Sunday, December 31, 2017

Living Our Spiritual Choices

The New Year’s holiday is traditionally a time to pause and consider our Life’s journey. In my blog posting “Reflections and Resolutions” (1/13/2017), a set of questions was offered for reflecting on where we have arrived at this point in our life, and where we need to go next.

Similar questions can be considered in the pursuit of our spirituality. Each day we continually face choices. These choices provide us with opportunities to demonstrate whether our religious faith consists of simply re-verbalizing scriptural and pastoral words that we have been trained to speak, or reflect a genuine and substantive religious path. Perhaps we might ask ourselves:

·        Given the choice to be kind or cruel to another person, do we choose kindness – regardless of how that person chooses to treat us?

·        Given the choice to listen to or talk at another, do we choose to listen deeply to them regardless of our own story waiting to be told?

·        Given the choice to extend a helping hand to someone in need or to ignore them, do we choose to offer help regardless of any test of “worthiness?”

·        Given the choice to tell the truth or to lie, do we choose to tell the truth even as we find a way to avoid being unnecessarily hurtful?

·        Given the choice to let people live their life or to interfere and push them to live the life we would prefer for them, do we choose to extend to them the freedom to be who they truly are – as long as their life does not tangibly harm us or unduly thwart our own choices?

·        Given the choice to provide opportunities to others or to shut them out, do we choose to extend our achievements so as to also advance their aspirations?

·        Given the choice to share credit for our successes or claim credit solely from our own efforts, do we choose to acknowledge all those who helped us in our life travels in ways both large and small, directly and indirectly, known and unknown?

·        Given the choice to welcome strangers in our midst or to isolate them from our company, do we choose to extend hospitality to those who may find their way into our presence?

·        Given the choice to be cautious in our judgment of others or to judge them based upon our flimsy knowledge of their full story, do we choose to strive for compassion regarding their circumstances while acknowledging our own shortcomings?

·        Given the choices to love or to hate, to trust or be suspicious, to see what is before us or to be blind to it, to adapt to change or to resist it, which do we choose?

How we live our life and the actions we take, in concert with the lives of others, matter far more than what we say. Our choices may be difficult to effect given our particular circumstances, but they are likely clear in the conclusions we should reach. We are called to live our life well. Whether we do so or not is our choice.

©   2017   Randy Bell     

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Pastoring The Social Issues

Early in 2017, I was fortunate to share a long overdue cup of coffee with an old friend. She is a formally ordained minister, currently serving effectively in an institutional role rather than a congregational pastor role. Given our shared concerns about the future into which our country was heading, she posed the question, “What do you think should be the role of ministers in these difficult times? Many ministers are struggling with that question today.” I had no immediate answer, but promised I would give it some thought – not expecting that it would take a year to properly develop such thoughts!

I am not an ordained minister (although I do provide spiritual direction and counseling to individuals). Therefore I cannot reflect on her question from firsthand ministerial experience. Instead, my response must come from imagining the perspective of one who is a congregant looking for religious guidance in these difficult times. That necessarily divides the response into two settings.

Ministers not serving in a congregational role focus on the collective, and plead the case for general agreement on various religious positions. They argue the theology, adopt or change the canonical rules, advocate the policy positions, march in – if not lead – the demonstrations, and run the many support ministries and religious advocacy groups. In doing those activities, they demonstrate the qualities of respectful dialog and compassion for others of differing views. It is critical that they serve as role models for uncompromising ethical behavior, act consistently between their institutional agenda and their private lives, maintain civility in the interactions among all involved, while keeping a critical balance between their religious beliefs and their secular actions. They pastor by their actions.

Billy Graham, the “Pastor to the Presidents,” once confessed that letting his ego be stroked by succumbing to the aura of the presidency, getting overly involved in political activity, and thereby falling into the trap of thinking too much of himself, was one of his biggest mistakes as a minister. When the religious role morphs into a secular political one, the moral case for religious authority progressively collapses. Only a weak minister seeks to achieve through secular laws what s/he cannot achieve through moral persuasion. When that line is crossed, both the minister and the church ultimately lose.

Those ministers who serve a pastoral role with a congregation focus on helping the individual, without prejudice to where it may lead. Political and the social arguments are all around us, and these pastors can provide a safe and special place to help us find our way through the secular morass. Our governmental, social and spiritual issues are serious. They challenge each of us to determine how we are to act from an ethical, values, and character basis. These determinations need to be nurtured by our understanding of human history, by our personal experience, and by religious input. It is to contribute to this nurturing that a congregational pastor can be vitally important. But how should one minister in this situation? And what ministering does the congregant rightly expect?

