Category Archives: Spirituality

Seeing Brown

“Everything’s brown.”  I heard my own mind saying it, repeating what I’ve heard from others innumerable times since childhood.  The phrase comes naturally enough to those who live with midwestern winters. Brown trees, brown stubs of grass, lots of brown brick buildings.  Add a gray sky, which is pretty common in January and February, and you’ll hear it more.

But, as I sat in the back seat of a Lyft crawling along the freeway on the morning I left Chicago, my eyes opened and declared that everything is not brown, and brown is not one thing.  Pay attention, I was told, and suddenly could discern at least eight types of “brown” brick, ranging from deep almost-red to beige, from a hundred years old to — I’m guessing — twenty years young.  Add the multiplicity of wooden browns and a rare “brownstone,” and the scene became a panoply of colors.

Trees were more difficult at this range, as they stretched up before the sky and their different browns faded against the background of clouds lightly dripping rain. Still, as we passed them, I could make out subtle differences among light and dark and medium brown trunks. In my own garden, I remembered, I could tell just by a shade of color the branches that were dead and needed pruning, from those that would blossom again in spring. Sure enough, when I touched them they were brittle and yielded quickly to a snip.

Grass in the midwestern winter seems uniform but, like the desert undergrowth, yields its secrets to close inspection. It takes only a couple of days thaw, earth softening and sun shining, temperatures still barely reaching 40 degrees fahrenheit, before tiny green tips test the new environment. Covered by snow and ice again, they retreat, but not for long.  And grass rarely darkens completely. Compared to the trees, it can look almost yellow, but it lacks its glisten which would tell us that dormancy is ending.

Brown is about sleep and rest, and the long winters, in a town that loves business, busy-ness, and bustle, unnerve us.   We feel we have overslept, that sluggishness is overtaking the world.  Our pulse of energy is not reflected in our environment, we miss the resonance and feel “grumpy.”  When will winter be over?

Perhaps brown, the color of yielding into earth, makes us think of death, also bringing ancient echoes of unease. Brown can become a pressure, a weight.  Like our ancestors beyond memory, we look around the corner for warmth, brightness, signs of life to reassure us:  we’re not just going “downhill from here.”

But none of that is brown’s fault. Listen to brown once in a while, it has its own song.





Full Moon, Blue Moon, Blood Moon, Eclipse


And the State of the Union.

Just sayin’.

Not that I believe in omens or anything.

But the second full moon in a solar month seems a worthy occasion to start up this blog again. I’ve been taking a break to work on other projects; and I’ve been reflecting on why I am writing here.

One thing is clear. I’m not blogging to persuade, convince, change minds, achieve leverage, gain a following, or make an impact.  In the overpopulated jungle of the internet, the belief that a lone individual can do that is near-delusional.

It’s more like sending a signal into the far reaches of (cyber)space to say “Life here!”  Mmm… a little more than that:  “Intelligent Life Here!”  If anyone happens to pick up the signal and respond, great.

Intelligent life is important, by which I mean, it’s the way we are importing the creative dynamics of the universe around us.  Intelligence is our receptivity, our sensitivity, our ability to accept what is in-formation.

Sadly, in our collective life much energy is being expended in battles.  Outrage, however justified, takes us out of ourselves, damages our receptive intelligence. All the more, we need to attend to what is deeper, to our inner dimensions.

That’s my purpose. Now some reflections on this remarkable day, January 30-31, 2018.

The coincidental occurrences of the full lunar eclipse visible in America, the State of the Union message, and the Jewish holiday of the New Year of the Trees (Tu b’Shevat) offer us a way of imagining “As Above, So Below”  — and its transformation, “As Inside, So Outside.”

Lunar eclipse:  the earth, sun, and moon are aligned so precisely that the earth blocks the sunlight from reaching the moon. An inner question: are we ourselves blocking the light that makes our particular placement in space so beautiful? The dynamic dance of sun, moon and earth seems to slow, almost stop, to hold our attention, to ask, What does this mean to you?  This planet, this space, this light?  

 The State of the Union:  “The Union” of diverse perspectives, an American ideal, seems blocked as well. We are perhaps too concerned with “The State,” with nation-states. The “blood moon,” referring to the color of the moon in eclipse as we see it from earth, has traditionally been an omen – we might say the overheated “blood” of ethnicity, identity politics, nationalism. And yet it may appear to us as orange, the color of compassionate wisdom, or in another perspective as creativity, exploration.  How can we creatively, wisely reimagine our Union?

Tu b’Shevat:  From this date, the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish (lunar) calendar, we count the age of fruit trees, so we know when they are mature enough for us to take their fruit (the fourth year).  A New Year for Trees calls us to look at renewal in a different way. From this time in the year the earth is warming, the sap begins to run. We begin to thaw from whatever has frozen us. This reminds me of the great movement afoot to deal with trauma. If we look over the past couple of decades, from our deeper attention to PTSD among veterans to our growing awareness of abuse and harassment, sexual and otherwise, we can perhaps sense the beginnings of a thaw.  Painful, difficult, full of personal upheaval and gyrations in social dynamics, but it has the potential to un-freeze us from patterns that have blocked human potential for millennia.  How are we participating in this process?

Letting the sap flow by opening slowly, our skin receiving the warmth of the sun, a little more each day, like sweet amber-orange maple syrup appearing in droplets on tree bark, earth responding to sun. . . . Coming full circle, like the full moon, to new intelligence and compassion.  You can think of more ways to activate these inner dimensions. It does make a difference.

Omen.  Amen.


The Meeting of Sun and Moon

This coming Monday, August 21, a solar eclipse will be visible, partly or in its totality, over much of North America. The next day, we will celebrate the New Moon of the Jewish month of Elul, the last month of the year 5777.  Are these two astronomical events connected? And if so, what does it mean?

