Church, State, and Compassion

In a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 23% of Americans said they have no religious affiliation, up from 16% in 2007. In 2017, 59% said it is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values, an increase of 7% in three years. Fewer than 40% of Americans report attending church on a weekly basis, but that number is probably inflated according to church leaders, who say fewer than 20% are in church on any given Sunday.

While church membership has been steadily dropping, a 2014 survey showed that the number of Americans interested in spirituality rose by 7% in seven years. And in 2017, those claiming to be spiritual but not religious increased 8% in just five years to 27%.

I’ve been involved with several churches in the spiritual-but-not-religious community over a span of almost 30 years. We are fiercely independent from a religious perspective. We have never relied on religious officials telling us when or how to be in community with each other, including when and how to help those in need.

A common theme in these communities has been a general distrust of religious authorities. Yet I have been surprised to learn that many members of these communities are perfectly willing to trust a different kind of authority – the government – to fix America’s societal problems.

From a spiritual perspective, there are three main reasons that anyone “spiritual” should not support government-mandated solutions.

First, for those who subscribe to any part of Christianity, Jesus never said we should create a political system to do the work he commanded. He could have focused on trying to get the government to improve the lives of the marginalized, but instead he went directly to them himself, openly defying religious and political authorities. When we use government, we are shirking our responsibility to be in direct relationship with those less fortunate, to be in community.

Second, when we use government to do our work for us, we deprive ourselves of the joy that comes from personally helping others. And by sending those in need to government-controlled resources instead of helping them ourselves, we deprive them of the opportunity to know us on a personal level and be able to decide whether they want to be involved in our community in other ways.

Third, government is the only entity that can legally use force to impose its will. I’m not talking about rogue police who shoot unarmed citizens. I’m talking about what could happen if you simply don’t pay your taxes. There is an important difference between doing something willingly and doing it voluntarily. Libertarians like to say that taxation is theft, but a more accurate word is extortion. Anything done by government is ultimately done through force or the threat of force, which is morally, ethically, and spiritually inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus or any other spiritual leader.

But I have hope, because two segments of the population growing even faster than the spiritual but not religious are millennials and political independents. Millennials are poised to overtake the baby boomer generation in total numbers by 2028, and political independents now comprise over 43% of American voters. Perhaps even more significant, over 50% of millennials identify as politically independent.

Fewer people are willing to trust or rely on institutional authority of any kind. In spite of what government and church leaders often say, humans are actually hard-wired to be compassionate. While some people argue that churches and government are needed in order to take care of the marginalized, charitable giving is at an all-time high – over $390 billion in 2016 (up 4.2% from 2015), and $281.86 billion of it came from individuals.

I have hope because political independence and spirituality without religion are both on the rise, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I have hope because there is no evidence that any of the trends mentioned above will change in the foreseeable future. The statistics are clear – we can and do take care of each other, and we don’t need authorities of any kind telling us how.

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Which Lotus Are You?

I didn’t know much about lotus plants when I started learning meditation. I knew they were deeply symbolic to Buddhists, but I didn’t really know why.

One day, my meditation teacher — a Buddhist monk from Thailand — shared with me the three main stages of development in the life of a lotus plant. It starts as a seed, buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. A seed can sit in the mud for years before it opens.

The second stage begins when the seed opens and a shoot emerges, folded over to protect a small inrolled leaf at the tip. As the shoot grows, it gradually unfolds and pushes the leaf upwards through the murky water.

During the third stage, the leaf reaches the surface and unfurls to float on the water, followed by three others. After the first four floating leaves are formed, the plant continues to grow with each leaf being successively larger in diameter, eventually being lifted clear of the water. Only then does the flower appear to embrace the sun.

Then my teacher said that people are like lotus flowers. Many are stuck in the mud. You can spend all of your time with them in the hope that they will break free of whatever limiting belief they have that keeps them from growing. There is no way of knowing how long it will take, and anything you say or do may or may not make a difference.

Others are like the shoot that is reaching upwards. They know there’s a light shining from somewhere, but they can’t see it clearly through the darkness. They may move towards it, but they don’t know exactly what they’re moving towards, and they can be fooled into growing towards a lesser light that may shine for a while.

Some have broken through the illusion. They see the light for what it is and are truly ready to embrace it.

Just as the lotus flower closes each night, those who have surfaced will regularly go within for reflection. But they have experienced the light and will more easily reopen to take in its fullness.

Tradition has it that the darker the water, the more brilliant the flower.


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Dementia and Self-Awareness

My mother’s second husband died last month. Walter Bahr had been a member of the family for 32 years, having married my mom five years after my dad died.

Walt was diagnosed with dementia ten years ago (they said he’d probably had it for at least two years by then) and placed in the Memory Care unit of a nursing home. The name is misleading because it implies that they could somehow take care of his memory. They can’t. They should call it Losing Your Memory Care.

