Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Well, Yeah, I Suppose It's Piracy

But it seems a wee bit less manly than, say, raiding shipping in the Caribbean in the 17th century!

I'm talking about Book Piracy.

Blackbeard is rolling in his grave (minus his head, of course!).

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Friday, August 5, 2011

On Faith and Floating, Pt. 2

In my last post, I gave a very simplified view of my problem with faith. Namely, my seeming inability to maintain it. I glossed over a few issues - church conflict, problem of evil, bad things happening to good people, etc. - that were not resolved by any theological formulation (none I had found, anyway). Orthodox, conservative, progressive, process, liberation ... name your subset of theology; nothing seemed to fix my problem. And I do claim ownership of this. Plenty of people the world over have come up with ideas and explanations that work perfectly well for them. They just don't for me.

So I continued my journey into Zen, loving every moment of it, while simultaneously grieving the loss of faith in the notion of a caring, compassionate, interventionist (involved) and, to some extent, determinist (there's a plan for your life) God. It's hard to let go of the old ideas, even though they've fallen apart in an logical sense. There always seems to be an emotional piece involved in beliefs, which is why we always get into the most heated of debates and conflicts over what seems, to outsiders, at least, to be the most trivial of issues. In my case, this meant that while I was intellectually ready to abandon the idea of a deity who was ready to help me out at the drop of a hat, who loved me and wanted nothing but the best for me, etc., I still found myself feeling emotions similar to the kind people face when dealing with acts of abandonment or betrayal.

Fortunately, some events occurred that helped me tremendously.

The first event was when a friend contacted me on Facebook's chat program and started asking questions about death and dying. She told me that her mother is dying of cancer, and spoke of the emotional strains on her family. I don't know how long I spent talking to her about grief and related issues, but I do know that I came away from the conversation feeling, I don't know, alive? In the zone, maybe. Like this type of work was where I excelled, where I belonged.

But still, even a feeling of belonging doesn't necessarily resolve theological dilemmas. Yes, I could listen, provide comfort and support, and even maybe offer insight as to what was being experienced. But talking to people who believe in a omnipresent, omniscient, all powerful God when I do not is still a major roadblock. Plus, having one positive experience that reminded me of some of my better chaplain moments does not resolution make.

The second major event came from, of all places, a podcast put out by the San Francisco Zen Center. I have been visiting their site for some time now, as finding and attending Buddhist centers here in TN has been problematic. I have found their dharma talks to be very thought provoking and challenging. In another world, another time, I might have even travelled there and done the whole monk thing. But reality is WAY different, and I seriously doubt that One Ring would appreciate me quitting my job and moving to California!

This particular podcast, entitled "The Spirit of Practice: Christianity and Zen," was particularly engaging. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine Monk, discussed 3 aspects of Christianity: Faith, Hope, and Love (mentioned prominently in 1 Corinthians 13) in a way that I had never considered. He said (you'd be better off listening to the podcast, but here's my take on it) that there are actually two types of hope and two types of faith. Hope with a capital H is what he termed, "Openness to Surprise." Little "h" hope is a desire for individual things or events. In Zen that would be defined as attachments, the principle cause of suffering. But living a life with Hope means that we are open to the unexpected, and take notice and pleasure in the multitude of experiences occurring all around us all the time.

In the same way, there are two types of faith. Faith with a capital "F" is trusting in life. He draws the illustration of Faith being like the water that holds a swimmer. The swimmer trusts the water, he or she knows that they will be buoyed while he or she moves about. When we have Faith, we trust ourselves to life, moving through it and not being troubled when life acts like, well, life.

Meanwhile, faith with the lower-case "f" is definied by Steindl-Rast as beliefs. This notion was what caused my "a-ha!" moment. My issue was not that I was having a crisis of faith, but that I was having a crisis of beliefs. Crises of beliefs are nothing new to me, nor should they be to anyone else. Beliefs change all the time, because we are getting new information all the time that challenges our beliefs. I was allowing, however, my crisis of faith to be a crisis of Faith, in that I found it difficult to trust myself to life when I could no longer be supported by my beliefs.

This a-ha moment then tied in with my issue of hope and Hope. Once I realized that I was grasping at specific things, anticipated outcomes, and desires, it became easier to step back and try to surrender to Hope. In other words, to stop trying to force the universe to my will, and be willing to be open to uncertainty (no easy task for me!) and surprise.

In case you're wondering, Steindl-Rast commented on the third aspect, love, as well. He defines it as "the yes to belonging with the whole of being." That will take a little longer to unpack, longer than the space appropriate for a blog post (and this one is already HUGE by my standards!). Suffice to say that if we have Hope, and if we have Faith, then we may find it easier to become involved with others. Community opens up when we ourselves are open to being a part of community. We belong when we allow ourselves to belong. We are loved when we love. So when we accept that we belong, that we are one with all of creation, there is a sense of love, of healthy relationship, present.

There's a lot more than that, of course, more than was discussed even in the podcast. Suffice to say, though, that it was enough to get me thinking that perhaps I was not as lost as I felt. Perhaps there was a way for me to work out my issues with spirituality, with faith, with all the aspects of life I dropped off when I ceased being a chaplain. And perhaps there is still a way out of this morass I've found myself in over the last several months.

If you've read this far, you're awesome. I appreciate your hanging on. I'll close this post here, and hopefully future writings will be more light-hearted, fun, and piratical!

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On Faith and Floating ...

So, now to a major, major issue in my life. Where does a pirate chaplain turn when he doesn't know if belief in the Divine is possible?