The pastor’s role is not to be the script writer for a congregant’s life, answering directly the “what should I do” questions, telling him/her what to believe and what actions to take. There are already too many people telling each of us what to believe and do, adding to our individual confusion. For it is in the very struggle of trying to answer the political / social / religious questions that one’s spiritual growth occurs. Being simply told what to believe or do lets the congregant off the hook of responsibility for that learning process, thereby stunting his/her potential spiritual growth. Instead, it is about sitting with that person as s/he goes through the struggle for answers and decisions. Examining or interpreting the many options and conflicts in the scriptures. Working side-by-side through the differences of opinions and perspectives that exist. Reviewing the life examples of relevant and significant historical figures for clues to living one’s own life. From that, pastor and congregant then arrive together at some sort of conclusion. These functions emerge as the unique value and contribution of the pastoral minister. It is an unrelenting focus on the individual journey, wherever it may lead, whether done 1-on-1 or in a congregational setting.

What is important is that the congregational role and the institutional role remain quite distinct. Spouting institutional positions from the pulpit, and glossing over or not acknowledging the unspoken concerns of the congregant, is not helpful. It trivializes the congregant’s important struggle of trying to figure out “the right thing to do” amidst all the surrounding noise and confusion. Placing that congregant between the institutional position and their own deep sense of Self is neither religious leadership nor congregational compassion. Such strife inevitably leads to the situation of today where many individual churches and their members are in conflict among themselves as well as with their governing institutions. Being a minister is not an easy role to fulfill. Nor is navigating a personal path through these difficult times easy for the congregant.

©   2017   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot,com

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Flower Garden Of Humanity

According to scientists who study these things, there are over 60,000 primary forms of vertebrate animals on earth, well over a million invertebrate animals, and over 300,000 plant forms. There are currently over seven billion human beings living on earth. These seven billion are commonly divided into four primary races, subdivided into around 30 racial subgroups, spread across more than 5000 ethnic groups, speaking 6909 recognized living languages (Scientific American).

While exact statistics on these classifications can vary from source to source and scientist to scientist, it is nevertheless unavoidable to conclude that the number of categories of earthly life can be staggeringly overwhelming. And that is before you get to the detailed level of the individual element in any category – e.g. seven billion unique human beings. In the midst of such numbers and unique individuality, it can be easy to ask: Why do all of these variations exist?

Is not one form of a cow sufficient to provide the milk and meat needed to feed our bodies? One form of bee to fulfill the need for pollination? One form of grain sufficient to provide us with the carbohydrates needed to fuel our body? We respond by saying NO, that all of our available variations in milk products, meats, fruits, honeys, and breads give us great pleasure in our lives. They open us to seemingly endless possibilities of tastes, experiences and memories. Pity those who never move beyond their childhood diet!

As it is with our sources of bodily support, so it is also with people. God created the conditions for these many ethnic groups and their distinct cultures, placed them into vastly different landscapes and climate conditions, gave them an indigenous diet and culture, and encouraged them to create their own spiritual interpretations and stories to explain it all. It was done precisely to illustrate the vast scope, forms and potentialities that make up all of Creation. By their very existence, these differing forms tell us that there is no one way, no single form, exclusive to any aspect of Life. Our individual “I’s” are not the standard model, but merely one example.

Each living thing has a particular functional role to perform within the organized structure of Creation. But each simultaneously shows us how many possible shapes, opportunities, and manifestations of a single idea can flow out of God’s imagination. I am a white male living a lifetime in America. My life reflects all of the structures and cultural experiences and geography that living in America confers on me. Yet with a simple flip of a Universe switch, I could just as easily be a female; a Tibetan, a German, a Peruvian, an Australian, a Japanese, or a Nigerian; or a very different product living somewhere else in America. My life experiences, and therefore my opinions and perspectives shaped by them, are unique only to me. But would I still be the same ME even if my appearance and circumstances were different? Does our outer form substantially change our inner being?

As humans, we live as distinct individual beings. Yet we are also a connected part of an inter-dependent whole across the planet. We are one individual, yet simultaneously part of one family of many members. We spend much of our time focused on our differences among each other, and those differences often frustrate if not frighten us. We protest, “Why can’t ‘they’ be like us in their thinking, actions, institutions, culture, religion?” Sometimes our protests even lead us to violence. God answers us: “Because you are not the whole world. ‘They’ exist to constantly remind you by their very presence that Creation is bigger than just you and your circumstances. You are only one example of Creation; they are examples of many other possibilities, any of which could have been you. Each is perfect in its own way, so embrace them all even in your differences. They are as much YOU as you are.”