As the disease followed its course, Walt was increasingly frustrated. As he put it, he was “all mixed up” and didn’t understand why. His short-term memory was affected first. For the first few years, he continually asked why he couldn’t go home, and answers had to be continually repeated, knowing that tomorrow would most likely be a repeat of today. Eventually, he had only fragments of memories beyond childhood, sometimes connected but most times not. Friends and family became strangers that were somehow familiar, people that he knew he should know but didn’t, people he almost recognized but not really. Depending on the moment, my mom was either his wife or his mother, sometimes at the same time. He was quite literally losing his mind.

Walt brought some joy back into Mom’s life after five sad years, and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful for the new perspective that Walt’s dementia gave me on my dad’s death. I have missed him terribly over the years, but I wouldn’t want him back if it meant watching him go through what I saw with Walt. I am also grateful for the opportunity it gave me to consider a different kind of self-awareness and to try to imagine a world view that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Walt was self-aware enough to know that something was wrong, and no matter how many times we tried to explain it he kept asking. Over and over and over again. And we gave the same answer. Over and over and over again.

My dad knew something was wrong, but hearing it once was enough. After a round of radiation and chemo he knew he wasn’t going to get better. He didn’t ask why, probably because he knew there was no “why”. He was gone just six months after being told he had cancer, and he was very much aware of what was happening.

Walt was self-aware enough to know that something was wrong, but not self-aware enough to understand it. He was caught in a mental Catch 22, somehow aware of his lack of self-awareness and powerless to do anything about it. It took until last month for his body to stop breathing, but he started dying twelve years ago. It’s called The Long Goodbye for good reason.

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A Chaplain’s View of the Right to Die

I routinely ask my hospice patients whether they are afraid of either death or the dying process. There is usually no fear of death, but there is often fear of suffering, of being a burden, or of the loss of autonomy and dignity. Hospice staff can provide some pain relief and ease the burden on family, but they can’t do much about the loss of autonomy beyond honoring advance directives. They may try to explain the changes the body will undergo, but nothing can really be done about those changes. “It’s natural,” they will say, as if that makes the process more dignified. Family members are often comforted by that sentiment; patients are not.Opponents of the right to die often cite religious reasons. Frequent objections are that suicide breaks the sixth commandment and is a mortal sin, that life is sacred and must be preserved at all costs, that only God can decide when and how our lives end, and that Christians are supposed to suffer because it allows them to empathize with Jesus’ suffering.

Ending one’s own life was deemed a mortal sin partly due to a bad translation of the sixth commandment. I learned it as thou shall not kill, but it’s actually thou shall not murder. In the original Hebrew, murder is “the deliberate taking of another’s life, with malice.” The key words are taking and malice. You cannot “take” something that is freely given; you can only receive it. If I ask you to help me end my life, you are not “taking” it, you are only allowing it to be given, and there is certainly no malice. You are merely honoring my request to help me end my suffering.

The notion that Jesus died for your sins is called Atonement Theory, and if you believe it then you should know it also applies to his suffering. Jesus both suffered and died so that you don’t have to. Allowing or – God forbid – encouraging someone to suffer is not pious; it’s sadistic.

I could make similar arguments against the other objections, but that debate is a distraction because it focuses on human life, which is, believe it or not, beside the point. From a chaplain’s perspective, you are more than a human being – you are a spiritual being having a human experience. The death of your body is not the end of your life. When your Earthly purpose is fulfilled, your body is supposed to shut down and allow you to return to your true spirit form. My patients understand that and appreciate me saying it out loud.

But sometimes the body gets damaged and is unable to shut down on its own. Just as people in a bad car accident must be freed from their metal prison using the Jaws of Life, you may need help being freed from a body that has become a prison. You have the right to physically die because you have the right to be free.

Death is inevitable – suffering need not be.


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The Easiest Way To Change Your Life

Frustrating, isn’t it? You decide to lose some weight and work reallyreallyreally hard for six straight weeks. No extra sugar, no white food, and a committed exercise program every day for at least 30 minutes … and the numbers on the scale refuse to budge. ALL that work, to no avail.

Or maybe you want to bring more peace into your life by deciding to set apart a specific length of time during your day to meditate. Just five minutes would even be good. And as soon as you settle in, the phone rings and somebody needs your help NOW. An hour later, you try again, and then remember that you have nothing to wear to work tomorrow and HAVE to get that load of laundry going. Try again, and little voices from the other room have you catapulting from your quiet place at lightning speed.

