Category Archives: spirituality

Americans should quit dreaming and change the way they think

I was raised in the South. When I was a kid there were still remnants of the War Between the States around. (We southerners preferred that moniker for the American Civil War.)

I recall for example a couple of bumper stickers I saw as a youth. One said “Hell no, I ain’t forgettin’.” Another exhorted, “Save your Confederate money. The South rise again.”

The Confederate battle flag, known as the “Stars and Bars” was prevalent in my area. Vestiges of Jim Crow still lingered.

As an adult I became a Civil War buff. Living in Virginia I could tour numerous battlefields where Union and Rebel soldiers laid down their lives.

I enjoyed going to reenactments, where people dressed up in the blue and grey. There were even “civilians” who took part in the living histories. They came costumed as sutlers, camp followers and even ministers of the Gospel.

In the 90s I worked for a small college in South Carolina. In their main parlor the most prominent painting was of Confederate general Robert. E. Lee.

Fast forward about 20  years. General Lee is now a controversial figure. A statue of him in Charlottesville was this summer the catalyst for a confrontation in the streets between white supremacists and so-called anti-fascists.

This week the general’s descendant, Rev. Robert Wright Lee, denounced his own great uncle.  He told the press that he felt shame at General Lee’s role in the Confederacy.

There is now an outcry from some to do away with any and all memorials to American heroes who owned slaves. The most prominent Founders now being maligned include George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both slaveholders.

In his will Washington freed his slaves. Jefferson did not.

Yet, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He even included in one of the early drafts a condemnation of slavery.

Yet, 15 years ago historian Stephen E.  Ambrose published a piece for the Smithsonian that was highly critical of Jefferson. He wrote:

Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime.

Ambrose didn’t stop at these unflattering comments. He was even more condemning:

Jefferson owned slaves. He did not believe that all were created equal. He was a racist, incapable of rising above the thought of his time and place, and willing to profit from slave labor.

When I have thought of the Founding Fathers who owned slaves, and of the southerners who fought in the Civil War, I have tended to excuse them. “They were men of their time,” I think. “Everybody thought like they did.”

Ambrose did not excuse Jefferson . He saw him as a hypocrite who espoused equality for all, but did not express it in his own behavior. Ambrose said:

Few of us entirely escape our times and places. Thomas Jefferson did not achieve greatness in his personal life. He had a slave as mistress. He lied about it.

As a man with southern roots, and someone who considers Virginia his native soil, I find Ambrose’s comments deeply troubling. I also recoil at attacks on men like Robert E. Lee,  a revered son of Virginia. It is as if he is attacking my own personal world view.

However, I have now come to the conclusion that Ambrose is correct.  While I still consider Jefferson and Lee great public figures, I cannot excuse their racism.

How could these bigger-than-life figures have been so wrong? I think it might have something to do with our human natures.

The Bible portrays us all as sinners, i.e. people who are in rebellion against God. It describes us as people with corrupt natures who do corruption.

Yet, the Scriptures also call on us to master our sin. For whatever reason, men like Jefferson and Lee did not master theirs when it came to racism and bigotry.

Ambrose wrote that Jefferson had a “great mind and a limited character.” I think this was probably true of a lot of mythological characters in American history.

It is also true of many of us in modern life. I am not an intellectual by any means, but I do like to think and analyze. Unfortunately I tend to “overthink.”  This leads me to indecisiveness.

Like Jefferson I muse and write on subjects, but take little action in my own personal life.  I have recently thought that this is due to a lack of faith in God and His Word, the Bible.

I have for  most of my life agreed with the truth that Jesus died to pay the penalty for my sins and rose again from the dead to reign over me. I have also espoused intellectual assent to the truths of Scripture.

The reality though is that my life does not reflect these beliefs.  I have not done what the Bible has told me to do.

I have a myriad of excuses for this neglect, but the crux of the issue is that I have preferred doing things my way, perhaps out of convenience, or perhaps out of lust of the eyes, lust of the  flesh or pride of life.

I have determined of late though that God means  what He says. The Scriptures say “do not be deceived; God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows that He will also reap.” In many ways I have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “Why is it no man confesses his vices? It is because he has not yet laid them aside. It is a waking man only who can tell his dreams.”

J. Vernon McGee, a popular pastor and radio personality from the last half of the 20th century said of Seneca’s quote, “A man in sin is like a person still dreaming.

He alone (Jesus) can give comfort and understanding to the afflicted as well as extend mercy and grace.”

I have now after a lifetime awoke from my dream and seen my sins. The dream is to me more of a nightmare.

