“In every religious tradition there is a practice of devotion and a practice of transformation . . .Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ
Devotion means trusting more in ourselves and in the path we follow. Transformation means to practice the things this path imposes on us.”
For the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed my evening cup of hot herbal tea in a yellow submarine mug.
The submarine windows remain dark and wave-splashed when the mug is cold.
But when I pour in boiling water, Paul McCartney miraculously appears and waves at me.
John, George and Ringo also make their presence known in other windows.
The Beatles stay hidden until I choose to create the right conditions to see them, and then I have to choose to celebrate and appreciate them.
The mug reminds me:
- If I can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
- When there is something to be revealed, the conditions have to be right.
- Sometimes I have to make a choice to take action to make those conditions right.
- And then I have to choose to notice, celebrate and appreciate.
- I have to trust in what I can’t see as much as what I can.
Faith, hope, peace, joy, love surround me. If they begin to feel distant or elusive, I can pour some warmth on them and notice how they miraculously appear.
I took this picture on our Canadian Thanksgiving walk at Shaw Woods. It’s difficult to grasp this picture at a glance, so I’ll walk you through it. The sheer rock face to the left used to be the surface on which the tree grew. The clump of brownish tangle forming a V shape opposite it are the roots of the tree. We know the tree sustained itself for many years on that precarious and not-very-nourishing place because it grew to a substantial size. You can see the circumference of the trunk above the heads of my mother and my son. Their size gives you some perspective on the size of the tree.
The roots of the tree could not penetrate the solid rock to grow deeply, so root tendrils reached out horizontally over the slanting rock in their search for sustenance.
Such a precarious state could not endure. At some point, a storm-driven gust of wind exerted such pressure on the tree that its roots peeled away from the impenetrable stone and it toppled. Without deep roots solidly anchoring it into the ground it could not survive a storm.
We can learn lessons from this tree.
Metaphorically speaking, to survive life’s storms, people need roots entrenched deeply into solid, anchoring sustenance: faith, nurturing friendships, loving family. Sure, some can survive for a while by spreading themselves thinly over precarious and not-very-nurturing surfaces, reaching out for sustenance through such things as jobs, money or alcohol and drugs. Like the tree in the photo, some people last surprisingly long that way. But eventually a storm comes with a wind too strong to withstand: the job disappears, the money dries up or the alcohol and drugs destroy ability to function effectively. Then the shallow roots peel away and everything topples.
Are you deeply rooted and ready for a storm?
When my husband and I strolled through St. James’ Park during our recent vacation to London, England, we passed this tree. Its harshly pruned branches made a sorry silhouette against the dusky skies of London.
We slowed our steps and looked up at the denuded tree. “Maybe it will come back,” my husband said, sardonically.
Then we looked more closely. One determined twig of new growth sprouted from the side of an upper branch. This tree, that to our eyes appeared cruelly pruned past the point of rejuvenation, prevailed.
We continued our walk feeling a little lighter.
Even when life prunes us down to bare essentials, new growth and rebirth is possible. It’s a matter of faith.
This is an updated version of one of my very first posts, written in May, 2010 under the name Top 10 reasons to belong to a faith community.
Here are the top benefits I have enjoyed as a part of my progressive Christian congregation.
10. Critical thinking
We don’t want to tell you what to think—honest. We say, “Let’s share ideas so we explore this mystery together.” Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples provide places for you to sit and listen and ponder so you can figure out what you believe, or not.
9. A community of support
When life brings you to your knees (and it will) a faith community helps you through. The connections forged at deep levels in these groups help people to rebuild lives after tragic events like the loss of a child, the early death of a spouse, or a house fire.
8. Lifelong learning
“I am still learning,” Michelangelo said. An insatiable curiosity drives happiness, and faith communities come with an endless supply of brain teasers.
Our popular culture provides so few opportunities for belting out a tune. If you want to sing, play the guitar, or bang a drum, we have the place for you. Best of all, when you sing in these venues, even a solo, you don’t have to be perfect. The audiences are very forgiving.
6. Child education
What does the wisdom of Solomon mean? Under what circumstances might one require the patience of Job? What is a David and Goliath situation? How many prodigal sons, or daughters, do you know? Have you ever been the Good Samaritan? Our societies, our art and our literature contain religious references which would be meaningless without adequate education about our heritages.
