Category Archives: Reflection

Feeling zen, or otherwise…

Last poem of the month

One of my regular morning table visitors at GBM told me about this poem. I thought I’d end Poetry Month with it.

The Woodcarver

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
and begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

– Chuang Tzu
from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

Sometimes it takes a great sky

Since it’s National Poetry Month, it occurred to me to follow my daughter’s lead (and all the rest of the Northfielders who’ve been doing poetry this month) and do something poetic.

IMG_8325.JPGI’ve been doing consulting work the past few weeks at a company in Burnsville called ChartHouse Learning – the FISH! Philosophy company. Earlier this evening, I stumbled upon a David Whyte poem (below) titled The Journey, in one of their books, FISH! Sticks.

The beginning of his poem reminded me of this photo that I took (click to enlarge) in early November, 2005. I was walking in “The Prairie,” which is part of the Natural Lands area just west of St. Olaf’s Tostrud Center.

The Journey, by David Whyte, House of Belonging

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving
you are arriving.

Jesus, sports psychologist, helps Johnson win the Masters

Iowa’s Zach Johnson won the Masters golf tournament today. The DesMoines Register reported:

Johnson said with a cracking voice as he talked with CBS near the 18th green that the victory meant even more on Easter, as he credited Jesus and his late grandfather for helping him steel nerves.

zach_johnson.jpgNormally, when athletes give credit to God after a victory, the implication is that they won because God wanted them to win, that they put their trust or faith in God and were rewarded.

Johnson evidently didn’t pray to Jesus to help him win, he prayed to Jesus to help him stay calm. It’s an important distinction. We don’t know what the internal words of his prayer were, of course. But it probably wasn’t just a simple plea whenever he noticed his nervousness, ie, “Help me to stay calm, Jesus.” Rather, he likely had a prayer that he repeatedly recited, and it functioned as a way to mentally focus, helping him to stay ‘in the present’ rather than letting the mind trigger fears which create muscle tension which inhibits athletic performance.

In the movie, Saving Private Ryan, Private Jackson is a sharpshooter who quotes from the Hebrew Psalter each time he prepares to kill a German:

Be not that far from me, for trouble is near; haste Thee to help me.
Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.
My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me.
O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not mine enemies triumph over me.

He thinks God is helping him to vanquish his enemies, but it’s the calming effect of the prayer that quiets his mind, thereby calming his nerves and steadying his muscles and allowing his special athletic skill to be effective. Unfortunately, none of this is a match for a German tank which blows him out his sharpshooter perch towards the end of the movie. (I suppose one could argue that the German soldier operating that tank might have prayed more effectively than Private Jackson and therefore God answered the German’s prayer and not the American’s. But let’s not go there for now.)

So this type of prayer is a special class of false prayer that I blogged about in Feb. It’s false, because the person believes God is interceding in the physical universe. But it’s an effective false prayer because nerves are actually calmed.

The brain wouldn’t care if the words were from the Hebrew Psalter, the Sermon on the Mount, Mother Goose, or a McDonald’s commercial. The effect would be the same if the technique was practiced equally religiously. heh.

But I could be wrong.

Surround the Railroad Tracks with Art

SculpturePark.jpgI feel a little guilty about leaving Griff and Tracy to do Monday’s podcast without me…

…very little.

However, I thought I’d at least better blog something or they might take away my press pass that, at least according to Morgan, was going to get me backstage at a Shins concert…or something like that…

…so I took a stroll up to the new Sculpture Garden and snapped a few pictures.

This shot is not the most flattering of the Garden; however, it is revealing. Although I’d read a couple of articles about it, I only realized something rather important when I was actually standing in the site.

The Sculpture Garden lines both sides of the railroad tracks.

So, I guess if you’ve got rail tracks running through your downtown, you should surround it with a Sculpture Garden.

Glenn Switzer, are you still listening?

4th Anniversary of the War in Iraq

PeaceDove.jpegWe heard in church this morning that it is the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

I knew that it had been going on for a long time but I didn’t realize that we were about to begin its fifth year. I was certainly aware that the war goes on and people continue to die but I’m afraid that I might be getting used to the daily headlines and it begins to seem like a vague tale of events occuring in a distant land. It is only when I hear of a young man (or woman) from the area heading off to Iraq that it suddenly becomes very real, and close to home, once again.

Perhaps recognizing the anniversary will help keep it in the forefront of my mind.

On Monday, March 19th, there will be a gathering in Bridge Square in downtown Northfield at 12 pm and a vigil at Buntrock Commons on the St. Olaf campus at 5 pm. Hopefully, it will dispell some of the numbness that can result from the seemingly endless stories of the on-going war.

True prayers, Part I: Ask and Ye Shall Receive

coldsassytree_cover.gifAbout three years ago my wife read the novel Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns and pointed out a passage that astounded me at the time.

Why? Because in all my years of church-going and sermon-listening, I’d never heard a more intelligent, inspiring, and helpful explanation of what Jesus meant when he said, “Ask and ye shall receive.”

sassy_quote_all_tn.jpgThis kind of ‘asking’ prayer, when done correctly, ‘works’ every time, even if you’re an athiest. I’ll explain more later.

In the passage, Grandpa (Rucker) is talking to his newlywed, Miss Love. The narrator is the young grandson. (Pages 361-364 or click the image thumbnail for a screenshot.)

