How to Read the Eternities: The End of a Series

I learned about “forest bathing” while hiking the other day. Since it was 37 degrees F. with a sharp wind, I can assure you that it did not involve removing my clothes.

Jacquie used the term as we hiked in the North Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. There is growing scientific evidence that walking through natural areas — especially a forest — is good for you.

Well, duh!

Henry David Thoreau could have told us that in the 1840’s. He may not have been able to compare blood pressure readings or count white cells, but for two years he lived by himself in the woods near Walden Pond in order to face life.

In his essay, “A Life Without Principle”, Thoreau described how to live in the “Post-Truth” era. He told us that to find the truth in such times we need to

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.

This is not an easy thing to do in an age when the Times, or the Post, or the Plain Dealer feel like Medieval texts compared to Twitter or the news crawl at the bottom of the 24-hour news channel screen. To get at the truth these days we need to learn to slow down the newsfeed, take time to listen to ourselves, and seek the wisdom of the ages in the holy writings, like the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.

To read the Eternities themselves, we need to turn to what some Christian theologians call “The First Testament” — Creation.

The Bible tells us that Creation points to God:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies announce what God’s hands have made.
Day after day they tell the story; night after night they tell it again.
They have no speech or words; they have no voice to be heard.
But their message goes out through all the world; their words go everywhere on earth.
Psalm 19:1-4

Looking at a starry sky or a mountain or an ocean helps us get a better perspective on ourselves, our successes and our failures.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place— what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Psalm 8:3-4

This is what Thoreau did. He looked at the sky, listened to the wind, followed rivers, and took note of birds and insects. He heard the Truth in the wind and the bird songs. He saw the sun rise and set. He felt the change in the seasons.

Here are some of the things he learned:

The universe is wider than our views of it.

Things do not change. We change.

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

What has the Creation taught you that is the opposite of what the Tweets, the Times and human “wisdom” tries to sell you?

Read The Scriptures: Reading the Eternities Part 3

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.

Things do not change; we change.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

These words were written over 150 years ago. They still strike us as true. How did Henry David Thoreau do it, when neither the latest advertisement nor political speech can convince us that it is anything but B.S.?

He followed his own advice:

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.

How do we do that?

First, we slow down the news cycle. Instead of Tweets, wait a day and read the Times or some other newspaper. Wait a week, and read a magazine. Wait a year and read a book.

Second, we dig into our life’s experience. Where are the gold nuggets of truth that we live by?

A third step is to read scripture.

But which one?

Some say that the very fact we have to ask that question is the reason why there isn’t any truth these days.

I grew up in a world where THE scripture was the Protestant Christian Bible. Everyone either read it, or thought they should. Today, I live in a city where thousands read the Torah, the Koran, or the Vedas. And hundreds read lesser known sacred texts — and seek to live by them. Who knows what is true?

Things were simpler in Thoreau’s day before cultural and religious pluralism called the old truths into question.  Except they weren’t simpler.

Yes, he was  brought up in church and attended Sabbath School as a child and his writing shows he is more familiar with the Christian Bible than most of today’s public intellectuals. But when he spent two years in a cabin on Walden Pond, he took with him a book he called the “Bhagvat-Geeta.”

The closest thing Hinduism has to a Bible is the Bhagavad Gita, which was first translated from Sanskrit into English about a generation before Thoreau was born.

The book was a sensation in Thoreau’s circles in New England. His friend, Emerson, loaned him a copy. From his reading, Thoreau appeared not to simply admire the spiritual and psychological insights of Hinduism, but also came back to the Bible, especially the New Testament, with eyes that no longer saw it as a “yellowed document”, but as superior to all other writings for it ethical teachings.

That can happen to people who may have deep commitments to one spiritual tradition but who also become familiar with another.

It works like this:

Do you remember the first time you stayed overnight with a friend when you were a kid?

Your first impression probably was, “Everything my friend’s family does is wrong.”

That was because the way they talked to each other (or not), the way they ate their meals, and the way they went to bed was different from the way your family did those things.

Perhaps, if you visited your friend on a regular basis, or you visited other friends, you came to appreciate some of the things that they did.

Jacquie and I started dating in high school. One of the things she says she liked about my family is that my parents saw to it that we did things together. My Mom and Dad worked really hard to run a dairy farm and raise five kids, but they were both youngest children and they knew how to have a good time.

What I liked about Jacquie’s house was the food! Her Mom was a fabulous cook and she liked to feed people. As a 17-year-old farm boy who was burning about 4,000 calories a day, I loved eating at their house.

I learned a lot from visiting in my friends’ homes. I also went back to my own home with a deeper appreciation for what I received there. I saw things that I wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t ever go anywhere else.