Yes, they are connected. The moon, in its dance with the sun through a month, always has a dark time when we cannot see it at all.  That followed by the “new moon” when a sliver of the moon’s sunlit side appears in the sky, shortly after sunset.  But the dark moon does not usually result in an eclipse; that only happens when the sun and moon are aligned from a certain earthly point of view (the “path” of the eclipse).  That unique alignment is happening just before Elul’s new moon.

What does it mean?  We are told that in ancient times people were awed by eclipses and feared them as omens. Not so in Judaism — our priests and rabbis knew that this was an astronomical phenomenon. Nevertheless, they also knew that the world is a divine creation, and that the connection between our own lives and the phenomena of nature can inspire us.  For example, the Torah tells us to set up our calendar by the moon. Our Sages then used the moon’s waxing and waning to help us understand the cycles of good and bad times for the Jewish people.

Our tradition also describes each lunar month as having its own unique character within the annual round of moons. The month of Elul is cherished as a time of teshuvah, “return.,” in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As we begin to look back on the past year and prepare for the new one, it is a time conducive to reflection and introspection.

Elul is also the month when “the King is in the field,” as a traditional parable puts it. Rather than having to approach God in the palace amid pomp and ceremony, one can experience God out in the fields, among the people, open to prayers in a different way, recognizing our trouble and pain outside the restraints of the great system of halls and chambers that organizes cosmic energy.  For us, it is a time of repentance because we are asked to be humble too, and step out of the frameworks that we use to organize our lives, to meet the king in the fields.

The word Elul is spelled alef-lamed-vav-lamed.  These letters also make an acronym for a famous verse in the Song of Songs (6:3):  Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, which means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The relationship between God and us is like that of lover and beloved in that beautiful biblical poem, where also the two sometimes celebrate their coming together and sometimes are apart, yearning for one another.

This resonates with the traditional symbolism where the sun represents the divine and the moon the Jewish people. Astrologically speaking, sun and moon move in ways that are sometimes close, sometimes far.  They are closest together at the dark of the moon, but we cannot see it. Metaphorically, our relationship to God in this darkness is largely behind the scenes, even unconscious.

But in a total eclipse, where the sun is covered by the moon during the daytime, their relationship is out in the open, so to speak.  Yet the sky will darken, because the moon hides the sun’s light. In an uncanny shift of roles, the brilliant sun retreats, highlighting the moon and the darkness.

We can see, though, that the moon even in her “darkest” moment has within her the greatness that can cover the sun.  So with us: when the “light of day” is hidden, this is when we as human beings must become more aware of our potential, to bring forth what must be born from the darkness.

The month of Elul asks us to look back at the past year –  our personal lives, our communities, Israel, the world.  Certainly public life has been stunning for those of us living in the USA, where the eclipse will largely be seen; a dramatic eclipse is in many ways a fitting metaphor for the past year.

At the same time, Elul reminds us to look forward, to remember and anticipate our connection with God.  As the New Moon emerges we can ask how we can increase the light.  But also, remembering the eclipse, we can ask how to be shown the potential of the dark times, consciously encountering the hidden parts of ourselves, and liberating those resources for good.

Good Chodesh!  May you have a good month!





On Not Being Alone

If it’s true that we each have to do our own “work on ourselves” – our psychological and spiritual work – how then do we deal with the flip side of that coin, that we have become a highly individualistic and even narcissistic society?

With that question, I feel a fear of loneliness and of eternal separation from others – each “just workin’ on ourselves.”  Then one of my internal voices waxes nostalgic over the days when family and neighborhood were closer – people who cared about you were close at hand.  If not in the same neighborhood, then a short drive away – an hour or two at most.  My parents moved back to their home state because a four-hour drive to their parents, from the next state over, was just too much!

But that is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a prod to imagination but also colors reality in false shades.

As I look at my own life and my children’s, I realize that today we form different networks of support. We probably have more separate networks where one set of friends doesn’t know another set. But still the close circle, the people you would call when you’re having a major personal problem, is a small one. Possibly more friends and less family – but it was always true that there was a special aunt or cousin you could turn to, or on the other hand someone you would never turn to even in your own family.

So with spiritual work: It’s not necessarily the case that we are alone in our individual search for meaning and purpose. In fact, I would suggest we can’t be alone for long.  The reality today is that, as with our family and neighbors, we aren’t required or expected to have the same group (e.g. the same church or even religion throughout our lives), the same teacher or mentor, the same personal companions on the journey, .  And that’s good.  When a group expectation is present, it’s difficult to avoid the traps of the collective ego, the voices that warn you are going “out of bounds,” that you’ve “crossed a line,” that you’ll make others feel uncomfortable.

But our fear of being alone often drives us to seek security in some kind of lasting commitment.  So what do I mean when I reassure you that we can’t be alone for long?

We have a fundamental need to be seen, acknowledged, by someone else.  We cease to exist unless we can look into the face of another and feel “seen.”  My son told me yesterday that his four-month-old gets fussy if, when awake, he is left too long separate from the goings-on of the household. “He needs to be seen,” he said.  Yes.  From infant development, to achievement in school, to the discoveries we make, all throughout life, of who we really are, a blessing comes with each moment of being seen.

Depending on our temperament and how strongly and healthfully we are seen when we are young, we may feel more or less independent.  Many of us need to be in the presence of a personal teacher; the Face gazing on us must be a flesh-and-blood person.  Yet some can feel the presence of a teacher through words, through a voice or even through books. Some do not need an authority or expert so much as a friend, someone who sees us and gives us honest and loving responses.  Some have teachers who are not living persons – they are guided by ancestors, angels, souls, or supernal guides conceived in different ways.  Some can be in the presence of angels through art – sculpture, music, light and color.  We often think we are seeing; but when the experience is deep, we are also being seen.

