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transforming love through meditation (a guest post)

Today, I’m happy to share a guest post from my friend John Zhao.  John was one of several writers this spring who took me up on my offer to guest write on the topics of spirituality, sexuality, or social justice.  I want to thank him for his contribution, and I do hope you get something out of it:

“The best-adjusted person in our society is the person who is not dead and not alive, just numb, a zombie.  When you are dead you’re not able to do the work of the society.  When you are fully alive you are constantly saying “No” to many of the processes of society, the racism, the polluted environment, the nuclear threat, the arms race, drinking unsafe water and eating carcinogenic foods.  Thus it is in the interests of our society to promote those things that take the edge off, keep us busy with our fixes, and keep us slightly numbed out and zombie-like. In this way our modern consumer society itself functions as an addict.” – Anne Wilson Schaef

Around two years ago, I was very unhappy with my life. I wasn’t within the realm of depression, but I was comfortably dancing around it.  I had a general feeling of dissatisfaction.  A feeling of “is this it?”  A sense that my life to this point hasn’t really met my expectations: my grades were ok, but nothing spectacular; I had some friends, but no one very close; and I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. There was a longing for something more in life.  At the time, I had interpreted this desire as a fundamental want to be loved.  I needed someone or something to plug the hole, fill the void, and provide meaning for my life.  This is a sentiment that our generation can relate to.  And who could blame us really  The media has bombarded our minds with images and ideas equating beauty, consumerism and sex with happiness.  The digital age, internet (and specifically porn) has altered the neural pathways of our brain and fundamentally redefined human interaction.  And lastly, emotional detachment has become mistaken as a sign of strength.  Everyone and everything is telling us how to think.  Happiness has become conditioned upon a narrow set of parameters that most people can never reach.  Most importantly, our society has packaged happiness into a product to be consumed and depleted.   It’s no wonder our generation is so confused.

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When we let go of our battles and open our heart to things as they are, then we come to rest in the present moment. This is the beginning and end of spiritual practice.” – Jack Kornfield

I vowed to change my life.  I stumbled upon an article on mindfulness meditation.  The benefits of meditation included increased focus/attention, increased quality of sleep, anti-aging, improved immune system, decreased anxiety, lowered blood pressure, and the release of positive mood regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. It sounded cool so I added it to my “self improvement” regiment.  As the weeks went by, I began to quiet my mind.  The thoughts began to disappear.  And as I increased my effort, quality, and technique in meditation, I began to notice a profound shift in my experience of life.  Color and meaning filled my life.  As I meditated and looked deeper within, I experienced intense states of compassion, joy but also fear and uncomfortableness.  Most valuable though, I gained an understanding of myself and insights into how to live properly.  I had begun to walk the spiritual path.  And as I continued walking, the fog of confusion began to dissipate around me. One particular experience provided me with a profound insight into love.  When I began this meditation session I had a deep sense of loneliness.  I felt like a lone star blanketed by the darkness of the night.  There was a desperate need for connection. It felt like insatiable waves of tugging and pulling within my body.  As I examined this sensation, I clearly identified it as a “lack of love.”  As the tugging and pulling became more intense, I could not resist it any further.  It had become overwhelming.  I had to surrender.  I had lost. As I stopped resisting, I began to accept the waves of loneliness.  The moment I surrendered to the sensation, it began to change.  The energy of the loneliness became transformed into a deep acceptance of myself.  My mind became a vast ocean of tranquility and warmth began to expand through my body.  What had originally been a sense of isolation, loneliness, and separateness within me became an expansion of acceptance, peace and love.  I had entered into a state that one spiritual teacher calls “loving awareness.”  As this loving awareness filled my sights, sounds, thoughts, and feelings it filled my entire experience of the world with love.  There was love for the bed I sat on, the air I breathed, and even the snoring roommate below me. This loving awareness is within us at all times.  For me, it was developing the courage to allow myself to experience it.  Modern society places conditions upon our being.  It says you are not allowed to be happy and you are not allowed to love until some condition is met.  Most of us go through life waiting for some event to happen before we give ourselves permission to express our love.  I think that one of the reasons many people are desperately seeking for others to love them is because it provides them permission to love others back. We also create hierarchies of love.  Love your family more than strangers.  Love your countrymen more than foreigners.  Love humans more than animals.  These hierarchies exist because we fear that which is different and consequently unfamiliar and unknowable.  And thus, every time we see something, we compare and judge out of fear.  When we compare differences, we create separateness and boundaries: this causes loneliness.  When we judge, we categorize certain things as fundamentally good and others as fundamentally bad.  Inevitably, we will see these characteristics in ourselves.  We will judge certain parts of our being as fundamentally bad: this causes shame and self-hate.  The opposite of love is not hate; it is fear resulting from a lack of right understanding.  Fear causes all our suffering and thus love conditioned by fear will always bring misery.