I should have obeyed God and His Word and listened to the men and women over my lifetime who taught me the way to live.

There’s still time for me, though. Thankfully, I have taken a first step.

The Bible says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”

I have begun to change the way I think. I am trying these days to think about how I can please God.

That in itself pleases Him. McGee said, “God in interested in what we think when we lie upon our pillows.”

Changing the way we think would be a good start for a lot of Americans today. But first, we have to wake up from our dreaming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Social Justice Warriors are hampered by intellectual dishonesty

“Twilight Zone” host Rod Serling would open his show with the following:

You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead. Your next stop: the Twilight Zone.

As I recently wrote, all the signs currently point to the world entering the Twilight Zone. What I  mean is that it is really difficult to determine whether a lot of people are living in reality or fiction.

For example, when I turn on my computer and choose to watch the news instead of entertain myself with science fiction, I see protesters explaining to a reporter why they are out in the street. What comes out of their mouths are best termed conspiracy theories, devoid of logic and truth.

The media aids and abets this warped thinking with its twisted reports. Their reports are seductive, for they pose as news.

Further, news organizations are in charge of what we see and hear on our devices. We may not be getting the most important news.

To be fair to the mob, we are full of false beliefs and memories. As I was writing this an article popped up in my Twitter feed from the Wall Street Journal which discusses research about individual self awareness.

“Most of us are not as self aware as we think we are,” writes author Elizabeth Bernstein.

Reporting on the research of psychologist Tasha Eurich, Bernstein notes:

When it comes to self-knowledge, she says there are three types of people: those who have it, those who underestimate how much they have (she calls them “underraters”) and those who overestimate how much they have (“overraters”). Underraters beat themselves up unnecessarily. Overraters believe they do everything well.

Some of us think that we have wonderful memories, also. I personally think mine is flawed, but I do have a close childhood friend who I believe has an exquisite ability to fill in the blanks for me on my lost memories. However, he may not be as astute as I think he is.

In a 2013 piece, The Atlantic asked “How Many of Your Memories are Fake?” Erica Hayasaki reported that even people with something called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory sometimes have their remembrances wrong.

One of the reasons for these mistakes in memory is that that our minds are subject to manipulation.

Simone Weil, one of the great philosophers of the first half of the 20th century, wrote that imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life. Unfortunately, she herself was evidence of this.

During World War II Weil contracted tuberculosis while in England.  She was there hoping to be sent to France to work for the Resistance. As a show of support for the French, she only ate what she “believed” the French person under German occupation would feed on. She died.

The coroner’s report said:  “the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed”.

Despite this sad end,  Simone Weil is credited with seeking for truth during her short life.

 

A great student and thinker, she had a higher degree in philosophy. Weil also studied several religions.  In 1935 she was drawn to the Christian faith.  She wrote in her “Spiritual Autobiography” that her concept of life was Christian.

In the same work, Weil described Jesus as the truth. She also had a high regard for the Bible. Weil wrote:

Christ made promises to the Church, but none of these promises has the force of the expression “Thy Father who seeth in secret.” The word of God is the secret word. He who has not heard this word, even if he adheres to all the dogmas taught by the Church, has no contact with truth.

Weil chose to live out her faith outside of the traditional church. She believed that Christianity was “catholic (i.e., universal) by right but not in fact.”

“So  many things are outside it, so many things that I love and do not want to give up, so many things that God loves, otherwise they would not be in existence,” she wrote.

Weil was not only an intellectual and devoted person of faith, but she was also politically active. Like a lot of young people, she was a political leftist. At the age of 10 she decided she was a Bolshevik.

Weil supported Communist movements in Europe. She wrote articles debating both capitalism and socialism. Although she was a terrible soldier, Weil tried to fight for the republicans during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

 

If she were alive today, Weil would grasp the attraction of modern groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter to today’s youth. She chose to try to reach the revolutionaries of her day and with truth outside of the Church.

Social enthusiasms have such power today, they raise people so effectively to the supreme degree of heroism in suffering and death, that I think it is as well that a few sheep should remain outside the fold in order to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different.

Would that our latter day young social justice warriors, so full of a desire to change the world, add the zeal for truth possessed by Simone Weil to their repertoire. They could do it if they wished.

Weil wrote:

After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment.

I can only hope and pray for this kind of effort toward intellectual honesty today. It is severely lacking.

 

 

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Writing as therapy and spiritual healing

I’ve always loved writing. It is probably what I do best and I enjoy it.

Talking about it, teaching it, and doing it has always been fun for me. This summer It has become something more. Writing has become therapy and a source of guidance for me.