As long as we see THEM as “other,” and reject them for their otherness, we reject the whole purpose of Creation. When we subsume ourselves to that great Creation, we do not lose ourselves as we may fear. Instead, we open ourselves to all the possibilities that exist for our own life, and see the scope and richness of beauty that is Creation. By recognizing our smallness, we fulfill our bigness. Our little piece of Life is miniscule, and that recognition allows us to see not differences, but options and “could have been’s” from which our life has been carved out. When we encounter “the Other,” our job is not to try to change them, deny them, ridicule them, see them as lesser to us. Our job is to see God’s creation in them: no better or worse than ourselves; just a different unique tree in the expansive human forest. In that forest, we embrace rather than reject; feel excitement rather than fear; see possibilities for ourselves rather than judgements.

Creation did not make us so different just for its amusement, or to make us fearful of each other, or to simply delight in driving us crazy. It was certainly not to create a competition among us for “who’s right.” Like all of creation, it was done with purpose. It was to show us all the “rights” that can exist in the world, how many potential paths of living are possible, and that they can all coexist side-by-side. Thereby, we are reminded that all we are, all we do, is just one piece of the Universe’s mosaic. Thereby, these differences require us to encounter choices and make decisions – our decisions – about which road out of the many we will follow. These options allow us to feel the joy of being a part of the overpowering palate that God has provided, within which our one life plays out. Seeing that breadth; living fully in harmony with it; subsuming our Self to this whole, while simultaneously finding fulfillment in our One Self. This is God’s daily gift, yet challenge, to us: to revel, celebrate and wonder at the vast scope of human possibilities.

In our home gardens, we intentionally plant a variety of flowers – different colors, sizes, shapes and species. They bloom at different times, require different care, complement and enhance each other’s presence side by side. It is a festival of nature at its best, illuminated in a bouquet of color. We love each plant on its own, yet enjoy a visual feast and satisfaction from the integrated totality of the garden. So it is with God: loving each created human for his/her individuality, yet receiving great joy in the blended aggregation of humanity. Can we not be as God and share fully – with overwhelming joy – in our geographic, racial, gender, cultural and social diversity?

©   2017   Randy Bell     


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

When The Universe Moves

A more personal note, if I may … Yesterday, I sold the mountain property I have been occupying in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. This mountain place served as my primary residence for the past ten years. Concurrently, and more importantly, the virtually untouched property was developed to be a spiritual sanctuary where individual retreatants could find a place of beauty, views, solitude, and spiritual comfort to pursue whatever was their personal spiritual need in that moment. The mountain proved highly successful in both aspects.

There are some things we choose to do. There are other things – typically fewer but more substantive – that we are called upon to do. This mountain sanctuary was a calling. When we are truly called to take some new step in our life – be it short-term or long-term – we are also assured that the sly hand of the Universe is shaping the direction, the process, and the intended outcomes of all that are involved. So it was with this mountain property.

Many of us know what incidences of a Universe intervention look like. An unexpected and unique idea suddenly presents itself “out of left field.” A person makes a seemingly innocent remark that somehow alerts our attention. The specific person or resource needed shows up at the exact time required. Fast-moving events seem overwhelming, simply carrying us along in a boat driven by Life’s rapids. Undeniable “coincidences” abound. The door to what would prove to be a wrong direction closes; the door to clarity opens widely to guide the path. What many believe could not occur is in fact happening, piece by piece. A heretofore mental vision gradually emerges into realization and actualization. “The stories one could tell” accumulate. So it was with this mountain property.

The key to effecting these life events is developing the sensitivity and mental sight that recognizes when we are in these moments. With that recognition comes the need to surrender one’s self to the Universe’s lead. We set our ego aside, defer our usual need to be “in control” of our life, and hand the reins over to something intent on taking us to somewhere we cannot fully see – revealed (if at all) only in gray shadows. Once that movement starts, it is then about our staying out of the way, wrapping ourselves in patience. We discern when to step in and do our piece, versus when to hang back and let other forces do their pieces. We keep our balance steady, for the path is alternately rocky and squishy. We accept that these experiences are not designed for our comfort. Quite the contrary, they are typically intended to shock us out of our comfortable equilibrium, and place our illusions and fears right in front of us. It is an intended challenge to our beliefs, our lessons learned, our arrogance, our confidence, and our skills. These moments often feel like they are happening quickly and joltingly – almost spur-of-the-moment. But in subsequent post-event reflection, we realize that they in fact developed over time through a series of connected steps. As this process proceeds, we watch it unfold with a combination of amusement, fascination, and awe.