I like the teaching that each of us has an Angel Out Ahead.*   This Angel is a force in the Imaginal world which we also inhabit (remember: imaginal is not imaginary; it is a real existence in a different form).  When my children lived at home, I could sometimes perceive their angels.  I learned that when one of them was having a difficult time, about to explode in anger or tears at the dinner table, I would focus on the faint luminous presence that was just in front of them, just above their forehead.  Time stopped for a moment, long enough for the child to collect him/herself and move forward with more confidence.

So we are never alone. That light is always shining, just ahead, mysteriously seeing, absorbing who we are at that moment and illuminating the path forward.

That angel may be experienced in many forms.  As a guardian angel that warns us, like the voice that told my husband, “Move!” just before a car hit him, so he was moving with instead of resisting the energy; it probably saved his life. Or as inner angels of kindness that remind us to slow down, relax, soften our prickles.

Is it one angel, or many?  I suspect the latter – angelic dimensions of those around us in visible form, and invisible helpers, teachers and guides by the multitude.  And we can now see camps of angels among whom we move on a daily basis, communities we chose or landed in, with whom we now share an interdependence.  With good fortune, we may be in communities of people who agree to a rule of law, to basic respect for the bodily integrity and property of others, people who greet you pleasantly and serve you with a reasonable amount of grace at the market or the coffee shop, and whom you greet and serve in your turn.  These fundamental forms of civilized behavior are also graces, from the Angels Out Ahead in harmonic vibration together.

When we encounter the dark, we often feel alone because darkness is the thickening veil of separation from others. But when we begin to see the light at the edges, when we see through the clouds, then we also learn to “see through” the opaqueness of the world and of other people.  We can even see their angels.   I learned that when we see a person coming down the street, we should imagine him or her accompanied by angels, chanting “Baruch Ha-Ba!  Blessed is the one coming forth, made in the image of God!”

Bruchim ha-Baim!  Blessed are the Angels in this world and in all their forms, who ensure that we will not be alone.






* The phrase “Angel Out Ahead” comes from the work of Tom Cheetham on Henry Corbin, who was adapting the Zoroastrian idea of the celestial “twin.” See Cheetham, All the World an Icon, chapter 4, section 4.  The Talmud has a similar idea in the idea of guardian angels (which the Jewish Encyclopedia relates to the Persian idea also). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 10:6) extends this to the world in the saying from Rabbi Simon, “There isn’t one blade of grass that doesn’t have an angel in heaven who strikes it and says ‘Grow!”  (Most internet sources incorrectly attribute this to the Talmud and change it to the angel “bending over and whispering” to the grass. The actual quote is a little more striking.) The word used for heavenly angel is mazal rakia, which would usually mean an astronomical constellation or star, which would have its unique quality.  The word “strike,” while it at first sounds harsh, could be read as like striking a tuning fork, so the grass would vibrate in sympathy with its heavenly counterpart.

Crisis and the Global Brain

Tiffany Shlain, founder of Let It Ripple Film Studios, has compared our newly interconnected society to the developing brain of a baby.  The internet is a global ‘brain’ composed of electronic, virtual networks in its early stages.

I like this metaphor.  I’m not sure it’s exact, because the newborn’s brain develops in the context of  warm, nurturing emotional connections with others, whereas the internet started at the other end, building its ‘neocortex’ first (scientists were the first to use it).  But I think the metaphor can help us understand our current situation.

So let’s take it as a strong analogy. I’ll add to it by suggesting that a year of internet development is equivalent to about a month in infant development.  The history then would look like this:

The internet was in fetal stage in the 1980s, beginning with the Simple Mail Protocol in 1982. Its birth as a global phenomenon was 9 “months” later in August 1991, when the World Wide Web was introduced to the public. A new intelligence came into the world.

At age 2 months (1993) the first instant message appeared – interestingly, husband to wife, saying “Don’t be scared.”  At 4 months (1995), the baby began creating exchanges within its environment that were broader: obtaining goods and communications (Amazon, EBay, Hotmail). At 7 months (1998), it began to explore and search its environment for things it actively wanted (Google).  At 8 months (1999), Emojis arrived to offer a variety of simple emotional communication. While Web TV had been around for a while, interactive (two-way) personal video communication wasn’t till the baby was a year old (Skype 2003) and posting homemade videos two months later (YouTube 2005). Short bits of designed communication (Twitter 2006) were at age 15 months – on that level of the brain, a precocious kid.

In the years since, the internet has transformed our individual brains through the technology designed to connect our personal brains to it more and more intuitively, the iconic inventions being the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

An individual baby’s brain from 16 to 24 months is changing at an enormous rate, mastering more ways of interacting with its environment physically, emotionally, and linguistically, as well as developing the beginnings of self-identity.  Babies recognize themselves in mirrors sometime after 15 months of age. That’s a pretty good marker for when our global brain began to recognize, about 10 years ago, that we are becoming a different species – seeing ourselves in a much larger mirror.

I wonder if it is an accident that just then, the USA broke through an old barrier and elected a black president who demonstrated himself to be a globally-oriented leader (sometimes to his detriment in effectiveness). While others had been proclaiming a clash of civilizations, as if the brain were at war within itself, he championed the view that our difficulties were a mirror of adjustment to globalization, to this new evolution of Intelligence.

Many of us, using the new technology, have seen a dream emerging into reality as our horizons expand beyond anything imaginable in our youth.  But we also know that personally, we can easily get overwhelmed by information. Struggling to relate to the new reality, we often exhaust ourselves – our nervous systems are overwhelmed, our time seems to dissipate, we find it difficult to make choices about how to connect, with whom, for what.  This is a challenge of learning something new – of becoming part of a bigger world – but it’s tricky, and we don’t always manage it well.

Just as a toddler will tantrum when over-stressed, as any child can fall back to its previous developmental stage (with parents moaning, “Why is he acting like a baby again?”), so with us. While using the tools of our new technology, we falter. “Too much too soon” is what educators tells us about a child who is in nursery school a bit too early.