I owe a lot of that to the work of Julia Cameron, whose book “The Right to Write” has been accompanying me to Starbucks for weeks.  It contains over 40 small chapters of teaching and exercises.

Cameron begins each chapter with an “invitation”, in which she describes her own personal experiences related to writing and life. Then she provides what she calls an “initiation tool” to use to apply her thoughts.

Three of Cameron’s ideas have been of particular help to me. One has been her effort to convince her readers that writing is not some great task reserved for only the elite and talented.  This teaching literally has given me the right to write.  Because of this I have felt unchained in terms of getting thoughts on paper.

Once she freed me from my intellectual prison, Cameron gave me a couple of practical devices to unleash my own ruminations. Her Morning Pages (sometimes “mourning pages) are three pages of handwritten writing first thing before the day starts. This is “stream of consciousness” writing. Night Notes are the posing of questions right before bed for up to ten minutes.

The beauty of any teaching is that you can make it your own. I have tried to stick to Julia’s dictums despite my weaknesses. I am not a morning person and find it difficult to get going. I have found others struggle with this exercise for the same reason.

As a result, I find I don’t get these pages done every day, or that I do them later on in the morning. This would probably be fine with Cameron.  She says that Morning Pages are “not high art” and that “there is no wrong way to do Morning Pages.”

This morning I struggled to get through three pages. I found myself drawing regular and irregular shapes on the lines in my composition books just to get through. Even this strategy was helpful because it reminded me that one of the best ways to get something done well is to think outside of the box.

With Night Notes the writer is supposed to sleep on the questions and allow the subconscious to provide answers. Because I actually forgot this feature I have been answering the questions as I pose them before sleeping. Again, I have come upon some beneficial ideas although I “broke the rules.”

What I have found is that these tools have helped me to clear the deck in my mind. A lot of the baggage is done away with. One effect of this is my thinking becomes more focused. Another is that my emotions are stabilized because I have vented them on the page.

Cameron has offered to me in organized form the wisdom of the greats. For example, Bob Dylan uses similar thinking and methods as hers to get his ideas down. He was asked by interviewer Paul Zollo how he got thoughts out of his mind. He replied,

Well, first of all, there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts. Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you want to be a good song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of all them thoughts.”

When the mind is clean of garbage and issues come into clearer focus by getting them onto the page, movement can be made. Dylan says once the baggage is gotten rid of, “then you can do something from some kind of surveillance of the situation. You have some kind of place where you can see but it can’t affect you. Where you can bring something to the matter, besides just take, take, take, take, take.”

Getting rid of the mud of the mind allows God to enter into our thinking. In my post about Dylan’s divine inspiration, I noted how his lyrics were influenced by the divine. I also explained that Cameron makes no bones about the benefits of listening to spiritual sources as we write.

While her writings about this are more eclectic in terms of who or what to access than I personally would prefer, I have gained by not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Applying her axioms in the context of my own beliefs about God and truth have been quite profitable.

As a Christian I seek to learn what God wants of me through reading the Bible and through prayer. Thus, I try to ask questions of Him, tell Him my own desires, and listen for His answer.

Further, I use my own God-given brain combined with what seems to be God’s leading to make decisions.  Before you claim that this is all “pie in the sky bye and bye”, I must explain how I believe the process works.

I see God’s leading as working more like a GPS device than a road map.  20th century pastor J. Vernon McGee said that God does not hand out road maps. In fact, he decried false piety in which people claimed to have a direct pipeline to the Almighty.

I recently listened  to a sermon by McGee about the story Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, from whose line Jesus would come, and how she decided to support herself and her mother-in-law Naomi when they were poor. Ruth decided to glean grain from local fields. Gleaning was a practice allowed in Israel in ancient times as a means to support the needy.

One day she came to two fields from which to glean grain. One was owned by Boaz, who was a distant relative of Naomi. Ruth had come to Israel with her when her husband, Naomi’s son, died. She did this as a step of faith and out of a willingness to follow the God of Naomi’s people.

McGee said that Ruth did not have a vision or a dream from God. He explained that she reasoned on the spot to go into the field of Boaz based on the situation before her. One thing led to another and she married Boaz, and thus became a distant grandmother of Jesus.

“God’s leading-yes,” said McGee. “But He’s leading a heart that’s willing to be led, and going step by step by faith.” Ruth was such a person.

Thus, the writing tools taught by Cameron and used by expert artists such as Bob Dylan have helped me to seek God and His leading as Ruth did.  As I write I believe He leads me step-by-step to great truths and informs decisions that have to be made.