These are not journeys for the faint of heart. These are journeys designed to move us from where we are to where we need to be in the judgment of the Universe. A place we would likely not see or select for ourselves, but a journey and a place capable of teaching us much. By definition, we only learn by replacing an existing thought with a new thought, even as we may cling to prior beliefs. We only experience by putting ourselves in a different place and/or circumstance; endless repetition leaves us stagnating in a timeframe long gone. Separating ourselves from where we have been and what we know, relinquishing the comfortable routine of familiarity, can be difficult if not highly painful. Removing an anchor that has been a central focus for 22 years can certainly leave one adrift in the moment. But this is the true journey of our life, fueled by knowing that it is all intended and purposeful.

A combination of factors and messages have conspired to tell me it is time to now leave this mountain place. The sale closing was exactly 16 years to the day from when I purchased the property – a nice bookending coda provided by the Universe. It has been a place surrounded by amazing people doing meaningful things that have resulted in very special friendships. After years of living the city life, in these economically poor but culturally rich Appalachian mountains I found a re-grounding in basic human fundamentals, and a deep sense of place. I leave simultaneously apprehensive and confident, grieving yet celebrating, remembering yet imagining, glancing backward yet looking forward, with appreciation for what has been and anticipation for what will be.

At the beginning of this latest of the many transitions in my life, I reminded the Universe that it had guided me into this special place I have been fortunate to occupy and share for a time. Now it needed to guide me back out again. So it has, in its own creative, exhausting, and deliberate way, creating even more new stories to be told. This transition has also taught me another important new lesson: the Universe does not play unilateral favorites. Every Universe intervention draws in other assisting colleagues – who may or may not be aware of their contributing role. The driving good that is intended for us must also create good for each of these contributors – not be at their expense. Therefore the processes and outcomes followed must accommodate all. We need to be supportive of this multi-targeted effort for others as much as what is intended for ourselves.

Every intervention by the Universe is simultaneously a closing and an opening, an ending and a beginning. Whether the next phase of my life is but a short step or another 20-year journey, I do not know. The Universe will answer that as it moves me from an old ending to a new beginning.

©  2017   Randy Bell      

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Religion As Cultural Spirituality

“I believe all religious forms are created over the course of the history of religion. But they have taken on a sacredness for us and are places where we come together with God … That’s what I call the practices … For a long time I was quite ambivalent about [doing the practices], but I’ve come back to … love practice.

I find that the practice is a moment of being in the presence of God, performing a religious act … These are moments in which I open myself to the divine Presence and, quite frequently, feel some kind of connection through them. So they have become very powerful in my life again.”  Rabbi Arthur Green, rector, Hebrew College Rabbinical School)

There are many different religions that exist throughout this world. Most religions split themselves into various subgroups (denominations) due to differences in detailed beliefs and practices. They further splinter off into differences from church-to-church / congregation-to-congregation due to local focus and priorities. In the blog posting “Living Spiritually” (6/5/2017), four characteristics inherent in living a spiritual life were described. If people in the fast-growing “spiritual-but-not-religious” group consider themselves as pursuing a spiritual way of life, what is it that they are giving up (i.e. “religion”) in their pursuit?

If spirituality is highly personal, religion is highly communal. Personal spirituality is inherently a place of individuality, of going one’s separate way, of a certain aloneness in beliefs and practices. For those to whom such states are intolerable, religion offers a sanctuary of familiar faces, a shared bonding, a security in numbers that reassures. In turn, the religion demands a measure of fealty to its form and structure, regardless of whether that community is supportive of one’s spiritual needs. The communal form stays essentially intact even as the individual seeker’s maturity evolves and experiences change. In religion, one finds blessed stability; in spirituality, one constantly walks the discomforting high wire of “new.”

If spirituality requires pursuing unending questions only temporarily answered, religion offers set answers that have been established and codified over potentially thousands of years. They are answers that are generally final and immutable, even as their applicability to an individual’s current events and circumstances may be less clear. Deference to those set answers is mandatory, else the religion collapses, because those answers are the glue that holds a religion together. If a collapse happens, it likely results in a splintering into even more institutional subsets of diverse beliefs. With such splintering, conflict – if not violence – often ensues. What should be seen as evolving and emerging spiritual growth often becomes treason to one’s sect. And the seeker is typically left caught in the deeply difficult middle: to stay, or to leave?