All these distractions in our busy lives make it so hard to do what we know we need to do. We need money to live, so we have to work. We have to make enough money, so we have to work long hours. And then it’s important that our family knows we love them (and the kids grow up in one blink of the eye), so we make slots in our days for quality family time. It’s IMPORTANT. And we still have to keep up with the stuff that makes our lives run smooth (ha!), like paying the bills, doing the dishes, and mowing the yard. How about our aging parents? Sometimes they need help too. And we want to be with our kids and grandkids, so we make time on our precious weekends. Everything else can wait a few more days, right??

And before you know it, things feel out of control. It doesn’t seem like there’s any way to change your life because you HAVE to do everything you’re doing. But there’s no time for YOU and the busy-ness is literally driving you crazy. Everybody and everything is chipping time away from your day, and by the time you’re ready for YOU, there’s no more time. Even if you get up earlier or stay up later, unexpected stuff keeps coming up, and once again the day is done, and once again there was no time for you.

And then you get stressed. You’re out of balance physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It gets harder and harder to find your center, and before you know it, you’re circling the drain and don’t have the strength to fight any more.

Sound familiar? It’s the American dream, right? All the successful people are making “it” work, so why can’t you? But no matter how hard you try, it’s never enough. And somebody else always needs something. You just can’t seem to make anybody happy.

The good news is — life doesn’t have to be like this. We are here to encourage you to take control of your life and have time for YOU. It’s easy to get caught up in the busy-ness where everything feels important. But the trick is to know that your time for YOU is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING in your life. Does this mean you have to let something else go in order to make time for you? Maybe. Can you take two minutes to get away from catching up on your emails? Can you park a little farther from your office and use the extra 30-second walk to intentionally experience the sounds of singing birds, scent of blossoming trees, and awesomeness (yes, that’s a word) of the clouds floating in the sky?

Here’s the secret that is guaranteed to change your life — KAIZEN. Kaizen is making the teeniest, tiniest change to your day. Kaizen is barely noticeable. In fact, unless you tell them, no one will even know you’re doing it. But YOU will, and it will be enough to help you regain your center.

Here is how kaizen works. Picture yourself standing twenty feet in front of a fence post. You are Point A, and the post is Point B. If you walk straight forward, you will run into the post. Now go back to your starting point, and start walking forward again, but this time, CHANGE YOUR DIRECTION THE WIDTH OF YOUR BIG TOE. It’s only an inch or so, right? And you won’t even notice that anything has changed as you start walking. But by the time you get to the fence post, you’ll have totally missed the post, and you will no longer be fenced in. If only twenty feet can make that much difference, imagine your course in the span of one month. A year. Ten years.

Do you want to lose weight? Drink one less glass of pop a day. Do you want to stop smoking? Smoke one less cigarette a day. Do you want more peaceful time in your life? Stop EVERYTHING and give yourself the gift of thirty seconds to just sit and breathe with intention. When you’re ready and able, drop two glasses of pop, or two cigarettes, or give yourself one full minute.

Some days you won’t be able to do this. You’ll just HAVE to have that extra little boost of caffeine or nicotine. Does that mean you’ve failed? Never. There is no such thing as failure. You just start over and start SUCCEEDING again.

So! What do you wish you had more of for yourself? Money? Set aside a quarter every day. What bugs you the most in your life and seems the most important thing to change? How can you apply some Kaizen to that?

Kaizen is your gift to YOU. Yes, your family and career are important, but your peace of mind is MORE important. You can’t be any good for anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself. Give yourself the gift of Kaizen. It’s fun to watch how just a little bit of something can be so life changing! And give yourself pats on the back a week, a month, and a year from now because YOU DID IT! Look how far you’ve come just by treating yourself to one little bit of Kaizen in your life! Well done!

~ Melanie

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Spiritual Atheism

A few years ago I had a phone conversation with a former business colleague who was having difficulty believing that I had left my consulting career and enrolled in seminary. He said I was “too rational to believe in God.” I asked about the God he doesn’t believe in, and he described the stereotypical old man in the sky with long white hair and a beard, much like popular depictions of Zeus, Jupiter, and Odin. It’s the God who controls the weather and occasionally intervenes in human affairs, seemingly answers prayers more or less at random, and supposedly loves humanity yet allows good people to suffer while rewarding the bad ones. For most people in Minnesota, it’s the God who allowed his son to be tortured and killed in the place of those who may have actually deserved such a fate. I don’t believe in that God either.

God means different things to different people, and the meaning often changes over time. I have a very different understanding of God than I did during my childhood. I also have a different understanding of atheism. The common definition of atheist is someone who does not believe in God, but it once had a very different meaning. The word atheist ultimately derives from the ancient Greek word theos, which means god (hence, theology). Understanding an ancient Greek word requires understanding the culture, and in order to be historically accurate an atheist would simply be someone who does not worship the Greek pantheon of gods such as Zeus, Hera, and Poseidon.