Click to play. 5 min, 30 sec. (I used my best southern twangy voice to record the passage, since that’s how the text is written.)

My question: Who are the ministers in Northfield who would agree 100% with Grandpa Rucker’s interpretation of Jesus’ words, “Ask and ye shall receive”?

False prayers

What’s wrong with these prayers?

  • “Let us pray for the safe return of our troops.”
  • “And now let us bow our heads in prayer and ask God for a bountiful harvest this year.”
  • “I’ll pray for your speedy recovery.”

They’re false and they’re destructive because they undermine the potential of a truer, more helpful way of praying.

GH-God at His ComputerI love this Far Side cartoon of God at his computer, poised to smite the dufus guy walking under the dangling piano. It’s the perfect illustration of how people who pray for future events (intercessionary prayers) view God — a Wizard of Oz’ish supreme being who can pull levers and push buttons to make things happen in the physical universe.

Read the stories of families receiving the bodies of troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Surely most of these people prayed for the safe return of their loved ones. And many of them are now having a crisis of faith because of their belief that God could have done something about it.

Just look at the prayers posted to this website: Fully Rely On God Prayer Requests. For example:

Lord, I was told to be very specific when I pray, so here it goes. I pray for financial miracles in my life. I pray that we get bills paid off. I pray that we win Publishers Clearing House, the lottery, or something to do this. I pray for financial blessings, miracles, and opportunities. In Jesus’ name I pray. I pray that we can buy a house. Lord, please provide the way and means to buy a house… Please help us, oh Lord, please grant my prayers. In Jesus’ name I pray.

It’s painful to read that. This prayer is essentially no different than me praying that the Twins win the World Series. That we get more snow. That I beat Tony in racquetball next week. That we sell our house. Those could my false prayers.

hammond.jpgThis past week, Mac Hammond, founder and senior pastor at the Living Word Christian Center in Minneapolis was in the news (see this Strib article: The Kingdom and Power of Mac Hammond).

It doesn’t bother me that the guy is rich, as long as he’s been ethical and legal in acquiring his wealth. But it bugs me that he’s preaching a ‘prosperity gospel’ in which God rewards you with wealth for good behavior. Here’s a quote from another Strib article):

“God says if you base your life on his covenant, these blessings are gonna overtake you; you can’t do anything about it, friend. [What was once] flocks and herds is in today’s parlance stocks and bonds.”

That’s bullshit. And it’s destructive.

Jesus wasn’t hesitant to criticize the way some Pharisees prayed. I sure hope some of Northfield’s more enlightened ministers will criticize Mac Hammond’s brand of prosperity gospel in their sermons this weekend.

I’ll get to work on a “true prayers” post.

Guest blogger Justin Stets: Out of Darkness

We at Locally Grown HQ have been talking about inviting guest bloggers to author occasional posts here. And then I noticed that Justin Stets was the guest Faith columnist in last weekend’s Northfield News, writing about his struggles after his sister took her life last year. (A tip-of-the-blog hat to the paper for giving a lay person access to that space.)

Obituary notices had been on my mind already (no link necessary) so his column got me thinking about the local public conversations that happen or don’t happen when someone dies… and whether the local online world could be helpful.

brendaandrew.jpgNorthfield teachers Brenda and Andrew Gilbertson contributed to a public Caringbridge site for a couple of years until Brenda died last spring. I didn’t know either of them but I do remember hoping Andrew would continue writing publicly after Brenda died. I thought the visible community conversation after her death could be as important for healing as that which occurred online while she was sick.

don_tarr.jpgDon Tarr died suddenly in June last year, a week after we’d interviewed him for our podcast. In retrospect, I wish I’d started a public conversation online about him and his contributions to the community.

05toursdenickposter.jpgEach August, the Northfield Bicycle Club hosts Tours de Nick, the annual bicycle tour in memory of young Nick Sansome who took his life five years ago. Each year, I find myself wanting to click my way to a website about Nick, as my memory of him is fading.

Justin’s sister didn’t live here so this is a bit different than the examples above. But Justin does live here and he’s gone public with his reflections so maybe it’s as good a place as any to start talking about death in community and what role, if any, the local online world/blogosphere could play beyond posting the same obituaries that appear in the paper.

I asked Justin for permission to post his column and he emailed me the text of it. I couldn’t find a link to it on the News’ website. Also, I didn’t ask for his commitment to participate in a conversation thread here, as I didn’t want to be presumptuous. This might be a good idea or a lousy idea and he shouldn’t be the one to make something happen. That’s up to the rest of us.

Out of Darkness by Justin Stets

Justin.jpgA little over a year ago, my sister took her life. This loss of one I loved deeply intensified my existing fear of death. It also required me to face my anxieties straight on, and that is what I have been doing for the past year.

The fear of death grips me fiercely. I have always struggled with the concept of my mortality. For a person of my age, I have spun and analyzed death too many times over. Almost half way through life and I have yet to come to terms with the fact that one day biology stops working, cells stop reproducing and the heart stops beating. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t much wish to leave my children. Spiritually, I feel like when I am 70 or so, that that is the time I will begin to understand what life is all about. Life, for me, is really worth living and the more I live, the more I want to live, and learn and love and change the world.

Continue reading Guest blogger Justin Stets: Out of Darkness