Humans crave rituals, and we create them every day. It is what we do. Jumping into, or out of, any particular activity without some form of ritual just feels wrong. At a hockey game we introduce the players and sing the national anthem. At graduation ceremonies we wear gowns, deliver moving speeches, and have a group celebration. Faith communities provide grounding rituals for the most pivotal moments in our lives. Sometimes the comfort of ritual is all that gets someone through the night.
When I returned to church as an adult, I did it for my daughter. I was shocked to discover there was something for cynical old me there too. (I was atheist a the time.) I had a young baby, I worked full time and we had just moved to a new house—I was a little stressed. When I went to church each week, I left my baby in the care of the nursery workers and sat in the pew. I expected to sit and roll my eyes at everything the minister said. Instead each week he said something that made me think. Each week he said things that surprised me, challenged me. Each week, at some point, I had tears in my eyes. That hour of peace each week fulfilled a need in me that I didn’t even know I had.
3. Helping others
Faith communities pick up where social agencies drop off. The charitable donations and volunteer activities of members of all kinds of faith communities keep many aspects of our society afloat. Used clothing donations, homework programs, soup kitchens, food banks, emergency assistance, global outreach. The charitable deeds amount to millions of volunteer hours and billions of dollars.
2. Creativity and growth
One of my minister’s favourite statements is, “Do it, and you’ll grow.” This simple statement has encouraged many to take on tasks that initially made their fingertips tingle with fear. Involvement with faith communities pushes us to do work that stretches us past our comfort zone. Every time we climb over our fear and break through that barrier, we grow. We learn to get past fear. Are you brave enough to deliver a Christmas basket to a family in need and share the experience in their home? Would you teach Sunday School? Preach a sermon? Do it, and you’ll grow.
And the number 1 reason to belong to a faith community . . .
So many of the activities in faith communities are just plain fun!
A family story:
One day, when my son was 10 years old, we were returning home from a shopping trip. We pulled up at a stoplight behind a car similar to one belonging to friends of ours. When I noticed the Jesus fish above the bumper, it confirmed it as theirs. (They have a more conservative take on Christianity than I do.)
“Yep, that’s them, all right,” I said to my son. “They have a Jesus fish.”
He considered this for a moment. He said, “When I went to his [the son of the family] birthday party, they said grace before we had cake.”
“Really?” I said. This struck me as surprising and funny, so I laughed. Then I realized I shouldn’t pass judgment on the religious practices of my son’s friends, so I said, “I shouldn’t laugh. That’s not funny.”
I couldn’t help smiling to myself. I sat there thinking about it and smiling. After a few minutes, I looked over at my son, who was also stifling a laugh and peeking out of the corner of his eye at me. We both cracked up.
My son said, “When he [the father] finished saying grace he said, ‘Amen,’ and most of the kids at the party were just like, ‘Huh?'”
“Did you say ‘Amen’?”
He gave me a scornful look, like I had asked him if he liked chocolate. “Yes,” he said. “I know how to say grace.”
“Maybe someday you’ll thank me for all your spiritual instruction.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I won’t say grace at my kids’ birthday parties.”
I grew up in a family that said grace every day, so the practice feels comfortable and familiar to me. My husband, my children and I don’t say grace every day, but we do at Sunday dinner, on holidays and at other times when it just feels right. Sometimes we have friends over who have a strong faith tradition, so they join in with no problem. Other friends don’t feel so comfortable with faith, so we make sure to phrase it as “Let’s take some time for gratitude.” I don’t address the grace to anything or anyone in particular. Even then, I can tell it makes them squirm.
An expression of gratitude shouldn’t be so laden with uncomfortable expectations and limitations. Grace should be just that: grace-full.
Everyone, no matter what they believe, benefits from taking time for gratitude. So, let’s peel off some of the layers that don’t need to be there. Take time for gratitude. Address your thanks to God, or the universe, or the farmer, or the cook—whatever makes you comfortable.
And at a birthday party, maybe a might shout of
“THANKS FOR THE CAKE!” would work best.