It happens that I was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita by a gifted teacher a few years ago. I’ve been slowly plowing my way through a Christian commentary on the book.

Reading that book, I have the same experience Thoreau described:

“I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” 

Yes, the writings of the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao Te Ching  make the Op Ed pieces in the newspaper seem trivial — to say nothing of the observations of cable news commentators. That is a good reason to read them. For they have inspired people, as Thoreau said, since long before our current cultural gods were born and they will do so long after those gods are dead. 

Immersing yourself in any of them will make you wiser. I admit to being biased in favor of the Christian Bible. That’s my family home. Visiting the Gita, however, has taught me even deeper truths about the spiritual life, just as visiting the homes of friends taught me deeper truths about family life.

Families may eat different foods at different times, but everybody eats. Families may go to bed in different ways, but everyone sleeps.

What Thoreau discovered from both the Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament, is that both believe the spiritual life is lived out, not in holy isolation in a cave or on a mountaintop, but in the ordinary actions of life. In the Gita, we learn to do our work by letting go of our ego’s need for recognition and success. In the New Testament, we learn serve each other in love. They aren’t so different.

And both change us and our world for the better.

Reading the Eternities, Part 1: Baby Steps

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities”

— Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)

Like the majority of Americans, I’m trying to deal with PTSD — Post Trump Stress Disorder. Tweet by tweet, the things we believed to be true yesterday about constitutional government, or even President Trump’s position on Israeli settlements, turn out not to be true today.

TV comedians who tape their shows at 6:00 PM are afraid everything they say will be irrelevant by the time the show airs at 11:00 PM.

Even Republicans suffer from PTSD. The worst cases are the poor people who work for the President. Every day, it seems, they have to explain some new statement  — or explain it away. Sean Spicer’s  shell-shocked and Kellyanne Conway’s shellacked faces look like I feel.

So, OK, let’s put as good a spin on this as we can. A new administration is just finding its feet. An action-oriented President doesn’t spend a lot of time consulting and deliberating. He tweets whatever he is thinking. Driven more by pragmatism than ideology, he can be a bit unpredictable. The guy is a dynamo. It’s hard for anyone to keep up. Except . . .

The stress comes from not knowing what is true. We are told one thing one day and another thing the next day. Often we are told that what we thought we heard the first day wasn’t what was said and our believing it shows just how dishonest we really are.

In contrast to tonight’s tweets, which may or may not be true tomorrow, much of what Henry David Thoreau wrote more than 150 years ago remains true, including the two sentences at the top of this page.

They are short enough to be a tweet and the President would probably agree with the first sentence, “Read not the Times”.

The President, and most of us, would have no clue what Thoreau means by “Read the Eternities.”

I’ve been reading Thoreau and thinking about the difference between the messages he delivers and those we receive from our news media and politicians. Very little of what they say will remain true 150 years from now, or even six months from now, or next week, for that matter.

That observation leads me to the first step most of us need to take.

To paraphrase Thoreau:

“Read not the Tweets. Read the Times.”

Several years ago, I read this advice from Daniel Boorstin, a historian and former Librarian of Congress:

“It is better to read a newspaper account of an event than to watch it on TV.

It is better to read a weekly newsmagazine than to read a daily paper.

It is better to read a book about an event than to read a magazine”.

He was right because the more time that elapses after an event, the more considered is the reporting.

  • Time corrects initial misinformation and the mistaken conclusions that people jumped to.
  • Time helps us see individual events as part of a larger pattern.
  • Time helps us learn from those events before their lessons are wiped out by the next news cycle and we make the same mistakes over and over again.

So, to begin, read not the Tweets, read the Times. And we will talk about what Thoreau meant by “reading the eternities” soon,

Christmas Dinner with People I Don’t Know – The Abrahamic Version

Our sons and their families are not strange. But they are far away — and one family is Jewish, so we don’t do Christmas with them. That’s been OK in previous years, because Christmas Day was the day I collapsed after all the Advent activities, two or three services on Christmas Eve and, if Christmas fell on a Sunday, on Christmas morning, as well.

This year, free of that activity, we learned about some other folks who were going to be alone at Christmas. We contacted them, pooled our resources and everyone gathered around the table at our house on Christmas Day. About half of us were Christian. The other half Jewish.

When the meal began, I knew everyone from a little bit to not at all. Then, we shared stories of where we came from, people we missed at this time of the year, and kindnesses we have received in the past year. After the sharing of stories, I understood at a deeper level my wife, Jacquie’s, observation: “To know someone’s story is the love them.”

The coincidence of the gathering of relative strangers on Christmas Day has made me ponder the theme of hospitality that runs through all three Abrahamic religions.

