A New Serenity Prayer by James Martin

Thinking of all my cyberspace friends this week, as we begin celebrating various holidays/holy days… Below is a prayer from priest and author James Martin  I hope you will enjoy as much as I do.

A New Serenity Prayer 

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God.

At least not the last time I checked.

And while you’re at it, God,
please give me the courage
to change what I need to change about myself,
which is frankly a lot, since, once again,
I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.

It’s better for me to focus on changing myself
than to worry about changing other people,
who, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying,
I can’t change anyway.

Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up
whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter
than everyone else in the room,
that no one knows what they’re talking about except me,
or that I alone have all the answers.

Basically, God,
grant me the wisdom
to remember that I’m
not you.

Amen.

(“A New Serenity Prayer” used with permission from the author.)

 

Healing after elections

The room was filled with spiritual directors, planning for an upcoming event, and one person pointed out that there would be a need for healing after the elections are over. In response, I heard an audible gasp around the room, the kind of “aha” moment signifying agreement and the silent, collective wonderment of why didn’t I think of that?

Every election has its share of mud-slinging and truth-twisting, but I don’t think I have ever witnessed such an intense, prolonged period of antagonism between groups. The sheer volume of messages–not only on TV and radio, but via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and so many other ways of communicating–certainly is new.

As I write this, it is the day before the U. S. election. I do not yet know if we will elect Mitt Romney or Barack Obama as president, if the propositions in our state will pass or fail, or which parties will control the many legislative bodies throughout the country.

The thing I do know is this: there will need to be healing between co-workers, friends, families, and many other people, if we are going to improve the country we live in. In this political climate, many people on both sides of issues have been hurt through angry words, harsh attacks, and twisted half-truths.

In the past, newspapers and televisions ran ads for politicians. This year, it was also our friends and coworkers sending us political messages electronically. (Were there lawn signs when I was a child?)  This is a wondrous exercise of free speech–and as a writer and budding artist, I greatly treasure freedom of expression!

However, in our excitement with lightning speed communication at our fingertips, some of us may have hurt others we love. We may have expressed things in type we never would have said in person. We may have stereotyped people or demonized people of the opposing group.

Now is the time to reach out with kindness to people you may have hurt in this process. Now is the time to stop blaming others for all sorts of problems, to put forth our own efforts to make the country and world a better place. Now is the time to shake the hands of your opponent, and show respect for people of all shapes, sizes, political groups.

What really makes the United States a great place is the ability to work together despite our cultural, regional, or religious differences. Our beliefs and values may vary, but our oneness exists because of something deep within that unites us. That unity is not based on all being clones of each other, but rather of working together to form a good place to live and grow and work and dream together.

The healing of the divisions in this country begins with you and me, when we reach out our hands in kindness and hospitality to those around us. This is not always easy, but it is classic for true followers of Jesus, the one who said:

Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  (Matthew 5:44-45)

Until next time, Amen!

Would Jesus Allow Open Discussion on Controversial Topics?

This past Sunday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a front page article entitled Priests told not to voice dissent,” the gist of which is contained in this quote:

Archbishop John Nienstedt is warning Catholic clergy across Minnesota that there should be no “open dissension” of the church’s strong backing of a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would define marriage as a union only between a man and woman. 

The Roman Catholic archbishop is not merely asking clergy to remain neutral on public issues while speaking in the pulpit. Instead, he is pressuring pastors and parishioners to be proactive on the issue even if it is against their conscience, by  pushing “marriage prayers” smack dab in the middle of Sunday Mass, creating parish “marriage committees” to support the amendment, and inviting “marriage teams” to come speak to high school students.

Of course, church leaders certainly have the right–and the duty–to speak publicly about issues of faith and morals, and about anything that might make the world or church a better place. However, based on my past experiences, I rather doubt any of these marriage speakers will offer any genuine, mutual discussion (this vote, after all, applies to all of society, not just Catholics, so all angles ought to be openly discussed, even at a church meeting).

Catholics today are facing the same kind of repressive environment that exists under dictatorships. It is becoming dangerous to disagree on controversial topics. One cannot write or speak publicly if one disagrees with church teachings on such topics as women’s ordination, married clergy, gay rights, birth control, abortion, liberation theology, or even how one views Mary (as in the case of Tissa Balasuriya). 