We’re just a little over two years old in our new collective brain.  All the pieces that have to come together for us to function competently are not in place yet.  And in political developments – the polis, the public arena, analogous to the nursery school playroom – we are seeing eruptions.

Now, this seemed like a crazy comparison, so I went searching into infant development to see if there was anything remotely relevant.  I happened across some interesting studies reported in research by a group called Zero to Three, focusing on the development from infancy to early childhood.

Before three years old, kids aren’t highly developed in social interactions. In fact, most researchers hold that empathy doesn’t develop much before age five.  However, more in-depth research that depends less on verbal fluency has shown something different.  A fascinating experiment was designed to see whether babies can infer information about others from their behavior.  It turned out that if the experimenter asked a 15-month-old toddler to give her one of a choice of foods, the baby would give her what the baby liked.  But by 18 months of age, the toddler could discern from the experimenter’s previous behavior what the experimenter liked, and would give her that food.  Not only did it reveal inferential abilities, but also that the baby wanted to make the experimenter feel good. This is one of the roots of philanthropic behavior – I can act for something other than what I would want, on behalf of another person.

The enormous possibilities for this development in the global brain are astounding.  Tiffany Shlain gives us an example in her beautiful video The Adaptable Mind.  

At the same time, under stress or crisis, we will fall back into places where we think we can get emotional support – back to our 15-month-old brain. We need those places to recover resiliency.  Blocs of population that are less attuned, or have had less exposure and supportive learning with the new global brain, are more likely to slip out of sync.  And all of us born before 1980 know that, like a language, if you didn’t grow up with it, it’s much harder and sometimes humiliating (“if you can’t fix your smart phone, ask your kid”)!

Thus, over the last 10 years, which developmentally for the global brain would be the time of growing in empathic understanding and desire to give to one another, some parts of the brain are simply not there yet, or can’t sustain it.  In earlier eras, families and religious communities provided the back-up for individuals going through periods of stress. In the era of global brain, we go to social media “bubbles,” or “echo chambers,” where we get reinforcement on an emotional level from others who feel like us.

I hope this sounds familiar. We’ve thought that the stresses of cultural change / global-brain development would gradually dissolve, but instead they intensified and came home to roost in the past year.  We know that one half of the brain fighting another is not good, and the rise of nationalistic identities plus the information wars are exactly that.

A situation that lasts a month or two in the life of a toddler can be rectified.  If it becomes toxic stress, over years of abuse or conflicting demands, recovery is more difficult.

Where does that leave us?

First, don’t add to our stress by feeling guilty or making others feel that way.  Retreating to an echo chamber is like hunkering down in a hideout for awhile. These reactions are natural, on all sides.

Second, comforting experiences are important. Last week we had big rains in southern California, and a few people posted photos of amazing rainbows at the end of the storms. I was surprised to discover in myself how suddenly my tension levels dropped when I lingered a few minutes on the rainbows.  Find your favorite internet tension-relief spots. It’s like a loving parent showing up to give us a hug.

Third, since we don’t want the current stress to go on any longer than necessary, who’s going to drop their end of the rope and say, we’re not doing this tug-of-war anymore?  It’s hard, when you feel that something big is at stake, but brain health is pretty high priority. We have to engage our creativity to find other ways than continued push-and-pull.

Fourth, we can take a big perspective.  The brilliance of Shlain’s work is exactly that – to see ourselves as part of an organism that is evolving. Like the two-year-old who sees herself in the mirror, whose knowledge that she is a whole being affects her entire identity, we too are learning to see ourselves and our future differently.  We need to practice this perspective, remind ourselves daily.

In that big perspective, remember that your presumed ‘opponents’ are stressed out too. Even the president publicly said he needs to be among friends (2/18/17 rally in Florida). While I write that with a considerable dose of irony, there is a drop of sympathy too.

The sympathetic, philanthropic impulse is a matter of the soul. It becomes visible at a certain point in brain development, and that generous connection to the needs and desires of the other is the child’s first initiation into a larger world.  So also for the global brain. Patrick Harpur writes in The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, “There is always enough fear and pain to go around. The secret is to use these experiences for self-initiation.”

As we use our internet experiences for self-initiation – experiences of fear and pain as well as curiosity and joy – the perspective of the soul will be what allows us to heal the global brain in crisis, and draw out its potential for the future.

Religious Freedom – the Movie

Is religious freedom now under threat in America?

A flurry of interest surrounded a draft executive order leaked at the beginning of February. This trial balloon featured greater “religious freedom” for organizations that don’t want to serve all Americans and yet want to be eligible for federal aid.  Basically, if you are working for or representing an organization that doesn’t agree with someone else’s beliefs, lifestyle, or choices, you and your organization would be allowed to refuse them services.

We’re encountering “doublethink” here, turning language inside out from its usual meaning. Religious people are claiming that their freedom to act in accordance with their beliefs is being restricted. But, as one legal commentator noted to the contrary, “Being denied the ability to discriminate against others is not discrimination against you.”

I thought religious freedom was freedom to worship (or not) in the religion of your choice.  I thought it was connected with freedom of speech and the press: you can speak up or publish your beliefs without fear of reprisal.  Exceptions would kick in only, as in general law, if you were advocating violence, or endangering others.

Religious free speech and action is restricted somewhat, in exchange for an organization’s privilege of being exempt from federal taxes. With that exemption, you have to obey federal law and, when engaged in public service, treat everyone equally (that doesn’t apply to religious worship or membership).  Also, your organization cannot publicly campaign for, endorse, or support political candidates and parties.

The idea is that religions are spiritual and charitable, and by common understanding, a benefit for society as a whole if they are kept non-partisan. Religion thus was defined as private to the person, with a social benefit of ethical and spiritual inspiration, from being “above the fray.”