What I have learned has given me great peace. It has also produced spiritual healing. I can live one day at a time, trusting God to communicate with me, not necessarily in spectacular ways, but through normal means of grace like the Bible and prayer, and though practical tasks such as writing, a practice I love anyway.

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The Divine Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has always been a bit of an enigma.

Like a lot of artists, he has “periods” where fans can identify certain emphases in his music and lyricism. For example, in the 60s he was thought of as a generational prophet. Then there was the “Christian” period of the late 70s and early 80s during which believers bought albums such as “Slow Train Coming.”

However, Ben Sisario of the New York Times has written of how Dylan resists study.

“Over the decades he has frustrated many an interviewer who wanted to penetrate his mind and method,” he says.

‘Dylan has never been at all revealing about those kinds of issues,’ the music critic and author Anthony DeCurtis said in an interview.

‘He has always been dismissive,’ Mr. DeCurtis said. ‘He has certainly said things that have minimized his lyrics in the attempt to fend off or downplay any attempt to see him as a prophet.’ So he’ll say, “Oh, I just wrote what came to my mind.”

Whatever kind of offhand thing you could say to try to deflate someone who is trying to inflate your lyrics with meaning.”

A 1991 interview with Paul Zollo further illustrates Dylan’s reluctance to be pigeonholed. He asked Zollo,”Songwriting? What do I know about Songwriting?” Though Dylan said this with laughter, the grain of truth, i.e., he is just your average Joe,  is there.

Despite his reticence to be acknowledged, Zollo points out one of the reasons Dylan is a landmark artist.  He says,“He broke all the rules of songwriting without abandoning the craft and care that holds songs together.”

I would admire Dylan without this desire for excellence with language.  But for this writer, an English teacher by trade, Dylan’s care for his use of the written word makes me revere him even more. Zollo compares the beauty of his poetry to Shakespeare, Byron, as well as modern greats.

Even though Dylan’s reference for his writings is hard to determine, Zollo’s piece hints at it.  He writes, “There’s an unmistakable elegance in Dylan’s words, an almost biblical beauty that has sustained in his songs throughout the years.”

The artist once known as Robert Zimmerman influenced the soul of other musicians in this regard. According to Zollo, John Lennon was inspired by the depth of Dylan’s music to write songs that concerned life and the soul and not just  “empty pop songs”.

Dylan’s approach to his vocation is not of the secular, lunch bucket, 9 to 5 variety. It has a more spiritual bent. He told Zollo that His songwriting has “never really been seriously a profession…It’s been more confessional than professional.”

Bishop Robert Barron, a Catholic prelate based in Los Angeles, is stronger in his assessment of the supernatural aspects of Dylan’s work.

“You have to read him as a spiritual poet,” says Barron. “You can read him politically. You can read him as a cultural commentator. All that is right, but I think ultimately the best way to read him is as a spiritual teacher.”

Barron notes that Dylan is like most artists in that they will be elusive in terms of explaining the meaning of their lyrics. “But I think you can see patterns in any great artist,” he says. “You see them clearly in Bob Dylan.”

“You know in the 80s he became explicitly biblical, explicitly Christian. But all throughout his career, from beginning to right now, the Bible has been the dominant influence.”

Dylan’s epoch song “Blowing in the Wind” exemplifies this effect of Scripture on his work. The hit tells the listener that the answers to our most abiding questions come only through the intervention of God, according to the bishop.

God’s influence on Bob Dylan is nothing new. Author Julia Cameron explains that channeling spiritual information has been a means of creating great works for hundreds of years. In her book “The Right to Write”, she quotes some other noted artists (past and present) who attribute their genius to God.

“Although we rarely talk about it in these terms, writing is a means of prayer,” she says. “It connects us to the invisible world. It gives us a gate or conduit for the other world to talk to us whether we call it the subconscious, the unconscious, the superconscious, the imagination or the Muse.”

While we may not seek to contact God as we write, as we actually engage in the process of putting ideas down we come into contact with the divine.

Cameron says, “Writing gives us a place to welcome more than the rational. It opens the door to inspiration.

“We are an open channel.”

One critic on the public forum Quora calls Cameron’s work “creepy”, presumably because of  her spiritual approach to writing.  In “The Right to Write” she addresses those who feel that her thoughts about inspiration are too “New Age” or “airy-fairy”.

“Channeling? Julia, that word is so…

“I know. I know and I do not care because the word is artistically accurate,” she responds.

The author as a channel of the thoughts of God has an impact on how we go about writing. It also has  some surprise consequences on the lives of those who are willing to accept this concept of divine inspiration at face value and apply it to their work.

I will explain these effects in a future post.

 

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