……………………….

If you love a flower, don’t pick it up. Because if you pick it up it dies and ceases to be what you love. So if you love a flower, let it be. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.” – Osho

As we become established in meditation, we learn to clearly discern and untangle our moment to moment experience.  We see our fear creating judgment.  And we see that judgment creating self-hate.  It becomes obvious.  We can begin to come out of our confusion and ignorance, gain right understanding, and rid ourselves of fear. When we sit with our mind and body, we can attempt to confront our feelings of unworthiness, shame, hate, and fear in all its other disguises.  We gain a capacity to finally familiarize ourselves with these fears and understand them.  Every sensation that comes up, we meet it with loving awareness.  We try to understand it.  We surrender to it.  We accept it.  And we revel in the mystery of it. We see reality as it is, our place within it, and learn to skillfully relate to it.  We learn to surrender ourselves to reality and accept all of it, with nothing left out.  No trying to get rid of our flaws – because there really aren’t any.  No trying to resist the sorrows of life – because they are there.  We learn to embrace our lives, and unconditionally meet each moment with loving awareness whether it is filled with joy or sorrow.  The difficulties in life are inevitable.  Sure, you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

 ……………………….

john zhao

John Zhao is a senior at the University of Illinois studying General Engineering.  He is interested in spiritual growth and a personal understanding of reality free from dogma, belief, and creed.  Although he associates with no religion, he’s found himself heavily influenced by Buddhism.  On campus, he serves as an Illinois Student Admissions Representative and manages FYXIT, a tech repair business.  When he’s not out saving the world, odds are you will find him at one of Chambana’s fine drinking establishments.  He can be reached through email at John at zondr.com

baby, we were born to die

hello hurricane

There are some writers who are so skilled in their craft that they can, with the flick of a wrist or the stroke of a keyboard, conjure up images of life and death and heaven and hell that are so vivid, so powerful, that they’re all but impossible to shake from our hearts.

One of my residents once handed me a collection of bound pages that she purported was written by one such author, looking me in the eyes, saying: “this is my favorite book.  Read it.”

And though I assured her I would read her legendary book and return it promptly, the tome has sat on my bookshelf, completely untouched, for the better part of two years.

But because I’m traveling this week, I decided I might as well bring the thing with me to have something to glance at on the plane.  I arrived in Orlando a couple of days ago (to attend the 100th anniversary of a wonderful association for college unions) and I’ve had enough leisure time here that I am able to do quite a bit of reading.

The writer in question is John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, as well as the novel in question: the ineffable and all too-short Looking For Alaska, which I finished last night.

The book follows the journey of Miles “Pudge” Halter, a young Floridian who decides to leave his Orlando home to seek adventure by moving to the classy, contentious Alabamian boarding school his father attended.  With Miles, we’re presented a quirky but relatable narrator, a gawky learned fellow who is replete with authentic philosophical ponderings on life, death, and what – if anything – comes after.

In these pages, woven within a unique and engaging coming of age story, the characters grapple with authority, hormones, relationships, and chillingly, their own mortality.  Students at Culver Creek play pranks, study, drink, smoke, and spend classroom time examining how three religious traditions in particular (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) seek to answer the universal human question (whatever that is).

As the story progresses and the semester shifts and seasons change from fall to spring and back again, the reader is reminded that everything is temporal.

Especially us.

As a person of faith, I enjoyed the narrator’s musings on life and death and what follows.  In a rare move of brilliance, Green manages to both affirm and challenge my own conceptions of life after death.

See, as a Christian, I tend to cling to the idea of eternal life in order to mentally shield myself from the true horror of the universality of death.  Life always comes after death, I remind myself, trying not to focus on how exceedingly inexplicableirreversible, and inevitable dying actually is.

But our storyteller never shies from this possibility.

Notably, Miles’ favorite hobby, at once esoteric and delightfully morbid, is learning and memorizing the sometimes perplexing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes downright funny last words of important historical figures.

Several of these appear throughout the novel:

I know you are here to kill me,” Che Guevara is said to have spat to his executioner.  “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”

They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist–,” declared Union general John Sedgwick as he was swiftly truncated by a Confederate sharpshooter.

The nourishment is palatable,” quipped President Millard Fillmore, upon tasting his diluted last meal.

I go to seek a great perhaps,” spoke humanist playwright and monk François Rabelais, moments before he stepped out of this world.

