsense. Make love, sing in the shower, watch your favorite movie, eat your favorite comfort food, do at least one thing a day that can boost your mood and remind you that there is beauty worth living for in this world. Moving from a place of joy will sustain you for the growing revolution.
We are witnessing an apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean everything is over. It means a new promise is revealing itself. We are on the precipice of a revolution of love that is teaching us how to live interconnectedly. It’s on us to accept its invitation to change our world into a better version of itself.
This piece was originally posted on the Awaken Everyday Blog of Copper Beech Institute in celebration of Pride Month 2019.
I identify as queer. I am also a mindfulness practitioner. While these two things may seem unrelated to one another, they are inherently connected for me. Without mindfulness, I likely wouldn’t have been able to awaken to my queerness; without queerness, my mindfulness practice would not be as rich as it is.
While I sensed I was attracted to other women at a young age, I spent many years denying this deeper knowing and couldn’t bring myself to embrace it or make it known to the world until relatively recently. It was only when I became a resident at Blue Cliff Monastery, a mindfulness center in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, that I began to recognize my attraction to women as more than just fleeting thoughts or feelings. When I was invited to find stillness and come into greater connection with myself through my meditation practice, I could no longer deny the part of me that had been whispering for years, “I am queer.” I realized I yearn for meaningful, romantic, and sexual connections with women (in addition to men and people of other genders). My practice has helped me dismantle and shed the negative programming I’d adopted surrounding my attraction to multiple genders and granted me the spaciousness to fall in love with myself anew as I leaned into my queer nature. My practice gracefully then guided me into my first and current, wondrous partnership with another woman. In very real ways, I am openly and happily queer thanks to my practice of mindfulness.
In a complementary way, my awakening into queerness has led to a more profound practice of mindfulness. To practice mindfulness as a queer woman who experiences social marginalization with respect to gender and sexuality reminds me that contemplative practices are ultimately centered on achieving liberation from suffering. This includes liberation from the suffering imposed on marginalized beings by oppressive social structures such as homophobia, sexism, and patriarchy.
Lest we forget: mindfulness practices were not developed by spiritual masters thousands of years ago to feel less stressed or become more productive, even though it certainly helps with that. At their core, contemplative practices were established to awaken from false notions and touch the deeper, sacred reality of radical interconnectedness. Recognizing that oppressive social structures try to keep us from accessing this truth, we are invited to practice in such a way that our mindfulness can be a vehicle for furthering love and justice in the world by dismantling systems that deny the inherent dignity of all beings, including those in the LGBTQIA+ communities.
My practice of mindfulness is centered on learning to love myself, others, and the world in a way that is counter to the oppressive norms that currently structure our societies. Similarly, to be queer is to love and exist in a way that is counter to current social norms. In these respects, my practice of mindfulness and my queerness are cut from similar cloth; each helps me to love and to exist from a place of greater liberation.
The following recording and text comprise a sermon I preached at my church, the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut, on Sunday, March 31st, 2019, during the season of Lent. In this offering, I share my perspective on how, rather than needing to be perfect in order to receive God’s love and grace, we receive these divine gifts through our mistakes and imperfections.
While the text is slightly different from the actual sermon that was delivered, which you can listen to through the audio file below, the larger sentiments and themes remain the same.
The scripture passage that inspired this sermon is the parable of the Prodigal Son, from the Gospel according to Luke 15:11-32.
Sermon: “The Most Perfect Gospel”
May the words of my mouth,
And the meditations of all of our hearts,
Be aligned with you,
Our beloved God,
You who are our rock and our redeemer.
Good morning, everyone. It’s such a joy to see all of your radiant faces here this morning. My name is Gabriela De Golia, and I am a deacon here at First Church of Christ in Middletown and a member of our Executive Committee.
It’s an honor to be offering the sermon today while our senior pastor, the Rev. Julia Burkey, is away on sabbatical. She will be back with us next week, and at this very moment, she is on retreat with one of the most incredible Christian teachers of our time, Father Richard Rohr, at his Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. Fr. Rohr is a Franciscan father who fuses contemplative spirituality and social justice activism, and his teachings are centered on love, grace, and healing.
Today, I’d like to invite both Fr. Rohr and Julia into the space by sharing some of Fr. Rohr’s reflections on the scriptural story we heard earlier. My hope is that this will connect us to Rev. Julia and what she might be experiencing in Fr. Rohr’s presence. I also trust that by sharing the reflections of a prominent Christian teacher on today’s scripture, we will better understand what this story is trying to teach us about ourselves, God, and how God would have us move through the world. I hope the sermon nourishes you today.
First, a bit of contextualization. This story comes from the Gospel of Luke; in the words of Fr. Rohr, “[Luke’s] perspective might be called a theology of salvation”. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke is full of stories of salvation, including the one we heard this morning. This story is commonly known as that of the Prodigal Son — prodigal meaning “a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way.” Fr. Rohr goes so far as to call the story of the Prodigal Son “the most perfect Gospel […] the most perfect story Jesus ever told.” I find this to be a bold statement for someone as well-versed in the Bible as Fr. Rohr. He continues, “this is surely a gospel that needs no sermon. Nothing further needs to be shared than what you just heard [through scripture].”
When I heard Fr. Rohr say those words, I jokingly told myself, “this makes my job easy on my assigned preaching day!” But you didn’t come to here this morning to hear someone preach nothing to you. And furthermore, given that Fr. Rohr has preached sermons on this passage, I believe that he, too, trusts that we can benefit from communal discernment about this story. Not because it’s an overly-complicated story, but because it is so simply revolutionary. This passage shares an understanding of God and relationality that is so far beyond most of our wildest dreams, so contrary to our reward-and-punishment-oriented norms, that I think we need time and guidance in learning how to properly integrate the teachings of the Prodigal Son into our minds, hearts, and bodies.
As we heard, the Prodigal Son spends a lot of money on getting it on and having a good time. Now, spending money on extravagances isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the son doesn’t spend just anyone’s money; it’s his father’s inheritance for him, which the son asked for before his father was even dead! A bold and arguably selfish request. Yet, the father, who is meant to be a reflection of God in this particular story, gives his son the inheritance money, likely knowing it will get used for questionable purposes.
This action by the father might seem irresponsible; by many conventional parenting standards, it arguably is. Yet, if we look at the father’s decision a little differently, we realize he gives his son exactly that which will ultimately lead the boy towards grace and transformation. This inheritance money is what will cause his child to hit rock bottom — which, for better or worse, is often what we need in order to realize we need to change — thus jumpstarting the boy’s path towards salvation.
In this story, we have a son who has messed up pretty bad and whom many would deem undeserving of forgiveness. Yet the father rejoices at his son’s decision to return home and to turn towards change. The father’s actions — which, again, are meant to reflect how God loves us — literally upend our very common understandings of deservedness, worthiness, goodness, and such things. As the Bible so often does, this story turns almost everything we’ve been taught about these concepts on their heads. Fr. Rohr states,
“Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son [is a wonderful illustration] of how Jesus turns a spirituality of climbing, achieving, and perfection upside down [into a spirituality in which those] who have done it wrong and are humble about it […] are the ones who are forgiven, transformed, and rewarded. […] We thought we came to God by doing it right, and lo and behold, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong—and growing because of it!”