If political candidates had a strong religious tradition, they assured voters that their religion was a private matter and would not interfere with their commitment to serve all the people.  In this delicate way, American democracy created a religiously pluralistic society without becoming anti-religious.

The latest proposals on “religious freedom” disturb me because they cast doubt on that subtle relationship. I am no longer sure that all religious Americans feel the obligation to respect their fellow Americans’ beliefs and practices, that they are willing to serve all without discrimination, and in their workplace and other places of service put the public welfare first.  The questions I have are mostly about conservative Christians, some of whom are Protestant evangelicals and some conservative Roman Catholics.  (Ironically, if I were in a diverse country with a majority Muslim population, I would likely be worried in the same way about some Muslims. It’s not about a specific religion but an inherent tension between a pluralistic society and particularistic beliefs and practices.)

Shadows appeared on my horizon when I realized how many evangelicals were being brought into the new administration. They include Mike Pence (VicePresident), Rick Perry (Energy), Betsy DeVos (Education), Scott Pruitt (EPA), Ben Carson (HUD), Sonny Perdue (Agriculture) and Jeffrey Sessions (Justice).  Reince Preibus (Chief of Staff) maintains an affiliation with the Greek Orthodox church that was his birth heritage, but for nearly two decades has been most active in an evangelical church. Similarly, Nikki Haley (UN Ambassador), grew up a Sikh but is now a committed Christian.  Two politically conservative Roman Catholics, Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, are high-level advisors.

As for Congress, the Pew Research Center finds not much changed over recent years, and reports a numerical Protestant decline in the 115th Congress. But Pew also observes that the number of “unspecified” and non-denominational Protestants has risen by 10 individuals. Without a detailed breakout we can’t say for sure, but those categories usually indicate membership in a community evangelical church or megachurch and could signal a growing influence from that wing of Christianity.

Even without that issue, Congress remains heavily Christian – almost 99% of Republicans and nearly 80% of Democrats. Overall, 90% of Congress are Christian compared to 71% of the American public. Only 2% of Congress is unaffiliated or not stating a religion, yet 23% of the American public is religiously unaffiliated.  Religion is overrepresented in general, as well as Christianity in particular.  Non-Christian faiths as a proportion of Congress are nearly the same as in the general population, about 8%, though Jews outnumber the others in that category which includes Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Unitarians.

Then there was the presidential inauguration, where we saw a display of religion like we have not seen in our lifetimes: six invocations or benedictions by clergy.  From Truman through Nixon, it was common to have 3 or 4 clergy, including usually a Protestant, a Catholic, maybe a Greek Orthodox and a Jew. That stopped with Jimmy Carter in 1977, and – except for Reagan’s second inaugural – the norm became two people only; Protestants dominated, led by Billy Graham. In George W. Bush’s inaugurals, one was African-American. Obama had the first woman and non-clergy, and the first megachurch pastor.

But this time we were presented with three clergy before and three after the inaugural address; a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, an African-American minister, a minister representing the Hispanic community and a non-denominational pastor who is a woman.

On the surface, what diversity!  But not really.  We are accustomed to diversity meaning skin color, ethnicity, and gender.  What about diversity of belief and practice?  Let’s look:

  • Protestant clergy #1, Franklin Graham, is head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization and Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization.
  • Protestant clergy #2, Wayne T. Jackson, is the ordained bishop of a large evangelical Pentecostal church, Great Faith Ministries International, in Detroit.
  • Protestant clergy #3, Samuel Rodriguez, is the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (Evangelical) and an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God.
  • Protestant clergy #4, Paula White, is senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center, a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida, and is a televangelist. She will head the new administration’s Evangelical Advisory Board. (Did you know there is such a board?)

All evangelicals; plus a Roman Catholic, Cardinal Dolan, and a Jew, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Los Angeles Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The speakers performed the expected duties of praying for the president, vice-president, and government, for the unity of the nation, and for peace. Two of the evangelicals expressed a sense of the diversity of the nation – one mentioning the poor and outcast, and another the many groups that live here as one, even reminding us of “We Shall Overcome” — though he mentioned Mahalia Jackson as the singer rather than the Civil Rights movement the song came to represent.

The New Destiny representative – identified in publicity as the president’s “spiritual advisor” – gave a nationalistic invocation, asserting the blessedness of the United States in God’s eyes. The United States was a country that “You have decreed to Your people.” “In every generation You have provided the strength and power to become that blessed nation.” “‘Thy kingdom come Thy will be done,’ the psalmist declared.”

That wasn’t the psalmist. But this isn’t so much New Destiny as a reworked version of the 19th century’s Manifest Destiny.  Not to be outdone, the Reverend Franklin Graham declared that “in the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing, and it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform.”

I was startled too by some dramatic invocations of Jesus. As I participate in many interfaith events, I am accustomed to prayers “in Jesus’s name.” I appreciated Rev. Samuel Rodriguez saying “respectfully, in Jesus’s name,” as though he recognized that some in the audience might pray in another idiom. I was interested that Bishop Jackson invoked Solomon and Joseph as well as Jesus as models for the president, and he used the Jewish priestly blessing, even though “in the mighty name of Jesus.”  (Members of his congregation wear tallisim, Jewish prayer shawls, and he gave a gift of a tallit to Donald Trump during the campaign.)

But I was taken aback by Pastor Paula White’s initial “We come to You… in the name of Jesus,” and ending with “Glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we pray this in the name of Jesus Christ.” I was shocked by the Reverend Graham choosing to recite a passage from 1 Timothy that included, “And it pleases God our Savior, Who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”

I’m not sure what scenario is being written here. What does religious freedom look like to committed Christians, evangelistic in religious approach, conservative in politics?    We can easily guess on some issues, like abortion, but what else will fall under the purview of the Evangelical Advisors?  A member of this board reportedly rejoiced on election night that, for the first time in his life, he’ll now be able to share messages from God directly with the president of the United States.