Though this wry sense of mortality pervades every page in the book, the discussion takes on a much more serious tone when it really begins to wrestle with the unreasonable finality of losing those we love most.  It’s perhaps in this area that the story, and Green’s characters, shine brightest.

a great perhaps

Our protagonist and I share several similarities.  We both claim a Western faith tradition and simultaneously appreciate the influence of Eastern thinkers in our lives.  We were both “the good kids” throughout high school, declining to smoke, sleep around, or partake in alcohol.  We both, not to put too fine a point on it, “hated sports, hated people who played them, hated people who watched them, and hated people who didn’t hate people who watched or played them.”  And we each dramatically struggle with the onus of becoming infatuated with impossible women, endlessly chasing after vain phantasms and other such illusions.

Watching Miles begin to fall in love with his wild (and wildly complicated) friend Alaska (from the Aleut Alyeska, “that which the sea breaks against“) was a painfully cataclysmic (and familiar) turn of events.  Reflecting on the two, I couldn’t help but thinking that the isolated passions we felt so strongly as destiny-driven youths are not somehow limited to our pasts, but have a way of sustaining themselves, following us into the future.

This complicated relationship between the past and the present is profoundly explored in this work, and it’s worth reading for this reason alone.

But the most powerful punch the entire project packed was for me something wholly personal, something that caught me completely off guard: the narrator’s own last words to his readers which, echoing Rebelais’ suggestion of “the Great Perhaps,” aptly compose the final cadence of the book.

Here, Miles longingly concludes his ultimate meditation on the afterlife with the illuminating(?) last words of Thomas Edison: “It’s very beautiful over there.”

I don’t know where there is,” Miles admits, “but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”

I found myself struck with familiarity at these words, wondering why they sounded so familiar.  Then it hit me.  Edison’s dying breath – supplemented by these sixteen short words from Alaska’s narrator – were the same words my sister had chosen to end her eulogy with at my grandmother’s recent funeral.

If we’re really being honest, we have to admit that even the most devout among us doesn’t know for sure where there is either.  But we can believe that it’s somewhere.  We can hope to God that it’s beautiful.

In case I haven’t made it clear by now, this novel cooly boasted everything that makes a great story.  I laughed within the first few pages.  Reading this story, I felt pained and joyous and proud and sad.  I got chills and premonitions throughout.  Finally, like one of Alaska’s main characters, the story itself commanded my attention and forced me to think about crucial things I very much might have liked to avoid.

In other words, maybe it just took a work of great art to help me see what I already knew to be true: that as unpleasant as it may be to dwell on, deep down I always knew how my story has to end.

Because whether we believe in the after or whether we think the now is all we have; whether we find romance or choose another path; whether our last words or the words others use to eulogize us are tragic, funny, clever, foolish, clichéd, grand, or delirious – death remains that one last trouble which comes for us all.

And like the larger than life characters in Looking for Alaska, we were each of us undeniably born to this trouble.

As surely as sparks fly upward.

10,000 little pieces

v soleada

World Vision USA just revealed how deeply they’ve been affected by last week’s events:

10,000 child sponsorships have been abruptly cancelled,

a number almost too large to understand.

think about it like this:

this post is exactly 100 words

imagine it were 100X  longer than it is

and that every single word here represents a child

who lost provision for their food, clothes, and shelter this month

because outraged Christians (conservatives and  progressives)

failed to realize that our virtual culture wars

always have real world casualties.

That’s 10,000  little pieces of God’s own image

scattered to the wind

never to be seen again

world (di)vision and american exceptionalism

With over a billion dollars a year in annual revenue, World Vision easily ranks as one of the most powerful, well respected charities in the world.  Forbes magazine lists it as #10 on their 50 top U.S. charities list.  Recent statistics report the organization receiving almost 90 million dollars a year in private donations.  Google’s director of corporate giving and another of the firm’s senior executives currently sit on World Vision’s board of directors.

In short, this is a powerful, well-respected organization making powerful, authentic strides to positively change countless lives across the globe.

World Vision is also an unabashedly faith-based charity, one which holds its employees to wholly Christian standards – all staff must agree to World Vision’s Statement of Faith or the Apostle’s Creed, one of the most ancient, generous, ecumenical Christian confessions ever assembled.

Earlier this week, World Vision USA announced that it would be making a shift in its hiring guidelines – what president Richard Stearns called a “very narrow policy change” – in order to no longer forbid employment to confessing Christians who are married to other Christians of the same gender.

In an exclusive interview with Christianity Today announcing this change, Stearns chose his words and presented his case so carefully that he’s worth recounting in detail here:

Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues.  It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.

