Category Archives: Reflection

Feeling zen, or otherwise…

With no self-understanding, Lance Armstrong tries to talk his way out of something he’s behaved himself into

Armstrong videos on Oprah
I wasn’t able to watch Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey but I’ve read enough and watched those video clips. This analysis piece in today’s NY Times, Amid Tears, Armstrong Leaves Unanswered Questions, does a good job of summing up the problems with it:

He personally chose Winfrey for his big reveal, and it went predictably. Winfrey allowed him to share his thoughts and elicited emotions from him, but she consistently failed to ask critical follow-up questions that would have addressed the most vexing aspects of Armstrong’s deception.

She did not press him on who helped him dope or cover up his drug use for more than a decade. Nor did she ask him why he chose to take banned performance-enhancing substances even after cancer had threatened his life…

At times, Winfrey’s interview seemed more like a therapy session than an inquisition, with Armstrong admitting that he was narcissistic and had been in therapy — and that he should be in therapy regularly because his life was so complicated.

I wasn’t so bothered by her lack of critical follow-up questions on who helped him. She’s not an investigative journalist like Mike Wallace. But she wasn’t a very good talk-show interviewer either, and certainly not a good therapist.

It’s clear to me that Armstrong doesn’t have much self-understanding.  He’ll need that if his verbal apologies are going to mean anything. You can’t just apologize and say admit to being a ruthless bully and jerk.  You have to be willing to reveal the mistaken thinking that led to your behavior.

He also needs to make amends to those he harmed (see #8 of the AA’s Twelve Steps). I first heard the phrase “You can’t talk your way out of something you’ve behaved yourself into” from a recovering alcoholic who was speaking about Step 8. It’s pretty clear to me that so far, Armstrong is hoping that admission of guilt and a little show of emotion will be enough.

An atheist’s most difficult prayer: Help

Help Thanks WowBack in November, I saw a Thanksgiving essay in the NY Times, The Prayer of an Unconventional Family by Anne Lamott and noticed in the footnote that she had a new book  out titled Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

I bought the Kindle version of the book when I saw this short review of the book in the Strib by my former Utne Reader colleague, Lynette Lamb:

If you seek a pithy explication of prayer, as understood by one reliably funny Christian, this is your book. But if you’re hoping for fully realized stories about Lamott’s own wrestling with religion, like those found in her previous books on faith, you’ll be disappointed. This is more self-help manual than essay collection.

I was going to blog about it several times since then but every time Northfield bookseller Jerry Bilek at Monkey See Monkey Read got the book in stock, he’d sell out in a day or two. (On Friday, Jerry got a whole stack of books in.)

I was most interested in Lamott’s chapter, Help, because I’ve found that as an atheist, it’s the toughest of the three prayers. Being grateful (Thanks) and mindful (Wow) are for me, more easily practiced because they don’t activate my mind’s habitual desire to have a being/God involved.

But how do you pray/say/ask for Help without conjuring up an image of someone on the other end who might A) be listening; and B) have some inclination to act on the request? Lamott writes:

Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through. It is the first great prayer. I don’t pray for God to do this or that, or for God’s sake to knock it off, or for specific outcomes. Well, okay, maybe a little.

I’ve blogged about prayer occasionally as I think it helps to distinguish between true and false prayers.  Asking for specific worldly outcomes is a false prayer.  Here’s a good example of one of Lamott’s Help prayers that combines true prayer with what she calls her ‘beggy prayers’:

A lifelong friend, a staunch agnostic, has asked me to pray for her daughter, Angie, who has young children and a diagnosis of aggressive lung cancer, the kind that continues to grow tumors in the midst of chemotherapy. I close my eyes and say in silence, “I hold this family in Your light. I pray for them to get their miracle, and to have stamina, for them to be okay today, for their love and amazing senses of humor to help them come through, although if You have a minute, I’d like to know: What on earth could You be thinking?”

That prayer and my friendship are pretty much all I’ve got to offer. I wish I had a magic wand and could tap Angie on the head with it, and the cancer would be gone and her kids would get to grow up with a mother. Even better, I wish God had a magic wand. I’ve never seen evidence of it.