That could make an interesting scene – another dramatic episode in the new reality film.

That Cunning Serpent

This post is the third of a series that began December 12th.

In my previous post, I explored some of issues around “greatness” which, as we saw, came up in the slogans of our recent elections.

Let’s be clear:  greatness isn’t evil.  Indeed, seeking greatness is natural.  In the Bible, it is embedded in the original instruction to Adam and Eve (and the fish) to be fruitful and multiply.  The word for “multiply” comes from the same Hebrew root that we often translate as “great.”  In ancient times when humans were few, becoming many, becoming “great” in number, was a key to survival.

Yet, the Bible tells us that corruption began to fill the world “when humanity began multiplying on the face of the earth” (Gen 6.1).  “Sons of gods,” probably meaning kings and nobles, began impregnating “daughters of men.”  This sounds like harems or exercising the ancient “right of the first night.” “Strong men,” “men of renown,” took over and imposed their will on others.  The “imagination of man’s heart” became “evil continually” (6:4-5).  What had happened?

The old story of the serpent gives us a clue.  Recall that the cunning serpent enticed Chava (Eve) to eat of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil by saying, “You won’t die… You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Then the text reports Chava’s experience. She saw “that the tree was good to eat, and that it was desirable to the eyes, and the tree was pleasant for gaining insight, and she took from its fruit and ate” (Gen 3: 4-6).

She couldn’t see anything except goodness, beauty, and clarity in that tree.  What had tempted her was the idea of greatness, of being more than she already was, “like God,” and specifically by the possibility of knowing something that, until then, was beyond her – namely evil.

The serpent was indeed cunning, because he was manipulating her ignorance. She had no idea what evil was.  To her it might as well have been called “the tree of the knowledge of good and zlwgoeinv.”  Evil, of course, was what the serpent had done – confused her by contradicting what she had been told, and claiming that God had actually hidden the truth from her.

(Today we would call it fake news.)

Adam followed her down that path, and they found themselves hiding from God, lying, and blaming others.  They discovered not greatness but shame.  God postponed the death penalty; but instead of the goodness, delight, and clarity that Chava had glimpsed in the tree, she and Adam faced lives of struggle and pain.


In these texts, thousands of years ago, human beings already understood that lies and manipulations, the cunning of the serpent, were the source of humanity’s problems. The serpent said, “You will be like God.” Soon men would claim to be sons of gods.  Later, when Moses warned the people about claiming their wealth as “the work of my own hands,” or of kings “multiplying horses and wives for themselves,” he was referring to the same problem.

I would add one inner dimension, which we also saw in the last post:  The lies promote the idea that “I did it myself,” and pride arises instead of gratitude for all the help we have received. That is the place where we have to do the work. The awareness of our own limits, the feeling of gratitude, the knowledge that the source of success is beyond ourselves – those enable us to feel humility.  And humility is what humanizes greatness.

Greatness and Goodness

This post is the second of a series that began on December 12th

In my last post, I talked about getting beyond the trauma and distress of an unexpected and unpleasant surprise – a major disappointment – such as the election results. Specifically, rushing into action immediately may not be the best course.  After all, the fact that we were taken by surprise means that our assessment of reality wasn’t at its best; so we need to get a different perspective (see “The Forest and the Trees”).

The question that arises is not simply a strategic one (how to win the next election), but what kind of society do we want?  A lot of people weren’t happy with any candidate’s ideas for the future. There were 19 candidates altogether in the two major parties! Forty-one per cent of eligible voters didn’t vote for a president at all.  We can blame media and misinformation for some of this, but still…. What is going on?

I titled this site “Inner Dimensions” because I think one can’t solve an outward problem without also attending to its inner dimensions.  Outer action matters, but it has to be connected to the inner, invisible qualities of whatever is happening. You can throw money at a problem, but if that’s all you do, you will only get a temporary solution. You can pave the crack in the road, but if you haven’t checked what’s happening underneath, the crack may come right back again.

In a society, the inner dimensions are the values of the people, the motives that habitually spur them to action, the characteristic attitudes that shape our interactions with one another.

In an election campaign, the managers try to capture the inner will of the people with their campaign slogans.  Interestingly, both major party candidates this year had similar slogans.  One was greatness, as in “Make America great again,” and the other was strength, as in “We’re stronger together.”  Think what message is implied here: If we need to be stronger, are we weak?  If we need to be great again, does that mean we are small? Hmm…

Of course, it’s also true that Hillary Clinton’s slogan emphasized another word:  together. Donald Trump’s campaign was clearly built around a “strongman” approach (including the gender).  But the slogans captured – or amplified – a concern about American strength.  I couldn’t find a previous presidential campaign that was built on such an idea except for one that used “proud” in the slogan. Sample themes have been freedom, prosperity, peace, normalcy, compassion, as well as ideas of change, progress or improvement – but not strength or greatness as such.

Greatness or strength certainly is an American value. In the past hundred and fifty years we moved from being a curiosity for European visitors to a major military power, an exemplar of democracy, freedom, and pluralism with stability, a home to innovation and expansion in industry, science, and technology.  We are rightly proud of many features of our society and, if we are losing status in the world, we definitely would value restoring the nation to greatness.

But we also know that greatness by itself does not guarantee a good life.  Greatness and goodness do not always go together.  In fact, great power or great wealth can lead to arrogance, and that’s dangerous.

The founders of the United States of America knew the Hebrew Bible well – what they called the Old Testament. They would have been familiar with this passage, from an address by Moses to his people shortly before his death:

When your herds and flocks become great, and great amounts of silver and gold are yours, and all that you have becomes great, then your heart feels elevated…. and you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand made for me this wealth.”… But you must remember the Lord Your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth… (Deuteronomy 8:13-18).