Fr. Rohr continues,
“Worthiness is not the issue […] We’re all saved by grace. We’re all being loved in spite of ourselves. […] You’re absolutely worthy of love! Yet this has nothing to do with any earned worthiness on your part. God does not love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good!”
These words from Fr. Rohr, to me, are a holy proclamation. Rather than needing to be perfect in order to be saved or considered lovable, what Fr. Rohr and the story of the Prodigal Son are offering us is the idea that we are saved and loved simply because God is of the nature to love us no matter what. In this story, we see God running down the road to meet the Prodigal Son, loving him without reservation, even after he’s messed up pretty bad. The son doesn’t know how to process this grace; in this passage, he says twice that he doesn’t deserve to be his father’s son. What an accurate reflection of how many of us push away someone’s love simply because we can’t believe they could love us in all our imperfect fullness? I imagine most of us have, many times over.
Now, at the same time that the Prodigal Son is struggling to accept his father’s grace towards him — which, again, is meant to represent God’s grace — his brother, who I like to call the Perfect Son, is also struggling with his father’s love towards the Prodigal. Out of jealousy and a sense of unfairness, the Perfect Son literally refuses to go to the banquet his father organized. I’ll admit that I often feel and act like this Perfect Son: I regularly do things just the way I’m told to, and I get pissed as hell when those who don’t somehow make it through or, worse, are celebrated instead of me. Because where’s my special reward in that? Where’s the fairness there?
Luke’s vision of God’s love in this story is therefore not just a statement about love — it’s also a statement about justice. Again, in the words of Fr. Rohr,
“We often think that justice means getting what we deserve, but the Gospels point out that God’s justice always gives us more than we deserve. […][God] gives everyone all that they need in order to grow.”
He continues by saying,
“We have a hard time with this kind of justice. We are capitalists, even in the spiritual life. We’re more comfortable with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We don’t know what to do with a God who breaks that rule! […] All through Luke’s Gospel people are receiving what they don’t deserve. […] God’s justice is on the loose!
That kind of relentless generosity is hard for us to comprehend, much less practice. That kind of unconditional justice is beyond our human power. Yet Luke is showing that it is possible to be fully human and divinely just.”
So a question I’ve been asking myself while reflecting on these words by Fr. Rohr and the story of the Prodigal Son is, “what would our lives and our society look like if we lived out this Gospel’s understanding of love and the justice it asks of us?” I obviously can’t say for sure, but I imagine that parts of it might look something like this:
I imagine that if we let go of our notions worthiness-through-perfection and trust instead in the concept of worthiness-through-God’s-grace, we would forgive ourselves for the choices we now wish we hadn’t made. We’d view where we’re at today as the perfect starting point for our growth and healing.
I imagine that when anger towards someone is justified, we’d still trust in the possibility that they, like the Prodigal Son, could someday begin the road towards their own transformation. And should they choose to do so, we would make way for that to happen.
I imagine that our prisons would be centered on rehabilitation and hopefully helping inmates re-enter society, rather than viewing them as eternally unworthy and stripping them of access to future jobs, contact with their families, and their right to vote.
I imagine that white people would never question their own belovedness during conversations about racism, and that we’d know that when people — especially people of color — critique the ways white supremacy manifests in ourselves and in our institutions, that we would view such critiques as invitations for us to reclaim the parts of our humanity that racism has tried to take away from us.
I can imagine so many other ways we’d embody a theology of love that pushes us towards justice, like the Prodigal Son invites us to do.
To be clear, this passage isn’t license for doing harm, nor is it suggesting that we can’t hold people accountable when they’ve done wrong. Rather, this passage is centered on trusting that if one humbles themself enough to admit their wrongs, then they can begin the journey towards grace. Notice that the Prodigal Son could only fully receive the grace that God was always so willing to give him once he himself chose to make a change, once he himself started taking active steps towards his own liberation. So this story isn’t a get-of-jail-free card for being a jerk; it’s a reminder that if we put in the work of orienting ourselves towards transformation, the debris of our lives can begin to clear away, making way for us to receive the grace that God gives us willingly. In a sermon he preached on this passage, Fr. Rohr stated,
“Very often, it’s people who’ve hit the bottom who love God […] when they realize that God is always and forever running down the road toward them.”
I don’t know if there’s a better definition of grace than that: God always and forever running down the road to meet us, always ready to love us.
As demonstrated through the story of the Prodigal Son, if we want to meet God and if we want to receive God’s grace, we better mess up. We make mistakes so we can then find the answers and learn from them; we better get it wrong so we can then get it right and be wiser for it; we better not be so perfect that we refuse the invitation to the holy banquet; we better get lost, precisely so we can be found, and then show other lost souls the way; we better screw things up bad so that instead of being able to save ourselves and becoming proud of ourselves, we can instead experience what it’s like to be saved by a power greater than ourselves. All of these experiences will yield a far deeper joy than we could ever achieve through our individual efforts at being perfect.
So to close, my wish for each of us is that we each mess up; that we each be humble about it; that we each make amends when needed; that we each trust that we are loved for no other reason than because God created us; and that we each receive this divine love with open arms and a grateful heart so we can offer such love to others in turn.
May all of this come to pass, and glory be to the God of Love. Amen.
Content disclaimer: this musing is a bit science-focused at first, which I personally love but know can be intimidating for some. It grows into an interdisciplinary piece though, touching on spirituality, social theory, and more. I’ve tried my best to write about science in accessible terms, so if it isn’t your thing, have no fear! I gotchyu.
There are many ways to define resonance whether you’re talking about physics, chemistry, relationships, or any number of topics. All point to a common theme, though: it represents the amplification of a particular state when it encounters something else in that same state. It’s a co-creative and mutually growthful occurrence.
The most common example of this has to do with sound. Most of us have experienced it: we’re playing an instrument with others or singing in a group and, suddenly, the sound we individually produce “jumps” to a much higher level (also known as a higher amplitude) because it’s matched up with the frequency produced by another object or person. This is because the frequencies literally add onto one another so their total strength is much greater than their individual parts. The sound we made alone is nothing compared to that which was created together.
I personally love graphs because they are simple and often artistic representations of complex information. I’ve included one here about the concept of resonance that I found on PhysicsNet:
In this graph, f(o) represents the resonant frequency. When you hit this by getting an object to vibrate in a particular way, you see the amplitude of the vibration (the strength of it, in other words) suddenly jumps by leaps and bounds. It’s like hitting the musical/physical jackpot; it’s where you get the most bang for your buck.