Regarding the case of the proposed marriage amendment, the archbishop is so determined that in a recent speech/letter to priestshe reminded them of their vows of obedience. In addition, the archbishop wrote a letter to one priest threatening to remove him from active ministry if he spoke publicly against church teaching (the marriage amendment being one example in the letter). Some people would call that spiritual bullying.

Conservative Catholics spout the slogan “error has no rights,” but “error” is not a person. People do have rights. People are God’s beloved sons and daughters–and Christ often listened carefully to others, even asked about what they thought: How do you interpret the law? What do you want? Who do you say I am? What are you discussing as you go your way?

Since Sunday’s Star Tribune article, I have been trying to think of a single instance in which Jesus silenced a conversation, or bullied people into thinking his way.

Hmmmm… In Mark’s gospel, Jesus does ask the disciples to keep quiet now and then, but the secret is all the good works he’s doing, that he’s the Messiah, not the squelching of his opposition. Today’s equivalent would be a bishop working a miracle and then telling the priests to keep it secret, because, after all, he’s a very humble guy.

Maybe we might think the time Jesus turned over all those money tables in the temple was a little like silencing someone with opposing views. Today’s equivalent would be a bishop blasting American corportations for their greed on a nationally televised event, or publicly destroying the number balls used to select lottery winners. Or maybe selling the bishop’s mansion to build a place for the homeless.

The only time I can remember Jesus ever coming close to silencing someone is when Peter–whom Catholic call the first pope–tells Jesus he ought not to go to Jerusalem because of the danger. To this, Jesus replies:

Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. (Matthew 16:23)

Those are pretty strong words–even harsher than “shut up.” Jesus knew that God wanted him to go to Jerusalem even if it meant risking death on a cross. When pushed between following the advice of the first pope or what his Father in heaven wanted, Jesus chose to obey his Father, trusting that God would bring about something good (through his cross and resurrection, the salvation of the world!).

In our own times, those of us who follow Jesus must listen carefully not only to religious leaders, but also to those whose voices are not easily heard: the poor, the abandoned, the lonely, the sick, and those who are most ill-treated and misunderstood. We must ponder our sacred scriptures and pray to God, asking the Holy Spirit to guide each one of us to make good choices.

Even if it means disagreeing with “Peter.”

Skillful Speech–Part 2: Insights from Buddhism

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.                –Fourth Mindfulness Training*

In “Brutally Yours, Bob Hartley,” an old episode of The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Bob Hartley urges clients Mr. Carlin and Michelle to be more honest and open with their feelings. During the conversation, Bob hides his true feelings about his secretary leaving work early and the clients challenge him to practice what he preaches. As the show progresses, Mr. Carlin and Michelle make a game out of hurling insults at other people, while at home Bob nearly ruins a budding friendship in his overzealous quest for total honesty. In the end, it is agreed by all that some things are better left unsaid.

The episode illustrates in a humorous manner just how difficult it can be to be truthful and yet do it in a way that does not unnecessarily hurt another. In my last post, I wrote a few things that Jesus had to say about the right use of speech. This week, I’ve been reading about the idea of Right Speech in Buddhism. (I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t know much about the Buddhist path, but I think that Buddhism offers some insights on the topic of how to speak and listen with compassion.)  

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh devotes an entire chapter to Right Speech. Here are some of my notes from reading his explanation of Right Speech:   

  • Being truthful is basic to Right Speech.
  • Much suffering is caused in this world by people who are simply not paying attention to what they say and how they say it. Our words have the potential to add to the suffering of others, or to alleviate their pain. (The Buddhist practitioner seeks to alleviate the suffering of others.)
  • Right Speech means “not speaking with a forked tongue.” That is, do not tell one person one thing and another person a different thing. It is fine to use different words, examples, or images in explaining something to help others understand, but it is not truthful to invent different “truths” for various people.
  • Right Speech means not speaking cruelly. “We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred.” This can be challenging even for people of good will, he writes, but because words are powerful, we must avoid vicious speech.
  • Right Speech also means that we should not exaggerate or embellish what we have seen or heard. “We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that he is furious.”
  • Right speech involves deep listening, something very needed today. When we listen with an open heart, calmly and without judging others, we may actually reduce their suffering. (What a great gift to give another!)
  •  Hanh writes: “Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. . . If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting [to the other person], rewrite it.”  This can be adapted in our own time for the social media by using the “save the draft” feature and reviewing what we have written at a later time, when we aren’t angry or upset, before hitting “send.”