Actually, the word translated “wealth” here, which makes sense in the context, usually means something more like valor, courage, or audacity.  (The same word is used in the famous passage from the end of Proverbs, “Woman of Valor,” which is recited in Jewish households on Friday night in honor of the woman of the house.)  In understanding this passage, we should remember that larger meaning:  When you have achieved outer “greatness” in wealth and possessions, you may feel inwardly strong – but if you have forgotten the Source of your wealth, the passage goes on to say, “you will certainly perish.”

The Sages say that even with God, “Wherever you find greatness, you find humility.” Though God has the power to create and destroy, nevertheless God consults with others – for example with the angels in creating man, with Abraham before destroying Sodom, with Moses when He is angry with the Israelites.

If this is true with God, how much more so among human beings.  So too with nations.  Our founders understood that greatness can lead to tyranny, and that goodness requires humility, respect for others, prudence, and in matters of state, due process and the consent of the governed.

We all know some of the key phrases of our famed revolutionary document, but it’s worth reading the entire Declaration, which you can do at this link.  How have we lived their vision till today?

We want a good society, not only a great one.  To be continued.

The Forest and the Trees

We don’t often face a stunning surprise in our collective political life.  The biggest surprises in our society are usually the latest whiz-bang gadgets. Occasionally there are unpleasant surprises, like a Katrina or an epidemic – but we accept that nature has its own dynamics, usually favorable to human life but not always.  Every once in a while there’s a terrifying shock from outside like a 9-11 or 12-7 (last week was the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor) or, sadly, a murderer on the loose.

We don’t like bad surprises, so we have a highly developed alert system. We prophesy doom much more quickly than we process goodness, because being ready for doom can be life-saving.  We communicate intensely and profusely when we suspect something dangerous might be lurking around the corner.  But sometimes we are still caught off guard.  That’s what happened this election season.

So what do we do with unhappy surprises?  Let’s not go to life-threatening.  Just think of times in your life when you were extremely disappointed.  The trip that got canceled because your little brother got sick at the last minute.  The promised birthday gift that didn’t arrive – never arrived, because your dad had lost his job. Your fiancé suddenly broke off the engagement.  We all have our own versions, some that don’t seem important later, and others that still hurt.  Some were even life-changing.

Emotionally, we go through the manifestations of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance (not necessarily in that order). With the election, it’s like this:

Denial:  There’s something wrong with the vote count. Let’s get recounts in key states.
Anger:  Spout off about the latest outrage to your friends and on Facebook.
Bargaining:  Can we convince electors in the Electoral College to change their vote?
Depression:  Sink into apathy, and shut down talking about it.
Acceptance:  This doesn’t mean “it’s all okay,” or “we’re normalizing”; it just means that you are ready to re-set, like a car alarm that has been buzzing incessantly, till you’re finally able to turn it off and address the problem.

Now the brain kicks in, from a calmer state.  We can’t change what happened, but perhaps we can deal with some the negative effects of the unpleasant surprise. We can call this strategizing.  How can we keep this from getting worse or happening again?  We begin banding together:  Creating campaigns to write to Senators concerning Cabinet appointments, channeling donations to your party or to other organizations that can help, maybe even volunteering your own time.

But here’s where the title of this essay comes in:  the problem of the Forest and the Trees.  Strategizing is necessary but sometimes kicks in too early. Your brain will work on any problem you give it to solve.  If you aren’t clear about the goal, it will do its habitual thing, which is rework the problem that seems most up front.  You missed this vacation? Plan the next one.  Didn’t get that promotion?  Figure out how to spruce up your resume.

Politically, the equivalent is figuring out how to win the next election.  (And our brain loves it when we give it a win-lose situation to solve).

But this is where we get lost in the Trees.  Winning an election is not the goal.  Elections are a means to a goal.  The goal is a good, healthy society.  Elections are the way we choose people we want to be our representatives in deciding on policies and laws that will give us the framework for a good society. Elections are the way to plant the next bunch of Trees.

Our society – that’s the Forest.  Seeing the Forest means stepping back, looking up and around, maybe getting into a helicopter so we can see the entire area before we decide what to do next.

That’s what we mean when we say we need people with vision. 

The frustration with “Washington” is that millions of our citizens think no one has been up in that helicopter for a long time. They’re following somebody’s old map. They’re just paid to circle around. Or, they just hop in and take it on a pleasure trip. There could be fires smoldering in the forest and no one paying attention.

We the People are being called by this election to take our own look at the forest that we call American society.  It’s not okay anymore to just drive down the old lumber roads or trek the familiar paths.

Once we see the big picture, we will be able to set goals and accomplish them.  But first, we have a little trip to take.  Pack a lunch, hop in, and fasten your seat belt. More to come soon.


To my followers:  Sorry, I’ve been away from Inner Dimensions for two weeks as I had a conference to attend and preparation for that… thanks for asking!

The Dynamics of Hate

Recently, a friend wrote, “We can’t fight hate with hate. We can only dissolve hate with inclusiveness.” Another friend replied:  “Wishful thinking?”

Hmm. . . a good question.  Is inclusiveness enough?  Do we understand enough about hatred to respond appropriately?

When questions like this arise, my mind turns to spiritual teachings and my own Jewish tradition.  I first think of prohibitions against hate in the Hebrew Bible: “Do not hate your brother in your heart… Do not bear a grudge against the children of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19: 17-18).

Those commandments are interesting for two reasons.  First, unlike most biblical commands, they aren’t legislation against bad behavior (as we have for “hate crimes” today); they were directions about spiritual development: “in your heart.

Second, the commandments are directed at problems with people you know – “your brother,” “the children of your people,” “your neighbor.” In our current social conflicts, we tend to think of hatred by one group toward another group – antisemitism, racism, and the like.  We are told that people “learn to fear” and are “taught to hate others,” because their group is different, “other,” and therefore dangerous. So it’s interesting that, while the Bible also has many references to enemies and many universal commands, its prime directives about hatred point inside – within the family or in-group itself.