Lamott correctly identifies the element of surrender as the key to asking for Help in this prayer:

Hi, God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon— say, two-ish? Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen.


Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say, “Dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t see where I’m going. I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help.” These prayers acknowledge that I am clueless; but something else isn’t. While I am not going to go limp, I am asking for the willingness to step into truth. It’s like the old riddle: What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.

I first came across this notion of surrender in everyday prayer in a book by Polly Berrien Berends: Coming to Life: Traveling the Spiritual Path in Everyday Life.

The primary thing that has to be given up is knowing what is good for us.

And here’s a related quote by Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and several follow-up books (some of which I like; others I hate):

There are situations where all answers and explanations fail. Life does not make sense anymore. Or someone in distress comes to you for help, and you don’t know what to say. When you fully accept that you don’t know, you give up struggling to find answers with the limited thinking mind, and that is when a greater intelligence can operate through you. And even thought can then benefit from that, since the greater intelligence can flow into it and inspire it. Sometimes surrender means giving up trying to understand and becoming comfortable with not knowing.

Once I park my ego, stop my noisy thinking, surrender, and then ask/pray correctly for help, it comes. Every time. Reliable as gravity.  Even for me, an atheist.  I just have to get better at not waiting so long till I’m suffering.

coldsassytree_cover.gifI’ve blogged about Olive Ann Burns’ novel, Cold Sassy Tree, and the passage that offers an interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said “Ask and ye shall receive.”  (If the authors of the New Testament had quoted Jesus as saying “Ask correctly and ye shall receive,” a lot of trouble over the past couple of millenia could have been avoided.)

At the time, I only provided a screenshot and audio version of the passage but I’ve now got a transcript (courtesy of the OCR feature in Microsoft OneNote).

In the passage, Grandpa (Rucker) is talking to his newlywed, Miss Love. The narrator is the young grandson.

“Something Will Tweedy’s been questionin’. He don’t unnerstand why Jesus said, ‘Ast, and it shall be given.’ He says why would Jesus say sech a thang when it ain’t always so?”

“That’s easy to explain, Rucker. Tell Will that sometimes God has to say no for our own good, or to teach us something, or show His power. Sometimes it’s just not His will to give us a certain thing. Or He wants to test our faith and see if we trust Him no matter what.”

Grandpa laughed. “Love, you sound like ever preacher I ever heard. But Jesus didn’t say God might say no when we say gimme. He said God’s go’n say yes. Anythang we ast for, we go’n git it. Well, hungry folks pray for food, but they shore don’t all git fed. And sick folks beg Him for healin’, but lots of’m die, or maybe live on in bed. Jesus had to mean something diff’rent from what folks think He meant, else to my mind He was a dang fool to go round promisin’ what God wouldn’t do. But Jesus warn’t no fool, Love. So what did He mean?”

Distressed, she sat up and said to Grandpa, “Please, Rucker. Don’t talk sacrilege.”

“Hit ain’t sacrilege. Miss Effie Belle says when she cain’t think what to have for dinner, she asts God and right off He gives her a idea. To my thinkin’, thet’s sacrilege.”

Miss Love really laughed. “There’s not a woman in the world who hasn’t prayed what to cook for dinner, Rucker.”

“Well, God give y’all cookbooks for thet. Anyhow, when I got to ponderin’ on it last night, the word ast commenced to jump at me like sheep comin’ over a fence. Ast. Ast. Ast. But ast for what? For meat and bread? For healin’ miracles? Are we s’posed to ast ‘Lord, give me the answers on the arithmetic test,’ ‘Lord gît me hired over the next feller,’ ‘Lord, give me a son’? Gosh a’mighty, how I used to ast thet’n, Love!” He looked long and tender at her, and kissed her cheek.

“And didn’t God send you Will Tweedy?”

Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that!

“Maybe He did,” said Grandpa. “Then agin maybe He sent me you so I could have another crack at it.” I could see Miss Love blush. and, out in the hall, I blushed. Grandpa didn’t. “But I don’t think He planned Will Tweedy for me. I don’t even think He sent me you. You and Will jest happened in the way of thangs. God ain’t said you won’t git nothin’ good less’n you pray for it. But I’m shore thankful for you, Love.” He touched a finger to her chin and her mouth, then rested his hand on her cheek.

