Land of the Free?

A post from visiting writer Cliff Kroski. He teaches philosophy and pastors the Community of the Incarnation.

On the first Sunday in July, we celebrate the 4th of July, Independence Day.

As we reflect on this day and celebrate this day, people will watch parades and have cookouts, watch and/or light fireworks, waive the flag and sing, “God Bless America.”

 I am always struck when seeing a bumper sticker on Sundays in the Unity Temple parking lot: “God Bless All Nations.” Yes, as Americans we live in a special country with far more opportunities than most people have in so many other countries. Yes, we are proud of the United States, but do we have the “market cornered” on God’s blessing?

At ball games and sporting events we stand for the “Star Spangled Banner.” Now, in many ballparks during the 7th inning stretch, people stand and sing, “God Bless America.” I am very uncomfortable with this custom. It smacks too much of what I mentioned above, God’s blessing belongs on the United States and no one else.

 Words like freedom and independence will be spoken a lot these days. People will honor our Revolutionary War ancestors and call them patriots. May we not forget that being called a patriot depends on which “side of the fence” one belongs. To the

British, our patriots were traitors; and if they were caught they would have been hung as traitors.

Can we as nation truly celebrate freedom and independence when words like Democrat, Republican, Conservative, and Liberal are battle cries and judgments in some people’s minds? Can we celebrate freedom when one person shouts down another person’s opinion when it does not conform to his or her own opinion? Can we celebrate freedom when segments of our society are treated with prejudice and disdain and not allowed to exercise their own freedoms (gay men and women, the elderly, the poor, the handicapped, etc.) Can we celebrate freedom when, thanks to the “Patriot Act” and “Homeland Security,” we have racial profiling against men and women of Mid-Eastern descent?

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” 

Can we celebrate freedom when unfair and prejudiced Immigration Laws are put into place? Many of these illegal immigrants work in our packing plants and as farm laborers for very little money under poor working conditions. They are imported by the same companies who abuse them. It is curious to me that many people who cry for tougher immigration laws do not complain about cheap prices due to cheap laborer.

The pedestal of the Statue of Liberty reads:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Only when we celebrate cultural and sexual diversity, understanding, compassion and tolerance, and acceptance of an opposite opinion, will we ever truly be independent and free.

Happy 4th of July! May God bless all nations!

Work as a Spiritual Quest

This morning I’ve been thinking about work as a spiritual quest. Most of my writing has the quest for a spiritual life as a topic, but my work to market the work and the work to edit the work just feels like – well – work! How would infusing the spiritual into work, work – what would it look like? To pause before each step to give it the presence it needs?

Ah, being present. Being present all the time takes a lot of work. How to remember to be present? One way is breathing: consciousness of breath is an always task. But the words I’m using – work, task – don’t really lend themselves to turning the corner into acceptance.

What else would put spirit into work? A smile. And suddenly, I remember Bhante Kamalesiri, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk with whom I practiced meditation when I lived in Washington D.C.

He was a tiny man, dressed in voluminous, soft, saffron-colored robes, and he always smiled. He smiled as he taught before leading us into silent meditation. And if I sneaked a peek at him while he sat, he’d be smiling. How could he sit so calmly and patiently?

After about thirty minutes into sitting, I’d have lost patience: my legs would be aching, my back, my hips, and crossed knees. Learning to accept the suffering in life is an arduous practice and my entire consciousness would be fixed on my suffering body.

In the middle of my suffering, and probably for most of us sitting there, I’d hear his soft voice floating across the room, “Gently lift the corners of your mouth.” Just that. And that simple, kind reminder, when he knew we were all aching, would change the energy of the ache.

The corners of my mouth would lift, I’d smile, and everything lightened. His simple reminder always amused me, and with the smile, I’d feel my body take a deep breath.

Try it. Right now as you’re reading. Lift the corners of your mouth and smile. Close your eyes and feel how everything in your face lightens with that smile, how your shoulders relax and your body takes a filling breath. Take a moment, just a moment, to smile and breathe.