What do we do about someone who applies for a job at World Vision who is in a legal same-sex marriage that may have been sanctioned and performed by their church?  Do we deny them employment?  Under our old conduct policy, that would have been a violation.  The new policy will not exclude someone from employment if they are in a legal same-sex marriage.”

Added Stearns very specifically, almost prophesying what was to come:

This is also not about compromising the authority of Scripture.  People can say, ‘Scripture is very clear on this issue,’ and my answer is, ‘Well ask all the theologians and denominations that disagree with that statement.’  The church is divided on this issue.  And we are not the local church.  We are an operational organization uniting Christians around a common mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ.

It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there.  This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage.  We have decided we are not going to get into that debate.  Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.

We’re not caving to some kind of pressure.  We’re not on some slippery slope.  There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us.  This is not us compromising…this is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S. based on this single issue, and nothing more.”

I was visiting some friends at Wheaton College on the night of the announcement.  There, at a small gathering, I was discussing the news with an old friend, one who is not affirming of gay and lesbian relationships.

“Did you hear about World Vision?”  I asked.  “They changed their hiring policy so that now married gay Christians can work for them.”

Her reaction: “that’s awesome.”

And then we went on talking.  About the gays and Wheaton and Beyonce and faith and feminism and Frozen.

Because despite our theological disagreement (on the morality of Christ-centered same sex relationships), we were easily able to make enough room for our two different opinions through mutual respect and genuine dialogue.  Yes, we may disagree on this issue, but on some level we were able to let it go in order to put first and foremost our shared commitment to represent Christ well and to work together to feed starving children.

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Unfortunately, not all evangelicals reacted so…charitably to the news.

After Stearns’ initial announcement, the gatekeepers went quickly to work.  Hundreds of horrified and upset Christians took to social media, furious that World Vision USA would now potentially be hiring gay Christians.  The “grief” and outrage immediately expressed by powerful pastors and members of individual churches was catastrophically vitriolic.  Within hours, it seemed to fill every corner of the (Christian) Internet (Ben Corey has documented several such reactions on his blog).

One Christian news outlet, speaking of the change, told their readers: “This is a betrayal of the gospel, a betrayal of the Lord, a betrayal of the family, and a betrayal of the countless thousands of Christians who have put their trust in World Vision as a legitimate Christian organization.”

Many, many such pronouncements were quickly made, condemning the organization and threatening to pull moral and financial support from sponsored children.  You’ve made a most grievous betrayal, it seemed people were saying, and now we’ll take our money elsewhere.

Turns out they weren’t bluffing.

Within 24 hours, the damage was done.  The amount of donations canceled rose to a savage high, and some 2,000 children became officially sponsorless, held hostage by combatants of a culture war they’d never heard of.

I’m sure this week must have felt like a unified attack to many of the employees of World Vision USA.

This is probably why, less than two days later, World Vision USA announced they would actually be making a reversal in their change of policy, and no longer be open to hiring confessing Christians who are in same sex marriages.

When I first heard the news, I thought I was reading an Onion article.

Apparently, despite the board being “overwhelmingly in favor” of the initial change, now things were going back to normal.  Despite Stearns’ careful, compassionate words just days earlier, now his nuanced speech shifted into echoing, zombielike, the same talking points that his opponents had hurled at him just the day before:

“there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs…the authority of Scripture in our organization’s work [and staff conduct]…and on marriage as an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman—those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs.  We cannot defer on things that are that central to the faith…forgive us for that mistake.”

This hardly sounds like the man who gave the initial announcement, the man who preached just last year: “as far as I know, no one ever died of gay marriage.”

So what happened?

No, this wasn’t an Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  For those of us who believe that it is not God’s best for us to so callously discriminate against our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s easy to see what’s happened here.  It’s easy for us to see that once again, the loudest, most bullying voices in evangelical culture got their way.  The same tired old white, male, North American voices, perhaps feeling they were losing their tenuous grasp on a matter of grave moral significance, once again rose up and worked hard to get this decision reversed.

Like when John Piper reacts to this shift by declaring this a “tragic” turn of events that deeply “trivializes the cross.”

Or when Franklin Graham disgraces his family name by going on television and invoking the name of the dead founder of World Vision to lament “it’s obvious World Vision does not believe the Bible.  I’m sickened over it….I’m just heartbroken and I’m sickened that World Vision has taken this ungodly position.”

Or when Al Mohler writes that “the shift announced yesterday by World Vision points to disaster.  We can only pray that there is yet time for World Vision to rethink this matter, correct their course, stand without compromise on the authority of Scripture, and point the way for evangelical Christians to follow once again.”