You can achieve this resonance goldmine by joining in with something else that’s vibrating at the same frequency (such as the music example from above), or by reaching an individual object’s or your own “natural frequency”. For an example of natural frequency, think of making a crystal cup “sing” by wetting your finger and pressing it along a glass’s crystal rim in circular motions. When doing that, you’ll feel the cup vibrate more and more strongly and start to “sing” once you get a good rhythm going. You’re hitting its natural frequency there, making it go into resonance.
For those who sing in a group setting, like a choir, you know when you’ve hit resonance — the sound of the group utterly changes, along with the energy of the space (including in your body). I mean this very literally: energy changes by virtue of the physical vibrations coalescing and becoming much stronger, so you feel a vibrational shift. I also mean it in a more intuitive manner: when you hit resonance, you feel more “in tune” (get it?) with your surroundings. Because you literally are.
In addition to being an amazing scientific phenomenon, resonance is an incredibly helpful concept for me when making decisions and/or thinking about spirituality, relationships, and many other aspects of life and society.
We’ve all experienced a circumstance in which there are many different options we can choose from. To help clarify what the best choice is, we create pros vs. cons lists, ask our friends and family for guidance on what to do, or leave it up to chance and flip a coin because we literally can’t make the decision for ourselves. I have personally done all these things when presented with something I simply didn’t know how to navigate. They all work well to some degree. When I started thinking of the concept of resonance in terms of decision making, I had a new tool with which to disentangle the knotted mess of possible paths to take.
If we think about our life as a symphony and the different decisions we make as musical notes, each decision then has its own sound, with its own beauty or sharpness or flatness. Some are clearly not the right note for this time in our lives; many others might all sound appealing and could feasibly work in the larger musical piece. The question is, thus, which exact note/choice do we choose that would best compliment the music at this place and time of our lives?
I say we choose that note/option which, when carried out, brings all the other aspects of our life to a “higher amplitude”. Think of the graph above: which note, which vibration, which choice is the one through which you can be ushered to new heights precisely because it represents your natural frequency?
This is obviously a very abstract concept, so perhaps a concrete example might help to clarify what I mean here. I am now in my late twenties, and over the past decade, I have served in many professional roles: political organizer, social justice trainer, educator, staffer at a Buddhist monastery, grant writer, program coordinator, and more. Each role has nourished me deeply and I could feasibly serve in any of them for the rest of my life and be very good at it. They would all make me quite happy, too. As my father likes to say, “my daughter is a Renaissance woman, a Jane of all trades — she can do just about anything!” Obviously, this is a loving exaggeration, but the point is that I have many paths available to me when it comes to career. This is a blessing not all people can claim for themselves, so I am truly grateful for the privilege of having a choice in what I can do with my life.
Very much to my surprise, when I saw my now-beloved pastor the first time I ever went to church at the age of 26, a small but clear voice inside my spirit said: “I want to be that.” I was a doubter and did not actively believe in God at the time so you can imagine I was incredibly confused by the internal voice. I dismissed it as bizarre and humorous. I imagined I was attracted to the fact that she was facilitating learning in a spiritual context, which I myself had already done to varying degrees in my capacities as a Buddhist practitioner and training facilitator. I imagined I liked the fact she was in a leadership role and a public speaker. I imagined all sorts of things to explain away the confusing statement that had arisen within me.
Yet slowly, surely, over time I began to realize what actually happened upon meeting my pastor was that my natural frequency had been struck; I just hadn’t known what that would feel or “sound” like before it happened. By going to church these past couple years, by developing a deeper friendship and “professional” relationship with my pastor by becoming a deacon, and by listening more and more to my own internal symphony and figuring out what notes sound best within my being, it has become very clear that the path of becoming a minister is exactly the right path for me to follow at this time. I thus recently submitted my applications to divinity school and hope to begin my pursuit of a Master of Divinity degree in the fall of 2019.
Whether or not I become an actual pastor is beside the point to me. Maybe I’ll become a chaplain, or maybe I’ll be pointed towards some other path during my studies. But to walk the path of ordination right now feels exactly right and I know the journey will eventually lead me to where I am most called to serve.
Coming to the understanding that I want to become a spiritual leader — namely, a Christian minister — required patience, trust, and developing a sense of comfort within discomfort. It required that I admit I was both enthused at the thought of becoming a religious leader and embarrassed by it (because, according to modern standards, religious people are foolish, right?). It required that I learn to let go of my obsession with what others think of my life choices and listen instead to what notes the orchestra within me wishes to play, and what the conductor of my life (God, my Higher Self, etc.) is inviting me to do.
As a Christian, when I think of resonance, I think of tuning myself to God’s frequency. When in prayer, instead of listing things I hope God will do for me, I try to align my being with God so I can become resonant with the divine plan and flow with the larger patterns of existence. It’s a subtle and confusing practice at times, but again: once you hit resonance, you know it. (Fr. Richard Rohr speaks to all this beautifully in his short meditation A Tuning Fork.)
When I hit spiritual resonance, God and I begin to amplify one another. On my end, that means I act from a place of greater unity, strength, and peace. Even if there are multiple good options for me to choose from, I usually sense which one is more “in tune” with God’s plans. I pursue this path as best I can even if it’s not what I or others initially wanted to do because I trust infinite God more than my finite self. I might be afraid to follow God’s path because of the vulnerabilities it hoists upon me (such as the possibility of rejection, uncertainties about my future, etc.), but I do so anyway because I know God’s plans always yield more love than I could conjure up on my own.
With practice, I believe everyone has the capacity to sense this kind of resonance and act from it, even non-religious folks. In essence, to sense resonance is to deepen one’s intuition. To deepen one’s intuition is to learn how to distinguish the signal from the noise of our minds and follow that signal at all costs, even if it means taking risks and navigating unknowns. It is an act of faith in oneself and the larger process.
The only way to get better at this is by doing it. Doing it allows us to hear with greater clarity what the voice deep within and/or beyond us is calling us to do. In doing what this voice wishes for us, we come into greater resonance with ourselves and the world around us. In so doing, the symphony of our lives is taken to new heights; we feel more in tune with ourselves, others, and the larger process.
Spanning outward from the personal realm, I believe this concept of resonance can also be applied to social systems. What societal structures open us up and lift each individual and group to new heights of fulfillment? What social systems allow for the whole to be amplified and sustained? What policies honor all persons, leaving no one at risk of a socially-imposed, premature death? As a radical progressive who believes in a beloved revolution, I believe such a resonant society looks like one in which the government supports the poor, celebrates difference across gender and race and all other facets of identity, opens borders, and functions from a philosophy of abundance rather than one of lack. It is a culture of listening rather than dictating; of accountable forgiveness and amend-making instead of punishment and excuse-offering. It is a space where interdependence is validated instead of independence.
In short, a resonant society is one that is in alignment with our human essence and calls forth the parts of ourselves which mystics across time, space, and faiths speak to: that is, our interconnected, abundant, transformative, and whole nature. Such a society, though we’ve never lived in one, is possible precisely because it is in our very nature to achieve such resonance. While it requires practice, it is possible. Indeed, the possible is only possible through practice.
