Over the long, Thanksgiving weekend we road-tripped through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. There was one stretch of highway that had countless billboards for gentlemen’s clubs, adult book and movie stores, strip clubs, and retailers of intimate goods. I can’t think of an area in America where I’ve seen a higher concentration of advertising on such subject matter. But curiously enough, in the same region there were many Christian pro-life signs along the road, a number of vehicles driving along with us had some type of Christian paraphernalia on the back, and I could saw quite a few mega churches from the highway. And when I say ‘mega’, I mean MEGA!
How could such opposing lifestyles co-exist in the same place? More likely than not, these people do their grocery shopping in the same places, and send their children to the same schools. How did such opposites take root in the same community? Then I got thinking, maybe opposition is at the center of their co-existence. One extreme leads to the opposite extreme taking root, creating balance in that region. ‘Extreme’ may not be the right word for it. Perhaps rather, the loudest outcry gets the loudest rebuttal. This is a place largely expressed in black and white terms. Whereas a milder secularism begets milder reactions in shades of gray.
America is experiencing some polarization. While people are fearing one extreme, another extreme opposition is taking hold. And what perhaps warrants the most fear is the battle for balance between black and white. While the gray shades of secularism pose their own threat, such as indifference and ambiguity, it is a less tumultuous struggle. Balance will be found. Whether that balance will be found in the struggles between black and white or in the muddled shades of gray, America is discerning right now.
Yoga is often referred to as moving meditation. Such peace and bliss can be achieved by uniting the mind and body, letting them work together so much that they truly become one entity. In some yoga classes, you’ll hear the teacher encourage the students to set an intention for their practice, or dedicate their practice to a cause or a person. So keeping in mind a person in need or a set of disappointing circumstances, students move through their practice. Working to send comfort, strength, and hope for something better.
Ultimately, yoga isn’t all that different from prayer. At churches and temples everywhere, prayers are raised for church members and local people going through difficult times. If the unity of mind and body can help accomplish moving meditation, then adding hopeful wellbeing for others creates prayer. In meditation the mind listens for peace, but with intention it starts to speak for peace. However you pray: kneeling, seated, reaching for the sky, prostrate, or somewhere between downward facing dog and pigeon… Pray. They all count, no matter what fashion they’re sent in. And it seems the world needs it more than ever. So get to the tried and true or try something new. Send hope over despair, calm over angst, and smiles in a world of furrowed brows.
The literary genre of self-help has exploded in the past 50 years. It is a genre that often intermingles with New Age ideas. But what about a self-help book with decisive Christian roots? There is such a book, but you probably didn’t realize it. What Color is Your Parachute by Dick Bolles is a self-help book aimed at helping those seeking career guidance and discerning a professional passion. It is a career self-help book that is also based in Christian scripture. In the early versions (an updated version is released each year) there is no mention of God or faith. The language is strictly secular. In later editions beginning with the 2015 version, there are mentions of faith and God through the main book, and an added appendix expounding on the role of faith in job hunting and overall life planning. Even in earlier ‘secular’ versions, it isn’t much of a reach to see that the Bible, specifically Paul’s letter to the Romans on the talents, was an influence on this book from the beginning. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully” – Romans 12: 6-8.
Imagine taking a self-help book and subbing all of the secular language with spiritual language; and in reverse taking a spiritually based book of guidance and changing the language to that purely secular in nature. Is the message of the either book dramatically changed? Here we can start to see the intermingling of the secular and sacred. Literature designed to belong in one camp or the other often differ most not in principle, but in vernacular. In my mind this goes to show, yet again, that ‘ordinary’ life is spiritual. The mundane and divine are inherently intermingled and absolute secularism is impossible. Further many of its attempts are damaging to spiritual traditions and faithful hearts. I appreciate that Bolles has been able to show the Western world that a beloved ‘secular’ book is in fact one rooted in scripture. In his teachings, he goes further to discuss the connections between faith and ‘real life’. The duality of his work is a great reminder of the duality between the mundane and divine in life.
Historically in America, the wilderness has represented disorder, the unknown, and even evil. While settlements represented order, safety, and an overall good. We separate ourselves from the wilderness of nature with the constructs of man. Civilization limits our focus or experience of the natural world. We feel safe with our level of control. We let in the safe and the comfortable and build barriers against the rest. Our infrastructure keeps out the wind and rain, keeps us warm, it holds animals and insects at bay. Every so often natural disasters and freak accidents come along to remind us how small we are and how futile our attempts at control are.
The natural world for many is divine. For some just evidence of God’s wonder, while it is truly holy for those following some variety of pantheism. Imagine the natural world as the world of spiritual experience and practice. It includes everything; the normative, the safe, the odd and unusual. A perfect balance, call it ‘bad’ and ‘good’ if you like, but a perfect balance that keeps the earth viable. In the spiritual world, this holistic variety represents the many faces and expressions of the divine. It is all there for people to experience and take hold of. Representative of man’s civilization, we have religion to focus and limit spiritual experience. The chosen focus is beautifully explained in scripture. Beliefs and rituals are held up in doctrine. In the Western world, pantheist and New Age traditions that utilize a wide spectrum of spiritual experience are viewed with skepticism and even fear. While ‘world religions’, with their regulation and hierarchies are often regarded as safer. Here the divide between nature and civilization is mirrored in religious attitudes in the West.
I very much see nature as divine. In fact, I think it is the rawest, purest connection to the divine we have. Religion creates systems of understanding, while raw spirituality pumps just under the surface. While it seems more and more that man is dominating nature, nature reminds us that we are part of it rather than ruling over it. Similarly, we get comfortable in our religious categories only to find our spiritual experiences thrusting us out of those boundaries to question and explore our traditions and beliefs. From our neat, safe towns we walk into the woods, even just for a short time, and open our eyes to the wide world of spiritual experience.
Being recently married, my husband and I have been sharing our separate holiday traditions with each other and are working to create new traditions together. There has been much discussion as to how we should celebrate holidays, and if we should celebrate some holidays altogether (namely Halloween). My husband argues that some holidays and /or their traditions are bogus, existing only due to rampant commercialism. But I argue that holidays, at least those we are discussing, have basis and meaning. Whether it be the rhythm of the natural seasons, a historical event, or the spectrum of human experience, holidays have very real roots that keep them relevant. Now traditions have no doubt evolved over time, and meanings have altered as cultures collided; but that does not make holidays less worth celebrating. Instead, they have become more rich with layers of meaning providing a plethora of experience to followers.
However, the commercialism argument is more concerning. Even in my lifetime it seems there is a push to spend more and more on holiday related items. There are certainly more choices in that arena than ever before. I do not think material items should be discounted in the act of holiday celebration, but they are not the essential component. They create an atmosphere conducive to the occasion, they help create a gateway to experiencing the essential spirit of the holiday. Like ritual items, holiday items help bring the central concept of the holiday alive. Strictly speaking the material items are not necessary, but they are helpful in igniting the reason for the season in the hearts of believers. I think this notion is at the root of our growing consumption of holiday items. In our secular world, less and less time is spent on spiritual matters. As a result, we have become spiritually ‘lazy’ and therefore seek the extra help of holiday items to find that essential spirit. We work to give ourselves such a big boost with these material things, that they now standout more than the core.
Let our beloved holidays shine in their own right. Scale back on the fluff and work to get those spiritual muscles flexing again. Give it a try this holiday season, and share your experiences in the comment section!