If spirituality looks to the intuitive and inspired mind, dogmatic religion offers solace in the rational, human mind. In a rational construct, uncertainty is replaced by seeming certainty. Potential answers are presented as “proved” or “disproved.” The community shares acceptance of an apparently reasonable conclusion – even though they are conclusions reached within the limitations of our human experiences and capacities, colored by perhaps questionable lessons previously absorbed. From such conclusions, trust in one’s inner sense of connection to things beyond the rational lies fallow. Thereby, one’s true, inner Self continues to sit in darkness, unknown and unrecognized.

If spirituality is experiential, religion offers a preset and prescribed package of often beautiful and inspiring experiences. They are experiences that can be shared with one’s contemporaries as well as in the company of one’s ancestry. There are religious holidays and celebrations; special foods and religious menus; rituals of passage (birth; maturity; marriage; death); family relationships and memories; standardized songs, liturgy and prayer practices. Yet these are experiences created by humans for humans, not experiences of humans with that which is beyond human. God never told us not to eat meat on Friday; these are our religious customs reflective of an historical moment in time, or the honoring of a particular person/event, that together make up a religious culture. They connect us to each other by our shared participation, and perhaps temporarily alleviate our loneliness. But that set package often precludes a direct, unique experience between God and us. In spirituality, one has to create one’s experiences, either by finding your own expression, or by opening yourself to allow the Universe to find you.

For many, religion brings us into a pre-structured place of community, perspective, insight, decisions, and experiences that reassures and works for us at points in our life. For others, religion’s structure closes doors of individual discovery and resulting personal fulfillment. In religion, we share ideas and forms passed down as gifts from the ages. In spirituality, we create a gift to give to the ages. There is no right or wrong in either of these alternatives. There is only “appropriateness” – and appropriateness varies over one’s lifetime and circumstances.

Ultimately, spirituality and religion are simply potential means to bring us inward to our spirit, outward in good will to all others, and open to a Universal connection and understanding.  Danger arises when 1) religion loses its humility of knowing that it is here to serve the seeker, not to be served, or 2) we come to believe that our religion is appropriate for all – which it is not. That is why we are continually challenged to carefully discern between God and humankind, and between religious content and practices versus fallible human beings. That is why we seek to distinguish between the teachings of the great spiritual masters, and the institutions human beings have built around those lessons. That is why we need to hold our religion very lightly to ensure that our religious decisions move as we move – which we surely do. When we allow ourselves to move, we instinctively find our way closer to our spirituality, our discovery of our unfalsified true Self, and our connection with God.

In religion, the seeker comes to the Church. In spirituality, the Church comes to the seeker.

©   2017   Randy Bell     

Monday, June 5, 2017

Living Spiritually

Let us be clear up front. Being spiritual and living spiritually is very hard work. We may seek a spiritual life out of a desire for internal peace, gentleness, comfort, balance and love in our lives. And it is true that spirituality can bring some measure of those qualities into our daily living. But living a spiritual life does not eliminate the disruptions, often painful ones, inherent in being human. It simply provides us with a broader framework of understanding and expression within which these discomforts can be housed and smoothed out.

Living spiritually is highly personal. We are necessarily alone in our spiritual experience, even when supported by the company of others. It is not a “head game” of rules, commandments, history and stories. It is not about following rules or adopting the beliefs of others – though we may choose to accept some of them for the sake of Community. Rather, spirituality is about finding our own truth for ourselves. It is less about “fitting in,” and more about “finding out.”

Living spiritually is willingly following a path of unending questions that receive only temporary answers. Such questions are the means for our pursuit of continually greater understandings about the Universe and our humankind existence. Our questions are deeply individualized to our unique Self, independent of the questions appropriate for others. The answers we get along the way give us the ongoing sustenance needed to continue the journey, like a series of oases in the parched desert. But after each refreshing drink, and some allowed time to savor the moment, we start out again with our next questions. Like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” just when we think we have it nailed down, old answers come back as new questions. So we continually start over again. It is as if we were on a tour bus, self-guided as we explore various stops, but only the driver knows where the next stops will be. Yet we restart willingly – knowing that it truly is the never-completed journey of questioning that matters most, not the illusion of a final destination of answers. Our lack of answers frustrates us only momentarily before it motivates us further. Daily we ask ourselves not just what happened, but what did we learn new?