Whether on personal, divine, or social levels, I find the concept of resonance to be one of the most helpful forms of imagery when navigating unknown and complex situations. It helps me distinguish signal from noise. It helps me remember I don’t have to exhaust myself, that I can simply listen for the right frequency and follow its directives upon locating it. Resonance is what guides me amidst the glorious messiness of life.
The inspiration for the post’s image: I took this photo of the Grand Tetons during a cross-country road trip in 2011. When my brother and I arrived in the national park, we turned a bend and there stood the Grand Tetons, a monumental mountain range that juts out from the earth to an elevation of 14,000 feet. I gasped so loudly that he halted the car, afraid I was having an asthma attack (note: I don’t have asthma, but apparently my breathing pattern was similar to that of an asthmatic). I unexpectedly started to cry; something about those mountains moved me to tears. Our entire stay was a deeply spiritual experience for me that I reflect on regularly to this day. It was one of the first times I ever felt deeply resonant with the world around me. Even though I wouldn’t have called it this at the time, it was an experience of communion with God.
Hope is a thing of grandeur. It is a primary pillar of many spiritual faiths; a thing we are told to hold onto when all else fails. Without it, especially during difficult times, what is left of our reason for being?
As someone who deeply appreciates the story and path of Jesus, I recognize that Advent (the time leading up to Christmas, which we are experiencing at the time of writing this) is a time of hope. In Biblical texts, the period leading up to Jesus’ birth was depicted as a time when deep darkness covered the earth and all seemed at a loss. Yet in this darkness a great light was gestating; the darkness was the seedbed for great changes that were fast approaching. Some knew this because they could read the signs (think: the Three Wise Men) and because of these abilities, they grasped hope from the clutches of despair. This hope, this light, this beacon, of course, was held in Jesus — the vulnerable, complex mixture of all-powerfulness and absolute powerlessness. God manifested as a human baby that couldn’t fend for itself yet somehow held the strength of all the heavens within it. What a beautiful metaphor indeed.
To have hope in a time of deep despair is a nuanced exercise. For some, it seems obvious that we should cultivate and nourish it. For others, it’s more complicated than that. Pema Chödrön, one of the most respected Buddhist teachers of our time, bluntly suggests we “abandon hope.” Put slightly differently, she says, “the trick is not getting caught in hope and fear.” For her and other Buddhists, hope is but an emotional state that is just as likely to yield suffering as fear.
Indeed, upon deeper inquiry, it becomes clear that many of our hopes are fed by our fears. We are afraid x will happen so we hope y happens instead. It’s somewhat circuitous, but if one looks at the true nature of both fear and hope, we see they are closely related and even woven of the same threads.
Because of its proximity to fear, we must be attentive to our hope. Otherwise, we’re likely to suffer whether or not we nourish said hope, for it will merely be a masked version of our fear. Hope is, therefore, a subtle practice, a delicate state of being that must be tended to diligently.
As a Christian who practices Buddhism, I often find myself at a cross-wiring when it comes to hope. My trust in God’s grace leads me to have immense hope for myself and the world, yet my Buddhist practice encourages me to let go of my hopeful thinking and the emotional states that come from hopefulness. It’s a very interesting space to be in.
What I’ve started doing in light of my seemingly-opposing spiritual inclinations is to nourish my hope without tethering it to an outcome. This is paradoxical when seen in the light of conventional understandings of hope, so let me explain.
In my view, hope is problematic when predicated on the need for a particular outcome to occur. To me, that’s like gambling with fate. You can’t control the vast majority of what will happen in your life, let alone the world, so why spend so much energy becoming emotionally invested in an outcome that could very well not happen? Of course, some argue “because that’s what keeps you going!” But what about when that thing you’re trying to avoid happens, or that thing you’re hoping for fails to happen? Was all your effort and emotion, then, a waste?
Hope is often used as a way to escape the discomfort of the present moment. To hope for a better future often translates into sidestepping our need to simply be present with what is happening right now: our pain, our sorrow, our anger, etc. That’s not always a helpful strategy. Again, in the words of Pema Chödrön: “If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.” We’re all walking on unsolid ground — we could all suddenly die of a freak accident, lose a loved one, or have unexpected changes knock us to the ground. Ironically, becoming comfortable with the “groundlessness” of life is necessary for achieving deep inner peace.
I won’t go as far as Pema Chödrön and suggest we abandon hope altogether. But I do believe it’s important to abandon hope that seeks to keep suffering at bay. That is an exercise in futility.
I also believe it’s important to release our hope from our desired outcomes. To hope without demanding that your vision for the future manifests is to hope for something different. It is to place a radical amount of trust in oneself and in the process. To have hope without necessitating a particular outcome is to act from the knowledge that even if none of what we want to occur actually happens, something transformative will nevertheless manifest in the depths of the unknown. That transformative something might be painful, but we recognize it is not wasted in the grand scheme of things precisely because there is no waste in the grand scheme, only transformation. This is not a spiritual truism; even the law on the conservation of energy points to this fact.
To have hope without requiring that our desired outcome manifests is to humbly admit that due to our own incapacity to understand the full scope of the process we neither know the best outcome nor have the means to bring it about on our own. So why seek to impose our hopes on the world? Why not instead trust that, no matter what, the situation will become transformed in a fashion that is aligned with workings that are far grander in scope than we can possibly understand? For some, like myself, these larger workings are called “God”; for others, they represent processes (be it mechanical, social, relational, etc.) that are larger than them.
Healthy hope is thus a matter of trusting that the larger process is inherently based on transformation rather than on the dichotomy of successful vs. wasted experience. To hope without skipping out of the present moment, without requiring that the world gives us a specific outcome, is to touch a deeper level of stability than fear-induced hope can ever offer. Above all else, healthy hope is a remembrance that fruitful transformation is inherent to all situations.
I identify as queer. By that, I am not simply referring to my sexuality, though I am indeed attracted to people of the same gender as me (that is, cisgender females; I’m also attracted to more genders than that). When using the term “queer”, I am referring to a way of being in the world. Queer is a way of positioning myself with regards to the mainstream, of loving, of existing. Queer to me isn’t simply about sex; it’s about every part of me and my positionality in the world.
For those of you who are confused by my use of this term due to teachings that claim it’s an insult: yes, it was indeed a pejorative word for many years and some people still use it as such. But for a number of decades now, folks in the LGBTQIA+ community have been reappropriating the term as a method of self-empowerment and it has come to mean so much. Many still don’t feel comfortable using it, which I understand, but I personally like it because a) it doesn’t linguistically limit my attraction to a particular gender; b) when marginalized communities take an insult and turn it into a celebratory term, there is a beautiful reversal of power structures (“we’re queer, we’re here!”); and c) because “queer” denotes so much more than sex.
Dictionary.com defines queer as “strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular”. In a very real way, to be sexually and genderly queer is to be strange from the conventional viewpoint of society. In my view, this is a very good thing for many reasons.