His voice softened as he went on. “Another thang to think on: some folks ain’t said pea-turkey to God in years. They don’t ast Him for nothin’, don’t specially try to be good, and don’t love no body the way Jesus said to — cept their own self. But they go’n git jest bout as much or as little in the way a-earthly goods as the rest of us. They go’n have sorrows and joys, failures and good times. And when they come down sick they go’n gît well or the, one, jest same as the prayin’ folks. So don’t thet tell you something bout prayin? Ain’t the best prayin’ jest bein’ with God and talkin’ a while, like He’s a good friend, stead a-like he runs a store and you’ve come in a-hopin’ to git a bargain?”

Miss Love frowned. “Rucker, you can’t write Holy Scripture. It’s already been written.”

“Well, I shore can question what it means.” With a heavy groan, trying to shift a little to get comfortable, he put his arm across her stomach again. “And hit fIne’ly come to me in the night, what Jesus must a-meant by ast. You want to be like them folks with rock brains, or you want to hear it?”

She smiled. “I want to hear it.”

I put in my journal all the above. Also the answer that had come to Grandpa.

“When Jesus said ast and ye shall receive, I don’t think He meant us to pray ‘Lord, spare my child,’ or ‘Make it rain for the crops,’ or ‘Don’t let my bizness fail.’ I don’t even think Jesus meant us to ask for—”

“—for a house or a piano?” She put her hand on his open palm. He laughed, and lifted her hand and kissed it.

“Naw and not even for a husband or any other sech favor. The Lord’s Prayer does say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ but thet’s the only dang Jesus ast for in the whole prayer thet you can tetch. They ain’t nothin’ in the Lord’s Prayer says ‘Make me well.’ I’m tempted to pray thet right now, hurtin’ like I am. But I don’t think Jesus meant us to think we can git healed jest by beggin’ for it.” Grandpa laughed kind of rueful. “God made us so we want to stay alive. He put healin’ power in our bodies. We don’t have to beg Him to save us. All we got to do is accept bein sick, do what Doc says, and trust thet God wants us to git well if’n we can.”

Miss Love broke in. “In the Bible, Jesus only healed the people who asked Him to — and believed He could. If Jesus could heal, can’t God? If we pray and have faith?”

“Well’m, faith ain’t no magic wand or money-back gar’ntee, either one. Hit’s jest a way a-livin’. Hit means you don’t worry th’ew the days. Hit means you go’n be holdin’ on to God in good times or bad times, and you accept whatever happens. Hit means you respect life like it is — like God made it — even when it ain’t what you’d order from the wholesale house. Faith don’t mean the Lord is go’n make lions lay down with lambs just cause you ast him to, or make fire not burn. Some folks, when they pray to git well and don’t even git better, they say God let’m down. But I say thet warn’t even what Jesus was a-talkin’ bout.

When Jesus said ast and you’ll git it, He was givin’ a gar’ntee a-spiritual healin’, not body healin’. He was sayin’ thet if’n you git beat down — die, or scairt folks won’t like you — why, all you got to do is put yore hand in God’s and He’ll lift you up. I know it for a fact, Love. I can pray, ‘Lord, hep me not be scairt,’ and I don’t know how, but it’s like a eraser wipes the fears away. And I found out a long time ago, when I look on what I got to stand as a dang hardship or a burden, it seems too heavy to carry. But when I look on the same dang thang as a challenge, why, standin’ it or acceptin’ it is like you done entered a contest. Hit even gits excitin’, waitin’ to see how everthang’s go’n turn out.”

Grandpa stopped to move a little and his face twisted with pain. But he went on. “Jesus meant for us to ast God to hep us stand the pain, not beg Him to take the pain away. We can ast for comfort and hope and patience and courage, and to be gracious when thangs ain’t goin’ our way, and we’ll git what we ast for. They ain’t no gar’ntee thet we ain’t go’n have no troubles and ain’t go’n die. But shore as frogs croak and cows bellow, God’ll forgive us if’n we ast Him to.”