Too often we think of work as what we do to earn the money to do the other things we want to do. What if we could turn that idea of work into thinking of our work as the gift we offer: the gift of our talents, the gift of our ideas, the gift of doing a job well? How would our daily lives change if we were to say, “I’m going to gift,” instead of “I’m going to work”? For one thing, I suppose people would look at us a little strange, but who knows – it might catch on, we might have everyone around us thinking of their work as gift!

Today I will practice looking at my work as my gift. Whatever I do. After all, I still have legs and hands and heart and head. And the courage to lift the corners of my mouth and smile. I offer that smile to you.

Taking the slow path

We’re in the last throes of the semester and students are giving persuasive speeches. Their efforts lands in either the very good or the very not good category – rarely an in-between. When they are giving speeches, I sit at the back so I don’t distract with my layers of papers and evaluation forms. It’s also easier for them to look at the entire audience when I’m not so prominent in the room.

Last week, a student sat snuffling at the desk next to me.  He muffled a couple of coughs in his elbow as kids are taught these days. “Go home,” I said to him. “You’re sick.” He nodded. “Are you speaking tonight?” He nodded again, muffling another cough. “Then leave after your speech,” I said. He shook his head. “I can’t. I can’t let my group down.”

Okay. I hadn’t been sick all semester and thought nothing more except to hand him a tissue from time to time. By Friday, my soft palette was achy and I began the regimen of Emergen-C and Air Borne. By Saturday, my throat felt like an army in dirty socks had been marching though. More Air Borne and Emergen-C. Sunday morning I felt okay so went to church. Cliff said stay home, but I didn’t. And by Sunday afternoon, I was bona fidely sick.

The past few weeks, as for everyone, have been pretty chaotic. Too much going on and too much to do and too many sudden changes in direction. Not much down time other than an evening stroll out into the yard before dinner to pull a couple of weeds, cut some asparagus, see how the flowers are doing.

“Behold the lilies of the field; they neither sweat nor toil.”

All the spiritual traditions say the same kind of thing: Look. Slow down and look. See beauty. Take time with your life. Or else (there’s always an “or else”) you get struck down in one way or another – this time with a cold, another time with a heart attack, another time with a broken leg. Take time.  That’s exactly why I walk into the garden in the evenings, to take time – but one fifteen minute stroll in the evening doesn’t solve the dilemma of the other hours.

No matter how many times we read or hear the same message, we get caught in the whirl. It’s even possible to be conscious that you’re in a whirl and still be caught. I’m reminded of Cliff’s homily yesterday on love – there are millions of songs, poems, books about love and yet we humans forget and easily become unloving.

So if being conscious of the whirl isn’t enough to stop (I’m reminded of the play title “Stop the World I Want to Get Off), what’s the answer? That play is roughly forty years old so it isn’t as if this particular time has the dibs on chaos. It’s been around; it will come back. So then the question becomes is stopping when we are caught in chaos, either in unloving chaos or too much to do chaos, the real answer?

I could have moved desks when the student next to me continued to cough and sniffle, but I didn’t. I handed him tissues and admired his dedication. From the beginning of the semester, I put an emphasis on being responsible to the community – both in the smaller groups and with the larger class as a whole. What could I say? Go home – my wellbeing is more important than the group?

In reality, being conscious of chaos doesn’t necessarily allow you to sidestep all the time. And once again, I will learn that instead of sidestepping chaos, the task is to learn to live with it. To stop being cranky because my head is filled with gunk and my chest hurts. In modern-day vernacular, that’s basically what the Buddha said: suffering is part of the human condition but you can choose how to live with that suffering.

I will stop. And rest. And put off errands and chores. And, most importantly, be at peace with my choice and my body.

Today, I’ll take the slow, winding path that leads past benches where I can sit, watch the sunlight, be at peace. Come sit beside me and look at the sunlight. And with the gift of cyberspace, you won’t even hear me sniffling.