If we are brave (or woke) enough to admit that the conventional viewpoint of society is to see things through the lenses of patriarchy, classism, racism, sexism, etc., then anything that is considered “strange or odd” by the standards of this viewpoint inherently points to an alternate, more liberatory structure by which our society could function. Put another way, what is “odd” from the conventional social viewpoint is actually that which can guide us to the path of liberation from our oppressive social systems. Thus, if being queer is to be “odd” by modern standards, then to be queer is to have a unique perspective on social norms that can inform our communities on how to live from a more liberated place.
Deep down I’ve known I was queer since middle school, but I didn’t bring myself to embrace this and make it known to the wider world until just recently. There are many reasons for this, some of which are common experiences for LGBTQIA+ individuals: mockery or rejection from people who sense our queerness; the social pressure to be straight (or at least present as such); erasure (“you dated a man for years, you’re not queer (enough)”); internalized insecurity about one’s very being (“I’mdifferentand therefore unworthy.”); etc. Queer beings are intrinsically counter to what current power structures ask of us; this is why many queer folks describe themselves as “countercultural”. There is nothing inherently wrong or erroneous about our orientation/existence, yet systemic social structures and policies state that there is. Thus, to be queer in this day and age is to run counter to the norm; to run counter to the norm is to be at the margins; to be at the margins is to experience marginalization.
Queer folks, like any marginalized group, are placed on the margins without our consent simply by virtue of who we are. This puts us at risk of harm and even premature death. Yet some of us have come to value and embrace this marginalized position, and I include myself among this crew. We do not embrace our marginalization because we celebrate a victim mentality but because, really, why would we want to be “at the center” when the center is built on oppressive systems (see my above point about patriarchy, classism, racism, sexism, etc.)? To be consciously at the margins is to be closer to the possibility of a different society grounded in equity, love, and the celebration of differences. In the words of Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Even with all of its hardships, the positionality of being on the margins is, to me, a far grander and more liberated existence than that of trying to force my way towards the center of current power systems (which ultimately amounts to a process of conforming to and furthering problematic norms).
One example that might clarify what I mean here has to do with marriage equality. While I am completely in favor of granting queer couples the right to marry and enjoy the benefits of such a union, the entire conversation about why queers should be allowed to marry has been centered on many bizarre assumptions, including the notion that “queers are really just like straight people, so let them get married!” I disagree: queer people are not “just like straight people”; our life experiences are different from that of someone whose orientation and relationships mimic a social ideal.
Marriage equality, in many circles, amounts to a method of bringing queer folks into the privileged position of straight people. While helpful in many respects, this has largely been an assimilation strategy that brings queers into the straight fold rather than celebrating the difference that is queerness. While the intentions of marriage equality might be noble, there’s also queer erasure going on through this process of assimilation. Such a strategy is very different from a practice of liberation that seeks to free everyone (queer, straight, everyone) from the grips of oppression such as sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.
Why haven’t we instead questioned the fundamental assumptions undergirding the whole marriage equality debate by asking: “why do we have this straight/queer dichotomy in the first place, and why does society go to such lengths to act on it? Why is the ‘straight way’ the best way, and why should queers be expected to conform to straight norms, including marriage? Why do we even require people to get married in order to have hospital visitation rights or tax benefits? Why are we even limiting marriage to two people?” Etc. etc. etc.
To clarify: I believe that working to transform “the center” by altering social norms through policy changes and other means is absolutely essential to providing marginalized populations with basic needs. And I won’t claim to have all the answers to the question of how to create a truly liberated community. My only point is that we can’t stop at mere assimilation strategies, and they definitely shouldn’t be the end goal. We must reevaluate the system in its entirety if we are to create a beloved community that uplifts and celebrates all people. Assimilation tactics have their purpose, but if we stop there it’s going to be a long road to freedom indeed.
A point about queerness as a practice of liberation that I’ve recently come to understand within myself has to do with patriarchy and sexism specifically. For much of my life, I was mostly attracted to men — though I knew I was also attracted to women — and I dated a man for nearly six years. (A sidenote: I’d be remiss not to mention that my history of male partnership and attraction to men grants me much privilege when it comes to queerness. I easily pass as straight in many circles and can slip into “straight mode” if necessary. Not all queer folks benefit from this straight-passing privilege.) Much beauty was found in all my romantic/sexual encounters with men. And yet, in all of them to date, there was a nagging fear that I had to do something about myself because I simply wasn’t enough in relation to the partnership. This, I have come to realize, was partly a manifestation of internalized sexism/patriarchy.
When I started going on dates with women, it took a while to notice that this fear of “not being good enough” wasn’t there and that I wasn’t constantly comparing myself to the people I was dating in the way that I had while seeing men. A lot happened on a personal level between when I broke up with my last male partner and when I started dating women, so at first, I thought the shift had to do with those changes. Eventually, though, I realized I wasn’t feeling the aforementioned insecurity simply because there wasn’t an unbalanced gender power dynamic between me and my female dates. We were approaching each other from a level gender playing field, if you will. This was very different from my dating experiences with men, which were inherently lopsided from a social-power standpoint. When I realized this, I felt a deep sense of joy and relief; I could now engage in partnerships with a lesser amount of social bullshit to sift through.
This isn’t to say that men themselves are to blame for the insecurities I felt; I recognize that the larger systems of patriarchy and sexism are to blame there, even if and when said systems act through people. I also don’t mean to imply that female-male partnerships can’t ever be grounded in justice; they absolutely can, and I know a number of straight partnerships that are very “queer” because of the healthy way each party navigates gender and sexual dynamics. And this isn’t to say that classism, racism, and other sorts of oppression don’t crop up in queer relationships; they obviously do.
What I’m getting at, rather, is that the practice of being queer in my choice of partners — that is, to see women — has been a beautiful, personal practice of healing from sexism and patriarchy. To embrace my queerness has, in very real and concrete ways, helped me to more intentionally walk a path of personal liberation. While I’m still attracted to men and imagine I’ll date men again, exploring my attraction to women and finding ways to tend to the wounds of internalized patriarchy means queer-female relationships (both platonic and romantic) are the more wholesome option for me right now. While this wouldn’t be the case for all, it is for me.
I am so happy to be queer for many reasons. One of them is that my queerness has helped me see alternate and more liberatory options for myself (and the world) than I ever knew were possible when I couldn’t embrace my queer nature. Even with all its complexities, my queerness is, therefore, a deep, deep blessing.
I recently had a discussion with friends about boredom, which I must admit (with a hint of humor) was wonderfully interesting. It started with one of the women, who is a Montessori teacher, explaining how a young student at her school kept approaching her to simply say, “I’m bored.” A series of suggestions sprung forth from others involved in the conversation, some of which included: pointing the student to new study topics, giving her a craft project to do, and telling her to observe the light on the wall, among other things.