Living spiritually is allowing our intuitive mind to find full voice and acceptance. Our day is ordinarily ruled by our logical mind in a series of decisions based upon how we have been trained, what we have experienced, and how we have interpreted those experiences (usually inaccurately). Often these decisions have trapped us into a life of repetition or false knowing. Yet when we open to it, our spiritual Self transcends our taught beliefs and misunderstood experiences. It takes us into a world of simply “knowing,” moving us to places we would otherwise not venture. It is a knowing not of what may sound sensible, but of what is truly right for us. In spite of our resistance, or the resistance spoken by others, “something” tells us the direction to go in this moment, and we trust our intuition enough spiritually to follow its lead.

Living spiritually is inherently experiential. It is the embracing of all that comes into our life, fully engaging the joys and the pains that occur, knowing that each can bring us closer to understanding both our humanness and God. Our spiritual practices run in two directions: at times we take the outside world into our being, and allow it to wrap itself around us and deepen the peace and gentleness of our heart. At other times we push our inner Self outward into the world, fulfilling the sense of our passion and joy that cries out for expression. From solitude to connection and back again, our life is a continuing interplay between that which is human and that which is Divine. It is the touching sound of our laughter and our music; the deep seeing of all that has been put in front of us in this earthly experience; the hearing of the messages of the Universe as they speak so clearly to us. It is seeing who we truly are, and then sharing that Self with everyone. By seeing our adult experiences through the innocent eyes and mind of our childhood, we thereby see Creation and Godliness in all that exists, and are openly dumbstruck and overwhelmed by the wonder of it all.

(With appreciation to the Life Long Learning group.)

©   2017   Randy Bell     


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Other

Why are you afraid of me?

When we first meet, do you see me as a new friend? Are you open to me, unless I demonstrate otherwise? Do you see me as a potential threat, until I reassure you over time by proving I am trustworthy? Or Is there an underlying protectiveness in you that assumes at some point I will betray your trust?

Perhaps our skins are a different color. We are of different height, weight, hair color and shapes. Maybe we are a different gender – or perhaps my gender is not what it once was and you thought gender was a permanent thing. Do my physical shortcomings, scars, disabilities, or ravages of disease make you uncomfortable, make you feel more vulnerable to being damaged in your future? If I look different than you, I likely have had different experiences than you. Are you afraid to learn about my experiences because sometimes they make you question your own experiences?

The world is a multi-ethnic place. It is likely that, over the centuries, our many ancestors came from very different places. Places with very different histories of their existence and their relationships with others. Those histories are in my physical and mental DNA, as are yours. Do the histories of my ancestral past threaten you today, afraid that past conflicts will reemerge in this lifetime, directed towards you?

I grew up in a family other than yours. A family shaped by a different culture of perspectives, traditions, rituals, religious views, and ways of conducting business. My formal educational path may have been more or less than yours, and certainly followed a different path. The things I have seen and done are unlike what you have seen and done. My memories are different than yours; my current life is different than yours. Are you interested in what I have seen and done? Are you interested in my stories, in my point of view that has resulted from my stories? Or do you find it difficult to understand my stories and views simply because they do not correspond to your stories and views. Is it too difficult to make the effort or find the time necessary to make these more understandable to you? Does understanding our differences unduly take time and energy away from your schedule and priorities?

My birthplace is likely different from yours. Where I have been and lived since my birth is probably also different, especially if you stayed rooted in one location for most of your life. In this world there are numerous species of plant and animal life; high mountains and low valleys; green forests, expansive plains, desolate deserts; frigid winters and oppressive summers; ocean beaches, river sandbars, lakeside playgrounds; big cities, small towns, and rural isolation. The visuals in my mind’s eye are in real contrast to the visuals in your mind. Can we share those visuals somehow, and be insightful about how these pictures affected us so differently?

I speak differently than you. The words I use, the pronunciation of them (“my accent”), the way I use them to form sentences, are part of my own background and uniqueness. Just because we speak differently does not necessarily mean that what we are saying is substantially different. If our speech is different, does it necessarily mean that our thoughts are different?

You say that you are not afraid of me. Yet you avoid spending time with me unless caused by unavoidable circumstances. You cross the street to avoid passing me. You choose to stay in an enclave of similarity rather than puncture that enclave with diversity. You expend much effort trying to make me change my beliefs and life choices to match yours. Maybe you resent others who are similar to me who you feel take advantage of your good will; why do you paint all of us with one brush? Does your avoidance of knowing me mask a fear you do not acknowledge?

Am I simply “the Other?” Do our differences make you inherently afraid of me? Afraid just because I am different? Do my differences make you feel self-conscious or defensive regarding who you are? Or challenge you about what you believe? We do not have to be alike, you know. We do not have to agree, or need to tell each other what to do. We do not have to convince each other that one of us is “right” and the other is “wrong.” I do not have to change my life to be as yours, nor you to change to be as me. Two divergent paths can almost always find a pathway in the middle for us to travel together.