The English word atheism comes more directly from the French word athéisme, which first appeared in the 16th century, an era that produced the Protestant Reformation and its Catholic counterpart. Varieties of Protestantism spread throughout Europe and beyond, providing a veritable buffet of God images and theological doctrines. Meanwhile, France embraced a revitalized, back-to-the-basics Catholicism with the patriarchal sky-god sitting on a celestial throne as the undisputed supreme deity. Athéisme emerged precisely at this time in direct response to the dominant religion of the area.

But there were other concepts of God even within Christianity, as evidenced by the religious pluralism of Protestantism. As science evolved to help explain the how of nature, religious and spiritual practices also evolved to help us to ponder the why. It is important to note that spirituality is not the same as religion. Religion is a specific set of beliefs and practices. Spirituality is simply the innate desire to connect to something larger than ourselves; it does not require nor preclude belief in a divinity.

I am an ordained minister in a mainstream Christian denomination. According to the 16th century definition, I am also an atheist, although non-theist would be the preferred term today. I have been told that I’m more like a psychologist than a minister, and I consider it a compliment. After all, the root word of psychology is the Greek psyche, which has several meanings, including soul, spirit, and life. I can talk religion, but most of the conversations I have as a spiritual counselor are primarily about community, relationships, forgiveness, gratitude, purpose, and hope – the things that help us to feel connected.

Believing in a higher power does not necessarily mean believing in a deity. My family is a higher power than I am alone. Any kind of community is a higher power simply because there is strength in numbers. My partner’s objectivity is often a higher power that helps me to get through difficult times. My meditation practice helps me to remember that I am always connected to those higher powers as well as to the higher power within.

I understand atheists who reject the notion of a supreme being. I’m right there with you. I don’t understand atheists who deny the existence of anything beyond what can be experienced with the physical senses, especially if that denial is supposedly based on science. After all, quantum physicists are producing scientific evidence that everything is connected and that the essence of life is an energy that may change form but does not cease to exist. Spiritual mystics have been teaching those ideas for centuries.

Spiritual atheism. It’s for people who are too rational to limit God.

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I was sitting in my magic chair the other morning, thoroughly enjoying the peace and serenity that comes from that chair. It was handed down to me by my mother, and is my favorite place to go for some quiet time before heading off to begin the work day. I was settling in for a few minutes of being in the now, communing with Spirit, and calming my thoughts in order to simply be. Usually, calming my thoughts means acknowledging that I had a thought but would think about it later, then letting it go, because this moment in time was my special gift to myself when I didn’t have to do or think about anything. However, on this particular morning, one thought popped in to my head that I couldn’t seem to get past – “Where do thoughts come from anyway??”

So these were my thoughts as I was trying to not think:

  • Are homo sapiens the only species that thinks and plans?
  • Bible scripture tells us to be like the sparrows. Do they think? Or is everything they do purely instinct?
  • Don’t give it a second thought.
  • Penny for your thoughts
  • If you think you can, you can.
  • What are you thinking?
  • What were you thinking?
  • Don’t even think about it!
  • Your thoughts become your reality.

So obviously my quiet time didn’t turn out like I anticipated, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. These thoughts continued to stay with me throughout the day. The thing is – I know I’m an over-thinker. I’m a first-born so it comes with the position. I plan and organize and try to not have any of the scary kind of surprises, otherwise known as mistakes. I know I’m cautious, and when beginning a new venture, I research and Google and plan and figure out as much as possible ahead of time. And after all of that, I may still be afraid to take that big first step. The analogy that was ever so tactfully given to me was now I know everything there could possibly be to know about the bike, but at some point, I’m going to have to actually get ON the bike in order to go anywhere with it.

So even though my quiet time was less than quiet that morning, it was still fruitful because there was a divine lesson given to me. Over-thinking causes stress. Stress causes a whole lot of stuff I don’t want in my life. I found a wonderful article about over-thinking ( The lesson that really went home for me was the part about Spirit already being in that place of my future that is still unknown to me; the part for which there can be no planning. That thought brought me a tremendous amount of comfort, and ever since it found its place in my head and heart, I haven’t been over-thinking quite as much. I know it’s going to be okay, one way or another. And isn’t that what makes life wonderful, all in all? Having peace of mind, with some (not-too-scary) surprises mixed in, trusting Divine Order to work everything out, allowing me to enjoy the gift that is the present, rather than stress over the future, guiding me towards what is mine to do, helping me to discern what is not mine to do. That is the quality of life that I want for myself. I think I’m getting there, thank goodness!

Are you an over-thinker? What lessons have been brought to you? Please share – you never know when your thoughts might be exactly what somebody needs, and I’d love to hear them!

~ Melanie

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