I waited until others had given their suggestions before sharing mine because I knew it was a bit different from the rest. My suggestion was, “why don’t you just ask her, ‘What’s boredom like for you right now?’ instead of trying to help her get rid of it?”
Everyone seemed intrigued by this suggestion in an enthusiastic way. I imagine this was because it was countercultural guidance that differed from the other recommendations, which all sought to change the student’s state of being.
I went on to explain that I didn’t think boredom was a bad thing, and that teaching kids to sit with the initial discomfort of “having nothing to do” can, in the long run, be very beneficial for their emotional and mental wellbeing. This is obviously a bizarre take on boredom by modern standards. In a society where we’re expected to be human doings instead of human beings, we’re constantly told (either explicitly or implicitly) to make ourselves useful by filling our time with “activities”, whatever that term actually means. Our sense of self-worth is directly related to how much we do nowadays. It’s gotten to the point where whenever we don’t have anything to do, we automatically take our phones out to mindlessly go through our series of apps (emails, texts, Facebook, etc.) instead of resting within the present moment. I admit to doing this very regularly.
Some of my favorite commentaries on boredom come from the novel Wise Child by Monica Furlong, an incredible children’s book that’s now out of print. It’s about a young girl who becomes the apprentice of a wise woman/healer named Juniper. One of their interactions goes as follows:
“I don’t like cleaning or dusting or cooking or doing dishes, or any of those things,” I explained to her. “And I don’t usually do it. I find it boring, you see.”
“Everyone has to do those things,” she said.
“Rich people don’t,” I pointed out.
Juniper laughed, as she often did at things I said in those early days, but at once became quite serious.
“They miss a lot of fun,” she said. “But quite apart from that — keeping yourself clean, preparing the food you are going to eat, clearing it away afterward — that’s what life’s about, Wise Child. When people forget that, or lose touch with it, then they lose touch with other important things as well.”
A little later on in the book, another brief but poignant conversation about boredom ensues between Juniper and Wise Child:
“I thought if you were educated you didn’t have to do boring things,” I had said to Juniper the day before.
“There are people who think like that,” Juniper had said. “Such a pity. Boredom is so valuable.”
“Why is everything so dull?” I grumbled.
“I think the dull bits are often the best,” Juniper said. “Too much excitement is very distracting. You just need it now and then to give you something to feed off.”
These passages speak so beautifully to the deep necessity of boredom and the importance of “boring tasks”. In the same way that color contrast makes it possible to see and differentiate things, we need those spaces between the excitement of our lives to come to greater clarity about everything we do and experience.
I won’t pretend to be an expert at sitting comfortably with boredom, but for me, that state of being is often the tight, uncomfortable portal that leads to new and deeper layers of meaning about a particular situation. Being bored is a process of squeeeeeezing through the constricting belief that I need to constantly be doing something in order for my time to be “well spent”; boredom is like a tight tunnel that ultimately leads to a more spacious realm if I just stick with it for a bit. Instead of giving in to my ego’s desire to “be productive”, I sometimes choose instead to rest in the initial weirdness of doing little. In that process, give the slower, sleepier parts of my being an opportunity to awaken and rise to the surface of my consciousness.
This exact process happened the day after my conversation about boredom, ironically. I had already scheduled that day to be a personal Day of Mindfulness, which I practice every few months. During that time, I don’t speak and I move slowly, read spiritual texts, rest lots, and abstain from checking email (and my phone, for the most part). It’s essentially a psychological detox: I’m getting rid of the mental/emotional gunk that accumulated over months of “doing” through a flush of nothingness, if you will.
At many points, I was bored. I kept wanting to surf the Internet, check my email, and read books to fill the void. And yes, I did give in a couple of times. But what happened during the evening after an almost-full day of this nothingness was incredible. As if a stop-plug had been removed, a gush of writing topics sprung forth into my consciousness. It was like my mind was consumed in a creative fire that ultimately led to the creation of this very blog. Instead of going to sleep that night, I stayed up until the wee hours writing reflective essay after essay after essay. It felt so. Dang. Good.
Yes, I ended up being incredibly productive at the literal and figurative end of the day. But that was only possible thanks to the intentional pausing — the intentional boredom — that I let myself sit in prior to that. If this can happen after a mere day of (arguably boring) stillness, imagine what multiple days, weeks, or months of it could yield from a creative/spiritual/introspective standpoint. No wonder it’s the monastics of various spiritual traditions who repeatedly gleam the deepest, longest-lasting, and most unshakeable truths of our nature.
(I’m catching my words veering ever so slightly into the “productive mindset” here, which is ironic, so I’ll clarify that I don’t believe it’s helpful to use boredom and stillness for the purposes of achieving an end product. It’s entirely about the journey. By the same token, something tangible to show for your adventures into the abyss of boredom is a potential — though not guaranteed — by-product of one’s engagement with nothingness. This is why so many artists take time away to simply “be”. As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, argues, you have to “fill [your creative] well” by regularly distancing yourself from your usual happenings/doings to let your muses speak to you. That said, it’s obvious that not every episode of boredom yields intense creativity; many disengaged high school students can attest to this.)
When pulpy orange juice is left untouched for a period of time, the clear liquid rises to the top and the chunky pieces float to the bottom, allowing us the see the true nature of the beverage more clearly. Our beings and minds work the same way. When left to sit in stillness, which can include letting ourselves feel bored, our mind is able to separate its various thought patterns from one another. As a result, we can act on our own impulses and thoughts more clearly.
For me, a day of stillness (which included a very healthy dose of boredom) allowed me to clearly see that my being wanted to create something. In my experience, though, when I don’t let myself sit in stillness long enough, this creative energy regularly gets confused with its complimentary cousin, consuming energy. More often than not, boredom is my being’s way of stating that it wants to create something and that something is simply struggling to be brought forth. Unfortunately, because I don’t often give myself the time to visualize what is being called forth, I simply consume something to quell the weird feeling I’m experiencing through the high of acquiring something new. While consuming is a great relief in the short term, it’s not very gratifying in the long term.
Letting oneself rest in the discomfort of boredom actually helps us determine what’s seeking to become manifest in our lives. It lets the gunk get separated from the clear waters of our beings so we can see a path forward. While remaining still in this way may result in some kind of “end product”, boredom’s ultimate goal is not to accomplish that thing; you can’t skip over boredom to get to a potential end product, so the journey through it definitely has a purpose. As my friend Sandra likes to say, “the only way out is through.” To experience the fruits of boredom, you must feel it fully; only once you’ve let it slowly show you what you’re meant to create will it release you into forward motion.
Boredom is thus similar to gestation, to pregnancy: if you try to birth a child too soon, you hurt it and potentially ruin all hope of it manifesting in the world. We must let the parts of ourselves that require longer gestation periods to take the time they need in order to fully grow. To do that, we must rest in boredom every so often. I think we could all benefit from letting ourselves explore what boredom feels like in our physical and emotional bodies when it hits instead of trying to “do/consume something” to make it go away.