My life choices are not a criticism or negation of yours. We are just different. That is what we share in common. We can find that commonality if we choose to, and thereby stop fighting with each other, stop being afraid of each other. Are we willing to support and accept each of us being who we are? Can we simply live side-by-side with each other in mutual respect? It will take effort and openness from each of us. Are we afraid to make that effort? To make “The Other” into “One Another?”

I ask these many questions of you. But will I be honest enough to also ask them of myself?

©   2017   Randy Bell     

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Freedom From Death

Each of us is going to die. This is the known. None of us knows exactly when or how that will happen. This is the unknown.

I do not say this just to be disconcerting or unfeeling about what is a difficult emotional issue. That we will one day die is known by our own direct observation, and is affirmed by virtually all sacred texts. That we do not know when or how is likewise asserted in those text (though if we find ourselves in certain situations our awareness of a potentially imminent date may be heightened.)

We can hasten death by living our life dangerously, carelessly and thoughtlessly; we can perhaps delay our death somewhat by doing the opposite. Even then, the arrival of our death is highly subject to the actions of others – both near and distant to us – over which we have little control. That lack of control is a big deal to our psyche, and our emotional balance.

Our concern about dying is about losing the pieces of life that we know: our experiences, our loved ones, our setting, and our opportunities. It is also about what we do not know, more specifically what awaits us after death. All religions have some theological opinions on the subject, with varying levels of detail. These opinions range from the traditional belief of a minimally-defined future resurrection of the dead without much explanatory detail (Judaism); an elaborate structure of a living afterlife in the elaborate splendor of Heaven or unspeakable damnation in Hell in Christian and Islamic thought; or a continuous cycle in some form of reincarnated life in Buddhist teachings. The religious teachings may vary, but the commonality is that something continues after death. Yet none of it will be ultimately confirmed or denied until we personally experience it.

Having such a significant uncontrolled unknown inherent in our Life’s makeup is very disturbing. What we cannot control and cannot know creates a knee-jerk reaction likely to be fear, from a presumption that something bad will happen. Then our follow-on reaction is anger: at being threatened, and at our self for our apparent weakness to control the situation. We make a choice: to embrace the threat and seek to transform it into a positive opportunity, or to build some kind of fortress to defend and protect us.

Today, people are making a great number of such choices about the world we live in and the life we are living. Many of these choices are based upon this linkage of fear for our safety – the safety of our physical life, of our cultural way of life, of our ability to control our own future. We feel that the world is out to get us, that unseen attackers are just waiting to get us at a weak, unsuspecting moment,. That people of different backgrounds and lifestyles are determined to take away our values, rights, freedoms, livelihood and existence. They may be non-physical attacks on us, but our mental life is inseparable from our physical life. The same alarm bell goes off; the same chain of fear and defense is triggered. Defending one’s self is primary.

Why is this discussion important? Because all fears come from the same well: death. Death of body; death of mind; death of person. The potential for our death is all around us. Therefore prudence and common sense certainly demand that we live our life with some measure of caution in order to give our life a chance to fulfill and maximize its potential. Fear of death is a strong motivator that can lead us into very dark places filled with very questionable decisions, such as we are experiencing in world society today. But we also have to keep our fear in proportion, for the odds are that our death is not imminent.

In 2014 approximately 2.5M out of 330M Americans (less than 1%) died from all causes. Medical illness was the overwhelming reason for these deaths. Unintentional “accidents” were around the 5th cause of death. Homicides – what we seemingly fear most – are way down the list and around half the number of suicides. The majority of homicides are committed by someone known to the victim, not some random stranger. Killings by foreign / foreign-inspired terrorists that we are so preoccupied with today? Less than 100 – perhaps .004% of all deaths, .00003% of Americans. I may well be killed by a foreign terrorist. But if I am going to worry about my impending demise, I choose to be far more worried about a neighbor with a gun, a drunk driver on the road, an accidental fall from not paying adequate attention, or most likely, a lurking disease working its way through my body. All seeming like reasons to never get out of bed and leave the house again.

Every life is important. Important to honor; important to protect. Death is not something to trivialize. But letting our fear of dying dominate our thinking and decisions, and protecting our life the end unto itself, leads us to separation. We erect mental and physical defenses that keep others away, see the worst in people rather than the best, run away from new opportunities out of fear of failure, avoid relationships we believe we cannot trust, reject love for fear of being hurt. As I have said before, “The walls we build to protect us are the same walls that imprison us.”