A backyard campfire: one of my favorite simple pleasures of spring

Outdoor fire pit, Hidden Valley Park  Outdoor fire pit, Hidden Valley Park  
Last night, Robbie and I enjoyed some wine with dinner at our outdoor fire pit in our Valley Pond Townhome Association backyard for the first time this spring. It was a perfect spring evening: warm, clear sky, no wind, no bugs, and a symphony of nature sounds coming from Hidden Valley Park.

Enjoying food and conversation in front of a campfire makes me feel rich, even though it can be done very cheaply.

What are some of your favorite spring-related simple pleasures?  Get some ideas here: 75 Simple Pleasures to Brighten Your Day.

Pet peeve: promiscuous hugging

Last week’s commentary in the Strib, Hugs all around: A trend I can’t quite embrace (originally from the Washington Post, Bubba Watson and the hug epidemic) resonated with me.

Master's huggingWhen did hugs become compulsory? You meet someone for the first time, you shake her hand. You meet her a second time, and she expects a hug. Sometimes she expects the hug before the first meeting is over…

In standoffs, the person who wants a hug always wins. If you really want to avoid hugs, the only way is to carry around something large and unwieldy at all times… When did the good old-fashioned handshake become a sign of standoffishness, rather than a sign of "hello, I have just met you, and I am unarmed"?

I enthusiastically hug my wife and grown kids. I hug my relatives. I hug friends at those life events that are special: weddings, funerals, graduations, etc.  For me, hugging has an intimacy to it that I want to retain.  So when others treat it like a handshake, I cringe.

obama-fist-bump V54-665989
Thanks to the Obamas and Michelangelo, I’ve learned a defensive maneuver that often works when I sense that a promiscuous hug is imminent: the fist bump

Psychological and spiritual advice from Chris Hardwick: Be smarter than your brain

A buddy of mine alerted me to an article in the Oct 21 Wired, Self-Help for Nerds: Advice from Comedian Chris Hardwick, an excerpt from his book The Nerdist Way – How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life).

This blurb caught my attention:

The Nerdest WayA simple mantra has guided me through the darkest bouts of autocerebral asphyxiation: You don’t have to believe everything you think. I know, right??

If you are having trouble uploading positive images to your ego satellites, here is a great tactic: Ignore your fucking brain altogether.

It doesn’t mean to lead you in bad directions! It’s just that, unless properly trained, it usually takes into account only your short-term happiness. “Get drunk in the morning!” “Eat 50 Chocodiles” “Instead of working, you could masturbate!”

These are all examples of things that will bring you only microbursts of temporary happiness but could have negative long-term effects. You can simply say to yourself, “I hear what you’re saying, brain, but I choose to ignore you.”

If your brain rages beyond that, you can diffuse it by acknowledging its request and explaining in detail why it could be devastating were you to honor it. Be smarter than your brain.

That’s not only hilarious, it’s psychologically and spiritually brilliant.

Are there therapists in Northfield who would agree?  Are there members of Northfield’s clergy who would agree?

I own a Mac but I am not a Mac person

I’ve never been a Steve Jobs fanboy, even though my personal and professional life have benefited greatly from the technologies he popularized.  He was a tyrant, he didn’t spend much time with his kids, and he wasn’t interested in philanthropy.  His death this week is an interesting cultural phenomenon to me, but the outpouring of sentimentality is more than a little strange. See The Onion: Apple User Acting Like His Dad Just Died.

I’ve owned many Apple products since the early 1980s, including the Apple IIe and the original Macintosh.  I currently have an iMac though I mainly use it as my Windows 7 desktop. My kids gave me an iPod years ago and Robbie and I both use it to manage our music collection.  I didn’t like the proprietary nature of the iPhone’s operating system and app store so I’ve opted for Android-based smartphones ever since they were available.  I didn’t like how the iPad required synchronization with a Mac platform ("Huh? I can’t dump my photos on it without using iPhoto? PHHHTTTTTT!") so I’ve waited for another tablet to catch my fancy.  Last week, I placed my order for a Kindle Fire. So I’m an Apple agnostic.

im-a-mac-im-a-pcTen years ago, I heard a marketing guru state that she was a "Mac person." She was illustrating the extent to which people can become emotionally attached to products—and that this was a desirable thing for a company.