If we let ourselves feel the initial, figurative birth pains surrounding our lack of “doing”, we’re more likely to encounter a whole new experience that’s been waiting patiently for us.
For further reading on a related topic, see my post On rest.
The following text was the foundation for a sermon I preached at my church (the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut) the Sunday before the 2018 Fourth of July holiday. I touch on numerous topics, but the central one is freedom. I share my perspective on how freedom’s very nature is interconnected with servitude, along with examples of how various spiritual traditions teach this beautifully paradoxical idea. The text is slightly different from the actual sermon delivery, but the larger sentiments and themes remain the same.
May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of all of our hearts
Be aligned with you, oh God,
Our rock and our redeemer.
Good morning dear friends. My name is Gabriela, and I am a deacon here at First Church of Christ in Middletown. I am honored to be delivering today’s sermon in Julia’s stead as she enjoys some vacation. A special welcome to all of you who are new with us today as we begin our community worship.
This year, in part due to national and world events but also given that we are currently hosting community summer worship and inviting new friends into our space, First Church has chosen the theme of Radical Hospitality as a focus for our sermons this month. We as a church are constantly seeking to create an evermore welcoming and safer space for all individuals, and we wish to reflect on how we could do that even better within and beyond the walls of this sanctuary
So for the next month, you’ll be hearing reflections on this theme that touch on different topics. For today, given that the fourth of July holiday is approaching, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on the notion of freedom and how it intersects with this theme of radical hospitality and inclusivity. Because, really, what do we actually mean when we say “I am free,” or that we live in “the land of the free”? We use the term often, but I don’t think we are often invited to reflect deeply on what we mean by freedom. Especially in times of political and social unrest, I think it is vital to reflect deeply on its meaning because, depending on how we understand the term, our lives and our society shift radically, including who is safe and welcome in it.
So let’s, as a church, get our intellectual hands dirty and unpack this idea of freedom for a bit. I propose that we start with some basics: a definition. If you are anything like me when you are struggling to define a concept, the first thing you do is go to Google — which is exactly what I did for this sermon. According to my search, Google defines freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint”. Please raise your hand if this is roughly the definition of freedom you were taught.
Right. For many of us, it’s the definition we were taught, and I would argue it’s what most Americans believe freedom to be. While I believe our nation’s passion for freedom is one of its beautiful strengths, I would like to reflect on what I perceive to be some troubling flaws in this definition that our larger society embraces with regards to freedom. I would then like to offer an alternative vision of freedom that is not so centered on personal power but rather is centered on an understanding of freedom that is far more expansive and wholistic.
Part of my skepticism towards a conception of freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint” is that it negates some basic facts of life, including the fact that none of us, even if social circumstances permit it, can ever do whatever we want whenever we want, because none of us is in full control of our circumstances. Every single human being, even the most privileged, has restraints on their circumstances beyond their control. One could even argue that it is inherently human to live within these restraints. Otherwise, we would be God; but we aren’t. Can I get an “Amen” to that?
So how can freedom, then, be possible in our human reality of living within limitations? If we stick with Google’s definition of freedom, it’s inherently impossible, because it would be a negation of terms. But if we look towards spiritual texts and how they explain freedom, we hear a different story. A story where limitations are not barriers to freedom but precisely that which defines the path to freedom. I know this might sound a bit nonsensical, so let me give an example.
As you may know, the first, critical steps towards freedom from addiction in 12 Step programs is first: the acceptance of one’s own powerlessness over the addiction; second: the belief in a power greater than oneself; and finally: a full surrender to this Higher Power’s plan and an abandonment of one’s own self-will. I don’t think it’s often appreciated just how radical and revolutionary these steps are in a time and place where we often hear “if there’s a will, there’s a way.” But self-will has never freed an addict from addiction. Rather, freedom from addiction is achieved by forsaking one’s own willfulness and limiting oneself to following, through discernment and action, a plan presented to us by a Power greater than ourselves. We might not always like this plan from Higher Source and we might not always want to do it. But to be free from addiction, an addict has no choice but to limit themselves in this way. Such limitations are not barriers to freedom, but precisely that which permit true liberation from the horrific plight of addiction.
There is something very powerful in 12 Step programs that everyone—not just recovering addicts and their loved ones—can benefit from. While we might not be addicted to a substance, just about every one of us is incredibly and perhaps unhealthily attached to our opinions, our expectations, and our desires. The 12 Steps programs offer a model for achieving true liberation from that which binds us to suffering, whatever it is: admit we cannot control that to which we are attached; trust in a higher power’s ability to offer a solution to the situation; and following that power’s guidance without hesitation.
Amazingly enough, this model of liberation is reflected in many faith traditions, including Christianity. Consider, for instance, a beautifully poetic and seemingly contradictory statement in 1 Peter 2:16, which we heard earlier today: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.”
There is a lot going on in this one sentence, so let me repeat it: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.”
Notice how being free here is not the opposite of being a servant; nor does freedom equate to doing whatever one wants. Rather, we are told that in order to live as free people we must be servants of God — a God who is Love — and to limit our actions to those that are aligned with God’s goodness.
Do you see how the Bible is, in typical fashion, turning everything on its head? To be free, I must enslave myself to God and put limits on my actions. I can choose not to enslave myself to God and do whatever I want, but then I would not be free. I find it to be beautifully paradoxical, and it is my conviction that there is a deeper truth hiding here that Jesus is encouraging us to see and embrace — one that does not pit freedom against servitude but rather brings the two together. Rather than seek out the ability to do whatever we want, we are being told that yielding to our role in God’s plan for us (which does not include playing God) and limiting ourselves to do what God wants (rather than simply what we want) is where true freedom resides.
Such profound teachings are present in spiritual texts beyond the Bible, such as the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam. As Christians living in an era of rampant Islamophobia, I think it is important that we remember that these two faiths are sisters who share common spiritual blood, and whose teachings are complimentary. Like Christianity, Islam is described by many as a path towards liberation through communion with God. But get this (and this might prove useful for a trivia game, so listen closely): the very word Islam, while denoting a religious path towards freedom, actually means “submission” in Arabic. So here again, we see the false binary between freedom and submission being toyed with and ultimately broken in Islamic teachings, similarly to Jesus’.
The Qur’an is not speaking here of submission as an abusive relationship between an authority figure and a subservient being. Rather, “submission” is meant to denote the state of being that all of creation is already and forever in as part of the realm of God. Similarly to the Bible, the Qur’an beautifully emphasizes that we are ultimately at the mercy of whatever fate the God of Love has planned for us. To accept this position of our relative powerlessness in the face of God’s will is seen not a sign of weakness in Islam, but rather a way of being that is in perfect resonance with God, offering us true freedom by opening us up to God’s guidance and loving care.