 When it comes to integrating Right Speech into our everyday lives, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a gatha (meditation verse):

Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
as lovely as flowers.  (page 92)
 

The author suggests writing this saying on paper and placing it by the telephone, to recite just before making a phone call. Today, we can adapt this practice by putting this verse near our computer screens as a reminder of the ways of Right Speech.  

There is much more that could be explored about Right Speech, but I will leave you to ponder these ideas for now. If you are like me, there is plenty in just these few points to challenge my own ways of communicating with others.

One final thought: May someone shower you today with compassionate words and empathetic listening, and may you find a skillful way to do the same for someone else. Until next time, Amen!  

(Skillful Speech, Part One contains insights from Christ about right speech.)

_________

*Quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (NY: Broadway Books, 1999), page 84.

Skillful Speech–Part One: What Jesus Taught

 
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . .
     a time to keep silence and a time to speak. . .
                        –Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b (NRSV)

 

I sometimes find it difficult to know when to speak up and when to bite my tongue. It seems that controlling what one says is one of the hardest things to master.  

These days many people are examining the problem of vitriolic speech  in our culture, talk so inflammatory that it is comparable to throwing sulfuric acid in another’s face. Some claim that caustic speech in the media is harmless because

Fighting Hippos–Photo by Melissa Schalke–Dreamstime.com

it’s only “entertainment.” Others decry the loss of a more genteel way of expressing ourselves. People on both sides value the freedom to speak openly in a democracy.

Rather than focus on legal dimensions or proper etiquette, I would like to look how we use words from a spiritual perspective.

Twisting the truth is as ancient as Adam and Eve, who both used words to shift blame away from themselves: when caught in disobedience, Adam blamed Eve, and in turn, Eve blamed the snake. Although their words may have seemed logical at the time, they were not able to hide the truth from God. 

While there is nothing new about distorting the truth or using words in an attempt to manipulate others, what is new in our time the ease with which so many of us can spread our words around the globe within seconds. The sheer vastness of communication today makes it more important than ever before to raise questions about the words we choose, the tone in which we convey messages, and the truthfulness of messages that we receive and pass on to other people.

 

What did Jesus teach?

While Jesus was not afraid to tell religious leaders when they were wrong, I find no evidence that he derived any pleasure in correcting others. Jesus was a kind, compassionate person who wanted all to be brought into communion with his heavenly Father, even those commonly thought of as “enemies.”         

In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, we read about Pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus and his disciples for ignoring the religious ritual of hand-washing before eating. Jesus replies by drawing attention to the ways the religious leaders were using rationalizations to break commandments even more basic. He calls them hypocrites and quotes the prophet Isaiah:   

This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
     teaching human precepts as doctrines. 
 
                                 —Matthew 15:8-9, NRSV  
 

From this, we can see that what is important to Jesus is that our words are genuine and in accord with our actions. It is not acceptable to rationalize our evil deeds or merely say we believe in God. Attitudes and intentions deep within us are what matters.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus emphasizes the importance of what we say, again focusing on the motivations of the heart:

 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

                                    –Matthew 15:17-20, NRSV

 While the leaders were focused on religious purity laws, Jesus was more concerned about the ideas coming out of one’s mouth. He even says some words defile us because they arise from evil intent within our hearts. (Even if we succeed at fooling the people around us with clever phraseology, God still sees our hidden motivation.)

So how we use words is indeed important to Christ. If you are like me, you fall short of these high standards, and I will remind you that God understands our human weakness and will forgive anything we are truly sorry for having said or done. However, that does not take away our responsibility to at least strive, with the help of the Spirit, to improve the ways we communicate with one another.

There are times when it is the path of wisdom to remain silent. There are other times when the Spirit prompts us to speak, sometimes about something that others do not want to hear. At those times it is especially important to speak the truth in a compassionate manner.

 For the words that come out of our mouths—or spill onto the internet—have the power to heal others or hurt them, to bring people together or to push them towards war, to build up the kingdom of God with love or divide God’s family with hate.  Which path will you and I choose? 

 NEXT TIME:  Part Two: Insights from Buddhism about “Right Speech”

 

Spiritual Aerobics

Spiritual Aerobics

1. Reflect on this saying: “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.” When is this saying true? Is there a time when it is not appropriate?

2. What does your upbringing or spiritual tradition teach about speaking the truth? Does it have teachings about gossip, slander, telling half-truths, etc.? If you don’t know, ask your religious leader, read the sacred texts, or search the web.