For example, I have heard stories coming out of Iraq of American soldiers breaking down the doors of houses in search of insurgents, only to be offered tea by the Muslim family whose home they invaded, so strong is the teaching that those who “believe in God and the Last Day” will offer hospitality even to those who come unannounced.

Christians and Jews remember Abraham’s hospitality to strangers who came with the promise of an impossible child. Thus, a Jewish Christian wrote in the first century, those who welcome strangers may “entertain angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

At Passover, a place at the table is set for Elijah.

At Christmas, our manger scenes testify that Jesus came into a world that believes it has no room for strangers, and those who find the real meaning of Christmas seek to reverse that.

Henri Nouwen defined “hospitality” as making room for other people to be themselves. What I did not realize is that the ostensible host gets to be himself or herself, too.

Often, when we gather with relatives — or even with old friends — we think we know everyone and everyone thinks they know us. Recall a family gathering in which you were treated as if you were the 10-year-old you used to be. Family gatherings are great blessings, but they can hamstring us into old roles that we have outgrown — or want to outgrow.

Dinner with strangers, on the other hand, can reveal something new and delightful — maybe something that you thought was impossible, if you give each other room to be yourselves.

The Election as Spiritual Practice

Are you suffering from ESD?

Apparently, Election Stress Disorder is a real thing. About half of Americans report feeling significant stress — stress that affects their sleep, their relationships, and their lives.

The media, ever ready to solve problems they have helped create, is publishing advice about how to avoid ESD.

1. Turn off the 24 hour cable channels (says the newspaper).

2. Don’t spend so much time on Facebook (say the cable channels.)

3. Respectfully change the subject when co-workers and friends start to talk about politics (say the advice columnists).

Well, Duh!

Except, in my experience, just avoiding hard stuff leads to spiritual stagnation and broken relationships (and I have had a LOT of experience avoiding hard subjects). When we turn around and face the things that cause us stress, we grow.

The alternative to avoidance

These next few weeks are a fantastic opportunity to try to practice loving our enemies. Note that Jesus does not tell us to avoid our enemies, or to run away from them. On the other hand, Jesus is very clear that we don’t hit them back.

Given the campaign rhetoric, I don’t think the word “enemy” is too extreme. We use words like “attack ad”, “battleground State”, and “adversaries”. According to the attack ads I have seen, my well-being depends entirely on my candidate getting elected. It’s almost too awful to contemplate what will happen if my candidate’s adversary gets elected. It follows that if you are so benighted as to support that other candidate, then you are a threat to my very existence. You are, by definition, “my enemy”.

Our polarized political debates lead us into a spiritual Chinese finger trap.

The more we try to resist the “evil” of the other side’s candidates, and their values  and ideas, the more trapped we become. I don’t know about you, but I often wake up thinking up good arguments about why people should vote for my candidate and should not vote for the other one.  I can obsess about these things, especially when a friend, a relative or a high school classmate posts something completely idiotic on Facebook. Then I am as stuck on arguing with them in my head as someone straining to pull their fingers out of  Chinese handcuffs.

We all know that the only way to pull our fingers out of the trap is to bring them together — the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do.

So, Jesus teaches us a way of breaking out of the spiritual prison that polarization creates by teaching us to do things that are the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do.

Here are some counter-intuitive practices for these last couple of weeks before the election.

Pray for the candidate you would never, ever, in a million years vote for.

I told you this is the opposite of what your instincts say. But what does Jesus say?

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

I know, it feels almost immoral.

I just want to pray for America.

I just want to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

But Jesus says:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

 Make it a daily practice between now and election day to hold that scum-of-the earth lying traitor in your heart and pray for her or him – for all those crazy people who are going to vote for that person.  Or, if you don’t pray, at least wish that person well, and see what happens to your heart and mind and soul.

No, it’s not easy. Oddly, it brings us into contact with unexpected parts of ourselves — I will write more about that next time. As hard as it is, I’ve discovered that it sets me free to, among other things . . .

Treat the people who disagree with you as well as you treat the ones who agree with you.

This is tough, too, but It is practical. The day after the election, we still need to work with people who voted the other way. We have to have Thanksgiving dinner with people who voted the other way. Can we put those relationships first and our political principles, no matter how deeply held they are, second?

God does it, of course. I don’t know why the sun continues to shine on people who belong to the other party. I don’t know why the rain that waters my lawn waters the garden of the guy down the street who has that awful sign in his front yard. But that’s the way God is. For centuries God has been doing this to us: Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics, Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists – even atheists. It would be so much better if it only rained on Democrats or the sun only shone on Republicans. Then we would know who was right and who was wrong.

I’m always surprised that, when I put relationship  before being right, it always feels more right than when I put being right first.

Next Practice: Looking at why the other side ticks you off so much and what genuine conviction looks like.