Do we have examples?  Definitely. One is Jacob’s wife Leah who was “hated” by her husband because he had been deceived by Leah’s father, Leah herself, and probably her sister Rachel (Genesis 29: 20-31).  Another is Joseph being “hated” by his brothers because he reveled in his father’s favoritism, arrogantly telling them his dreams of ruling over them (Genesis 37:4ff).  An example generalized into a law was:  if a man had two wives and “hated” one of them, but she was the first to bear him a son, he still had to give the required double inheritance to that child (Deuteronomy 21:15). That might be the first law to prevent a hate crime.

Hatred, in other words, is seeded deeply within our most intimate relationships. It generates a fierce anger that often must be repressed because it threatens the whole group.  (Joseph’s brothers stopped just short of murder.)

“Ordinary” anger is situational, and can be addressed through correcting the situation, apologizing, and better behavior. On the social plane, inclusiveness is an important part of the solution. Legislation is another.

Hatred derives from a deeper core of intimate pain. The repressed emotions it generates become a fertile field for fantasy, and at the same time need an outlet so as not to destroy the primary group (family, workplace).  The outlet is often another group to blame.  This is how hatred becomes a political tool and, because of its emotional roots, people motivated by hate are willing to believe almost anything about the groups they have identified as the culprits.

We’ve been on the cusp of an inflamed situation like this due to the rabid rhetoric of the election, particularly on the part of one candidate. This gave an opening to movements that have long been using hatred as a tool.

In this situation, inclusiveness can seem almost patronizing.  By saying, “Sorry we left you out, we’re going to be more inclusive now,” liberals unintentionally reassert their claim to power – the power to define who “we” are.  And the response might have been predictable:  “You don’t have the power anymore.” Revenge is in the air.

Political action can’t resolve the emotional roots of hatred, but can prevent terrible outcomes. I’m looking to our strong democratic institutions to tame this wave of hatred as they have before. For those institutions to work, we have to step up as democratic citizens in the best sense – aware of events, educated in the issues, and deeply committed to liberty and justice for all.

Lowest Denominator or Highest Ideals?

I listened today to a podcast conversation that took place about a month ago between two eminent journalists and commentators, David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, representing different faiths, on the relation between religion and politics.  I want to talk about one point they made.

Both sides in the recent presidential campaign were caught up in a depiction of Americans as primarily concerned about the material sides of their lives:  The economy, the cost of health care, the recession and technology that took their jobs, and also the wealth of donors, the paid lobbyists, not to mention the wealth of candidates themselves.

Brooks and Dionne posed the question, do we think so little of our citizens that we imagine all they think about is money?

What about ideals and greater goals?  What about the future we want for our children?  What about values like love and compassion, giving and receiving?  Dionne wished for a campaign to “make America empathetic again.”

Is part of our pain, anger, fear, shame, or defensiveness – pick one or more depending on where you are in the post-election spectrum – that we don’t want to show we care about higher ideals or we’ll be laughed at?  We don’t want to say we care about the folks on the other side (who sometimes are our own families, right?) lest we be rejected?

What if we could forget the statistics and the groupings just for a little while – take a break from all that?  The United States of America was built on ideals, not calculations;  if candidates are trying to target the lowest common “denominator,” they are turning us all into “numbers.”

This nation was driven by dreams, not dynasties – despite names like Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, and Trump.  The dreams live in each person’s heart, not in programs and policies.

This country was built on the new (in the 18th century) idea of the individual.  Based on the biblical view of human beings as each created “in the image of God,” it promised equality to all.   Admittedly, it took a long time to extend equal rights to everyone, not just of free speech, assembly, and religion, but of owning property, owning their own labor, being allowed to vote, rights to marry and to privacy.  “Details to be worked out later” — but we still live by that bold vision.

Inherent in that notion of individuality is that each person has a soul, if you accept the spiritual terminology, or perhaps a “unique constitution,” if you’re a humanist.  When you begin to open to the inner reality of another person, says Brooks, “you see what each soul longs for.”

Jewish homiletic tradition (midrash) tells it this way:  When a person walks down the street, he is accompanied by a band of angels proclaiming, “Baruch ha-ba!  Blessed is this one coming down the street, made in the image of the Holy One!”

Everyone, without exception.

Can we translate that into our public life, our common life, after the enormous turmoil and trauma of this season?  Actually, yes, through what Dionne calls our “capacious imagination.” Expand your view.  Next time you see someone on the street, imagine him or her being accompanied by a couple of angels announcing this person’s beautiful soul.  Next time you watch someone on a video a news show, imagine a chorus of angels around them.  And watch your own reaction.  You may laugh or shudder, but also think about it.

When, on occasion, you can feel that amplified presence of the other, you may recognize something else that David Brooks identified:  “The message is the person.”  More important than speeches or arguments, good qualities are trying to find expression through that holy presence.

When we can feel those good qualities together, communities start to form. First around support, then around common needs, shared gifts, common purposes.

Dionne said something else, quoting political philosopher Michael Sandell:  “When politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”  I suspect we have more work to do before politics can go well again.  Still, we can set ourselves on a path to discover dimensions of goodness that we could not have discovered on our own.

Thanks to my friend and spiritual colleague, Dr. Connie Kaplan, for recommending this podcast to me.

When They Go Low, We Go High

A vote of thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama for her example of grace and strength, including the memorable phrase she taught her children and her country: “When they go low, we go high!”

We know what that means in social interaction and communication:  When we hear a degrading comment, we don’t respond by trying to degrade the speaker.  When people engage in name-calling, we zip our mouths or simply say, “No. That’s not appropriate.”  When we read messages and even “news” that seem to be lies, we don’t reply with alternate lies, but we investigate the truth and correct untruths when we can.

I’ve been thinking about other ways to “go high” when they go low. Continue reading When They Go Low, We Go High