Ever since, I’ve tried to become more aware of and discourage my tendency to do likewise in my life as a consumer.  I have enough trouble with my ego and mistaken ideas about who I really am.  Over-identification with a product is a trap I’m better off avoiding.

(FYI, I loved those I’m a PC/I’m a Mac commercials. For more, see the April 2011 HuffPo article, Mac People vs. PC People: What Your Gadget Says About You.)

So yeah, R.I.P. Steve.  Now let’s move on.

Do you still believe in the future?

This text of Bernard Baruch’s 1953 radio address has been circulating via email among some people I know, generating some interesting discussion. It appeared in last week’s Wall St. Journal and as an essay on This I Believe in Aug. 2009 (audio and text) where the sidebar says:

1950s-baruchb-16354-200Financier and elder statesman Bernard Baruch found his beliefs shaken by the atrocities of World War II and the advent of the hydrogen bomb. But by believing in courage, intelligence and reason, Baruch is able to feel hope for the future…

Bernard Baruch rose to prominence as a financier and member of the New York Stock Exchange. He advised Presidents Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal and World War II, and Harry Truman in the post-war era.

Why I Still Believe in the Future, by Bernard Baruch.

Continue reading Do you still believe in the future?

On this Thanksgiving Day, 2010, what are you thankful for that’s Northfield-related?

I’m told that gratitude is best thought of as a skill or discipline to practice. So for Thanksgiving Day 2010 (and continuing over the next week or two), here’s  a chance to practice publicly. Answer the question:

What are you thankful for that’s Northfield-related?


  1. Instead of submitting a laundry list in one comment, submit a sentence or two that describes just one thing.  And then, if you have another item to submit, add it later. Another? Add it later.  I bet I can think of a couple dozen things that I’d like to add eventually.
  2. You can expand on what others post but don’t take issue with what others post. It should be an all-positive, conflict-free, comment thread.
  3. All other Locally Grown discussion guidelines apply.

Praying for a miracle in a crisis: Jesus would not approve

I’ve been thinking about death lately, first because of the situations of two of my racquetball buddies, Jerry Davidson and Dale Snesrud, and then because of the sad drama of Luke Bucklin and three of his sons whose bodies were found after their small plane disappeared over a week ago in Wyoming.

I loved seeing the community and family support activities for the Bucklins (Star Tribune: Holding on together), the posts and comments to the company blog, and the messages of support from around the world for the search and rescue teams.  Likewise, the outpouring of affection (and fundraising for medical bills) from Northfielders for Dale (photo album).

It’s pretty common for people to "pray for a miracle" in situations like these. Dale Snesrud told me a few months ago that his pastor and some members of his church gathered in the sanctuary, laying their hands on him while asking God to intercede on his behalf in his fight with cancer. It’s likely that at several area churches today, local ministers led their congregations in prayer for Jerry Davidson’s safe return. The Prayers for Luke site has several of these prayers posted, for example:

Pray for a miracle – that the search and rescue team is able to quickly locate the plane.

Pray for Saturday’s search. There will be three ground search teams in addition to the surveillance aircraft in the area. Pray that they would see more and that the weather system predicted to move in would hold off and allow a full day’s search.

But it’s always troubling to me when people pray for a miracle in situations like these. Why?

Serenity PrayerWhat’s the seed that often takes root in people’s heads when the miracle doesn’t happen?  God couldn’t be bothered. They/I didn’t deserve God’s intervention. Despair. Faith shattered. Talk to any level-headed member of the clergy and they’ll tell you that many of their counseling sessions deal with bad reactions to unselfish unanswered prayers.

More importantly, I think prayers for miracles bring God down to the level of Santa Claus, Wizard of Oz, and Far Side cartoons in people’s minds, contributing to  the incorrect interpretation of Jesus’ words, "Ask and ye shall receive."   People then miss out on the power of true prayer, like the Serenity Prayer and variations.  And agnostics and atheists assume that prayer has nothing to offer them because of its association with the idea that God can intervene in the physical universe and human affairs, an anathema to them.

And that’s bothersome to a spiritual atheist like me.