When Denny Burk pens an inflammatory article called “The Collapse of Christianity at World Vision” and declares “it is impossible to be a ‘follower of Christ’ while endorsing or participating in a same-sex marriage.

And when other wealthy white men are heralded for calling the decision “unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish,” dramatically maintaining that “at stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

When all of these hateful words first reverberated across the Internet and filled my ears, I could think but two things:

1) did any of these indignant men who helped rally supporters into pulling thousands of child sponsorships from World Vision even read the especially nuanced words Stearns took such care to share in his original interview?

2) if World Vision was really going to collapse because of this shift, if they’d really compromised and lost on this utterly crucial issue and given up their biblical, Christian identity because of this new hiring policy…then this is really quite awkward for the hundreds upon hundreds of World Vision employees who work for World Vision United Kingdom, World Vision Australia, World Vision Canada, and other international self-determining offices of the organization – headquarters that for years have refused to discriminate in their employment practices on the basis of sexual orientation.

Heck, World Vision UK even released a statement in response to World Vision USA’s reversal, intending to clarify their own position on the matter: “World Vision UK does not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation.  Individuals are hired and their performance monitored on job-specific criteria only.

Imagine that.

Why then, I wonder, have we seen such horrible outrage regarding World Vision USA’s policy change, while not one of the angry, powerful men I referenced above has expressed any sort of similar fervor or “harrowing disappointment” for the international branches of World Vision, despite their undertaking this exact same “path of destruction”?

Because this is America.  And we are God’s special nation.  And we can’t have that here.

The problem with this attitude, theologically speaking, is the Lucifer-esque arrogance that comes with assuming that the US is somehow the holiest, most spiritual nation to ever exist, a country divinely founded and blessed by God from across the arc of history to become the primary home of Orthodox Christianity™ from now until the incipient end of the world.

It’s an inherently idolatrous (read: sinful, flawed, ungodly) way of looking at the world.

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What this vision reflects is a spiritualized version of a political theory called American exceptionalism – the insidious belief that the United States and its citizens are inherently set apart from (and superior to) everyone else.  This philosophy doesn’t square up very well with Christianity, a religion which insists that all people (regardless of nationality) bear God’s image equally, and are fundamentally valued the same in God’s eyes.

Strange as it may seem, confusing worship of Jesus Christ with worship of Caesar is surprisingly common in many contemporary circles.  This is why some politicians use the biblical notion of a “city on a hill” to describe not the Church or New Jerusalem but the United States of America.  It’s why we have popular products like the unabashedly idolatrous American Patriot’s Bible.  It’s why many Christians are so desperate to read “America” back into the “end-times prophesies” hidden within the Hebrew Bible.  And it’s why fundamentalists can cry wolf and bemoan World Vision USA’s nondiscriminatory hiring policy and in the same breath completely ignore the fact that World Vision has been hiring gay Christians in same sex marriages for years, all over the globe.

I’m convinced that this is the source of much of the division we’ve seen this week – nothing more than the natural side effects of a theology that insists the purest, most Christian interpretations of the Bible can only be perpetuated by powerful white men in America.

* * * * *

If you’ve felt betrayed by the World Vision USA reversal this week but still want to help the organization as a whole make up the almost 5,000 child sponsorships they lost this week, consider donating to World Vision UK.

When it comes down to it, I don’t have any of the answers.  All I can do right now is grieve, mourn the events of the past few days, pray and process them with those I love.  And I can try to call out injustice that opposes God’s reconciliatory Gospel mission, including American (or is it white?) supremacy, wherever I see it.

Other articles that look at this issue from an invaluable perspective:

Whispering Winds Blog

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven... A place to be still and be renewed by the Spirit

Chris Martin Writes

Pressing more into Jesus Christ everyday

Leaving Fundamentalism

Examining Christian Fundamentalism in the UK

Mercy not Sacrifice

The Blog of Morgan Guyton

If you want to sing out, sing out.

And if you want to be free, be free.

The Blog of Andrew Arndt

Bits and pieces... fragments of thoughts on living a quiet life with God

Monologuing Me

when faith and orientation collide

Adipose Rex

Faith, Feminism, and Fat Acceptance

And Now Deep Thoughts With Justin Hanvey

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Revolutionary Faith

Taking back Christianity

Sacred Tension

A Story About Dissonance

Ignostic Atheist

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If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Matthew 17:20

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Defeating the Dragons

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Mercy Not Sacrifice

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My thoughts and work on philosophy, theology, and politics.

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