In Christianity, Islam, 12 Step Programs, and many other spiritual paths, we are told again and again that to find true freedom, we must surrender our own will and align ourselves to God’s to the best of our abilities. But when we as a society focus on freedom as simply being able to do whatever we want without hindrance or restraint, we think it’s all about us, rather than about all of us. We start to view anything that limits or challenges us as a threat that must be eliminated. This leads to defensiveness of our so-called freedom that can even result in mortal harm. Such an individualistic notion of freedom leads to laws like a “zero tolerance” policy at our border that offers no love for immigrants and refugees. It leads to a Muslim ban because we perceive difference as dangerous. It leads to the destruction of sacred Native land for the sake of oil. It leads to the disproportionate imprisonment of black and brown people so that white folks can enjoy their “freedom” more comfortably.
This kind of false freedom closes us in behind walls of fear and defensiveness. But true freedom through servitude and alignment with the God of Love opens us up and keeps us on a path that is healing for ourselves and others. The path to true freedom reminds us of all of our connection to each other and to God, in whose image we are all made. When we reject the false belief that freedom is based on limited resources that mustn’t be shared with others and chose instead to trust that there is an abundance of divine love to go around, radical hospitality and inclusivity become possible and heal the wounds of the world.
Freedom for ourselves and our communities is not about achieving the power to do whatever we want. Rather, freedom is the task of diligently staying a course whose North Star is Love. It is not so much our ability to choose that grants us freedom but our decision to choose, over and over, to follow God’s will for us that allows us to achieve true liberation and become a truly welcoming and transformative presence in the world. For the freedom offered through God’s plan for us is far greater, more benevolent, and more loving than any other type of freedom.
May each of us and our whole community be a source of refuge and love for all of God’s creation, and may we find radical liberation through the grace of God, our only true source of freedom.
Sabbath, or rest more broadly, has been on my mind these days. This is partly due to personal circumstances and largely because my friend and pastor, Julia, is planning a well-deserved sabbatical for herself in the year 2019. The topic also feels pertinent on a much deeper, philosophical level.
The Sabbath’s roots are religious — Jewish, specifically, yet most other spiritual traditions have a practice of pausing one’s “normal” life and recommitting to the God(s) of their understanding. Yet a Sabbath (which is at the root of the word sabbatical) needn’t be centered on the divine per se, in my view. Buddhists sometimes call it a “Day of Mindfulness”, for example, where the intention is to clear one’s mind of the mental and emotional debris left in the wake of our speedy lifestyles. It also has taken on professional connotations, such as in the field of academia.
The idea of dedicated time to take Sabbath — that is, time to rest, renew, restore, and re-center — is completely countercultural these days. It’s even revolutionary, in my opinion, and I mean this in the best of ways. In a world where we get calls through our watches, have access to email 24/7, can shop whenever we want, and are sucked into the virtual infinity of the Internet, to temporarily lay our daily tasks and habits to the side with the intention of making contact with our deeper foundations is viewed as either a luxury one can’t afford or a nuisance one doesn’t care to practice.
Buddhist sutras sometimes refer to our way of existing as a kind of sleep-walking, an unconscious forward movement devoid of any real awareness of our actions or their consequences. To me, this is powerful imagery. It’s a bit like The Matrix: the idea that we live in a dream world in which have little to no control over our circumstances simply because we are not “awake”. By awake, I do not simply mean the opposite of sleep; I mean the act of intentionally bringing one’s attention to the here and now and to each facet of our existence (good, bad, and ugly), thus giving us the opportunity to choose how we respond to the events of our lives.
When we are existentially “asleep at the wheel”, we are under the control of powerful beings that do not have our best interest (nor the collective’s best interest) at heart. These beings are what, in Christianity, we might call “false idols.” Some think of these as Pagan gods, but such an interpretation is short-sighted. More accurate false idols would be perfection, wealth, fame, busy-ness, others’ opinions of us, and our own expectations of ourselves.
To practice intentional rest that is meant to shed these false idols and re-center us on true icons (that is, those ideas which speak to the interconnectedness of all things, such as “God” or love) is to practice acting in defiance of inhuman and unjust practices such as exploitative labor, consumerism, and greed. To take time each day, each week, each month — however often feels appropriate yet transformative for you — is to be a revolutionary in the cause of awakening. It is a practice of shattering the chains which keep us beholden to idols that do not serve us. It is a practice of remembering our humanity.
To practice re-centering rest — which is very different from merely “catching up on sleep” — is to reprioritize our time and our actions in such a way that love is the guiding light. It is an acknowledgment that, while there isn’t enough time in the day to do it all, whatever one can accomplish in the day is enough. It is a statement that one’s worth is not linked to our productivity, as capitalism and the Protestant work ethic suggest. Instead, it is a declaration that our worth is linked to our inherent, irrevocable essence. This is a chief teaching of healthy spirituality and/or psychology, yet it is terrifying for the ego. For, if our worth is not linked to our productivity, what purpose does our ego serve? The ego hates undeserved worthiness because such grace renders it nearly pointless. To survive, the ego needs external validation for its efforts, but Sabbath flys in the face of that. By claiming we are valid in spite of our inability to “do it all”, in spite of “doing nothing” (which is what some suggest Sabbath amounts to, though I find that to be an interesting use of the word “nothing”), we begin the work of dismantling the ego and, in that process, opening ourselves up to deeper truths.
It is on us to trust that even if we take time away from our worldly commitments, the world won’t fall apart. Unfortunately for the ego, yet fortunately for our beings, we are not that indispensable. Existence can — and will — move on even if nothing on our to-do list gets checked off. Life crises teach us this: we get hit with a serious case of the flu and suddenly all our work plans have to be delayed; a loved one passes and we have to cancel all other commitments to be at their funeral; a child is born and suddenly all the things we thought were so important are not worth our precious time compared to this new life. This isn’t to say that such events are not challenging (for they certainly are). Rather, what such circumstances prove to us is that, if we are forced to put aside our usual plans, a reorientation of priorities is possible. Unfortunately, we usually require massive (and sometimes tragic) events to be shown this truth.
Perhaps there’s a healthier way to learn how to awaken from our existential sleepwalking. Given that practice makes better, to regularly engage in intentional re-centering and reprioritization — in other words, Sabbath — is to better equip ourselves for those times in life when unforeseen circumstances require such a reorientation on our part, whether we like it or not.
Sabbath does not require money, for it is not the same as expensive, capitalist-oriented “self-care” practices (think: pricey retreats at yoga centers that are disconnected from the spiritual roots of yoga). All we need is our intentionality, our trust in the process, and a willingness to sit with the initial discomfort caused by our lack of “doing” (remember, the ego hates Sabbath). And rather than thinking of Sabbath as a full-day, weekly practice, we can think of it in broader terms: as a friend once said, “I practice Sabbath-moments, rather than Sabbath-days. It just works better for me.”
In short: we rest in order to awaken. We stop in order to move forward. Sabbath is an act of loving resilience and resistance, an act of rooting ourselves deeper in order to rise taller. Just as the depths of a lake become visible when the surface is still, the depths of our own being become visible when we practice stillness within and without. So let us pause, then, and return to the deeper truths we yearn to reconnect with.