Dying is part of the contract we agreed to when we accepted this life in human form. So we need to get over inappropriately worrying about it. Opening to the fullness of Life is a risk, but it is the very risk we are here to take. We should move thoughtfully, but we should also be moving in continuous pursuit of our best Self and in support of the best self of others. We cannot escape our death but we can escape the specter of our death robbing us of the joy of the life we are living. Casting off the mental oppression that comes from trying to unduly avoid our death is key to gaining the freedom to live the full life of receiving and giving that is open to us.

©   2017   Randy Bell     


Friday, January 13, 2017

Reflection And Resolution

For many of us, New Year’s Eve is a festive time marked by (often too much) food, drink, and music in the company of someone special. If the prior year was an unsatisfying one, we celebrate its demise and departure in hopes that it will somehow exorcise itself from our memory bank. If it was one of satisfaction and benefit, we give thankful appreciation for the good in our life.

This festivity is followed on New Year’s Day by a more sobering day of rest, including a pause for the making of new resolutions for the forthcoming year. We make our resolutions to help us identify some aspect of our life we want to do differently, pay more attention to, or enhance in some manner. Often these center around our body – a  promise to  lose weight, to eat healthier, to exercise more. Sometimes we make more noble resolutions for ourselves: to be more thoughtful, kinder to others, or more engaged with our community.

Unfortunately, most of these resolutions fail, usually before the first month of the new year is done. They fail because we do the resolution part too easily, with little true commitment, confusing “wishing” with setting realistic goals, all built upon a weak drive of little Purpose. It is Purpose that gives our resolutions sustaining energy, and Purpose comes from a necessary investment in Reflection. Time spent in honest and genuine examination of our life, where we have been, and where we now are. That is why our first Resolution should always be to spend more time in Reflection.

In Judaism, this idea of Reflection leading to Resolution is formalized in the annual tradition of the High Holy Days around the Hebrew New Year. It is a time that honors the 40 days Moses spent with God on Mount Sinai receiving the replacement set of stone tablets. The first 30-days are spent in spiritual reflection, introspection, and prayer looking back over the past year. The High Holy Days then begin with Rosh Hashanah, the start of the New Year. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world, the day when God passes preliminary judgment on one’s life and determines his/her upcoming fate. Ten days (“Days of Awe”) are spent meditating on the meaning of the Holidays, identifying needed changes for one’s better behavior, and asking for forgiveness from those one has wronged. It ends with Yom Kippur, the holiest “Day of Atonement.” One’s judgement is thereby sealed based upon one’s atonement and repentance; for those who have atoned, the new year begins on a clean slate. 

These High Holy Days are performed within a specific structure of prayers, liturgies, readings, ritual and ceremony applicable to the Jewish tradition. But the intention and structure of these days can be borrowed and applied to one of any faith or belief system, adapted to one’s own personal structure and ceremony. It starts with creating deliberate intention and time to pursue one’s own period of Reflection, Atonement, and Resolution. Borrowing from the symbolism of Rosh Hashanah, we engage in this period not at the secular calendar New Year, but annually on our birthday – honoring our own “day of creation.” We question ourselves as to our life and how we are living it, not as oppressive judgment but in the spirit of atoning for our missteps, and changing our course towards fulfilling our better Self.

In meditation or in journaling, we pursue pertinent questions. For example:
1. What is my life about right now – my surroundings, my relationships?
2.  How has my life changed over this past year, and what were the significant events?
3.  Am I where, and am I doing, what I had expected at this point in my life?
4.  What is not going well, or has not turned out well, in my life thus far?
5.  What immediate concerns are pressing upon me?
6.  What is going well, or has turned out well, in my life thus far?
7.  What immediate positives are enveloping me?
8.  How often do I do something different than my usual daily routine?
9.  What am I secretly wishing I had time and opportunity to do for myself?
10. Who or what have I harmed, whether intentionally or unknowingly, and how could I have handled it better?
11. In what way, and how often, am I expressing the spiritual aspect of my life today?
12. RESOLUTION: What do I wish to emphasize in the forthcoming year, and in what manner, regarding my: family; friendships; job / career / work / vocation; personal well-being and development; sense of happiness and completeness; spiritual practice and connection to the Universe.

Out of these answers can come our Resolutions, now infused with insightful Purpose. Resolutions that can have a lasting effect on our lives. Resolutions that give real meaning to our birthday: a life renewed again. May you have happy birthdays and truly meaningful renewals on each anniversary of your creation. Your true New Year.

©   2017   Randy Bell