My crisis o' faith started way back when I was at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Having no prior knowledge of Biblical exegesis, criticism, or deconstruction, I was of the extremely immature notion that "Well, it says here that ... so it must be true!"

Needless to say, that didn't last long.

Although I will always be grateful for my education at the 'div, it was a brutal experience. Nothing, and I mean nothing, survived those 3 years of deconstruction. Everything faith related had to be rebuilt from scratch, and able to withstand critique. Which was fine, because I came to feel - and still do - that if the unexamined life is not worth living, then the unexamined faith is not worth having. I left Vandy, figuring that I had it all worked out.

I don't think I could have been more wrong.

The thing is, we NEVER have it all worked out. There's always something, an event, an idea, a contradiction, that has the potential to send us into a tailspin. For me, it was being a part of two major church conflicts that turned me off of congregational ministry. What got me out of chaplaincy was the death of the idea of an interventionist God.

Most people, I think, hold an idea of the Divine that bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. I'm good, I pray, and good things happen. I get in trouble, I pray, and my butt gets removed from frying pan and fire. Thing is, all you have to do is spend time in a emergency room - especially a trauma center - to know that bad things do happen to good people. The common ideas of God: All powerful, all knowing, and omnipresent simply do not hold up. God cannot be all three and still be good. For if God is all three, and allows horrible things to happen (tsunamis, rapes, murders, the Holocaust, earthquakes, Glen Beck, etc.) then God cannot be good. Take away one of the three aspects, your choice, and God is less than the traditional image of the Divine.

Usually it's the all powerful aspect of God that is sacrificed (as in Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People). What many have done is drop in ideas of free will, or enter into apologetic arguments, to let God off the hook. My contention, then and now, is that if God is all knowing (or even marginally knowing), then God would have to be involved in human life in order to be good. Two years in hospital work and a few more subsequent years doing church work resulted in my reconsidering my ideas about God.

So I gradually eased my way towards Zen Buddhism, which had been an interest of mine ever since I started taking martial arts lessons as a child. Nothing is said of God in Zen. It's a non-theistic philosophy, which suited me just fine. My anger towards the church, which I felt had let me down, and my continued irritation at clergy and lay people alike, who were spouting all sorts of hate-filled diatribes against gays, Muslims (the perennial favorites) was allowed to remain at a heated level, with the added bonus that I could thumb my nose at my former home, thinking that I had found a better place with far more advanced thinking and wisdom.

Until I eventually came to realize that my ego had run rampant. Zen's big on squashing out of control egos. And all this nose thumbing was not good. So I had to re-evaluate what I was thinking, and why I was thinking it. I had to look at my thoughts on God, and separate that from my thoughts on the human institutions and actions that were God-related. Fortunately, there were a couple of incidents that helped me along.

To be continued during another boring day at work ...

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Plotting a Course Out of the Doldroms

I hated to leave things on such a negative note last time, but that's where I was. Sometimes we are stuck in life without wind, without sail. Not long ago, I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which contains lines that should resonate with anyone who has ever faced depression:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

It didn't take long for me to decide that I needed to get out, get moving, find healing from whatever it was that dragged me down. My medication was changed; that was easy enough. But as I teach my clients (I've been working as an addiction therapist ever since I left chaplaincy), 95% of the battle is mental. If we only take medication, if we only stop using, we're only addressing a very small part of the problem. We have to get to the root issue out of which all the behavior and emotions are spawned.

So I knew that there was long, hard road opening up before me.

A coworker of mine recently returned after spending 5 weeks at a recovery / retreat center. His work had stressed him out to the point where he had a breakdown. That, combined with his own inner demons, necessitated the drastic step of a long medical leave with treatment. When he returned, he took one look at me and said, "Dude, what's got you so angry?" After listening to me rant about all the injustices, incompetance, and issues at work, he simply stated that I am filled with resentment, and suggested that I work on the fourth step of the 12-step program.

Mind you, I'm not an addict in any way, shape, or form. Although I did love the rum and grog in my college and grad school days, I simply do not fit the DSM-IV criteria for either dependence or abuse of drugs or alcohol. Yet, despite this fact, I decided to give it a whirl. I'm still working on it, but did it ever open up some bilge that desperately needs to be pumped out!

The process seems to be working. I'm giving voice to my resentments and working on processing them. There are some odd moments, though. I noticed that every July 30th (my birthday, in case you've a notion to send gifts!) I tend to have a bout of depression. There are reasons - I recall a very bad car crash that I witnessed when I was a small boy, I had to put my dachshund, Peanut, to sleep on the 31st of July, 2007, and a few other bad days that don't warrent mentioning here. But there is one tragedy that I can't seem to walk past. That would be the suicide of an ex-girlfriend back in 2004. She was buried on July 30th in Virginia.

We didn't date for long, but we did keep in touch afterwards. And that connection seems to have kept the wounds open. I need to keep looking at it and through it, but there are feelings of responsibility, survivor guilt, and Lord only knows what else. After years of searching, I finally found out the Funeral Home that conducted her service. I've emailed them, asking for the location of her grave. Maybe visiting that can give me some closure. Who knows. My colleague spoke of some other strategies that they teach in the recovery community. I'll try those as well. I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe that people can be haunted. If that's the case, then I have a regular Flying Dutchman of a life!

There's more going on as I try to get some wind in these sails, but I'll save it for another post. Perhaps later today I'll get some more time. Some interesting developments in the world of spirituality going on that is worth mentioning. That's been a sore spot in my life for a long, long time, extending back past the chaplaincy, past the churches, and into my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

But that must wait a bit.

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