The Joy of Bare Feet

It’s a cold, wet winter day, spring is far off, and I am well past my prime, but I have a severe hankering to go barefooted. I used to jump the season a bit when I was a youngster. I’d start in March or early April—get rid of the old Keds and begin to toughen up my feet in the yard and pasture before I tackled the gravel driveway. It was great fun and seemed totally natural.

Now I read that scientists say there are health benefits to going barefooted: stress relief, better sleep, improved strength and balance, a boost to red blood cells—it even helps your ions to balance, whatever that means. I’m willing, even eager, to believe all that. But I also believe that we have a spiritual need to put bare feet on the ground.

Earth and ocean, mountain and valley—our world calls us to see, to feel, to touch, to connect with and appreciate the real vs. the fake. This is not to be a picture postcard or screen-saver experience. This is not some artificial long-distance “communing,” like that silly Christmas program, that fake fireplace and fire, which loops endless hours in a cold, off-putting way. This should be a plant-your-feet on the grass, in the warm sand, in the cool, freshly-turned soil-of-your-garden sort of experience.

I like to recall that scene in Exodus when God speaks to Moses and orders him to take off his sandals, “for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” I don’t read that to mean a special sanctification of one small plot of mountainside. If Moses keeps his sandals on and merely moves a step or two to the side, that’s not enough. I take it to mean that Moses needs to reconnect with the dust from which he was formed. All parts of that mountain are holy.

All parts of our world are holy. Shoes are made things, needed much of the time but a barrier between us and our roots. Sometimes we, like Moses, must remove them and feel the spirit in the earth.

 

 

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Forgive? Are You kidding?

In her “alphabet” series of mystery novels, Sue Grafton has created a wonderful fictional detective named Kinsey Millhone. In V is for Vengeance, Kinsey makes this statement: “For the record, I’d like to say I am a big fan of forgiveness as long as I’m given the opportunity to get even first.”

Now you may tut-tut and shake your head to show disagreement, and Pastor Foghorn may preach a thunderous sermon of disapproval, but you have to admit: this is how most of us feel. Forgiveness may be the Christian thing to do—or the Buddhist or the Hindu thing or whatever.  But the human thing to do is first, get even; and then we might talk about forgiveness—whatever that word would then mean in the aftermath.

Holding onto a grievance until it’s righted is so ingrained in many of us that the Irish—who apparently need a saying for everything—have a new one: “Irish Alzheimer’s….that’s where you forget everything except the grudge.”

Striking back is part of our original survival package, a worthwhile defense mechanism, while forgiveness is a foreign element, a philosophical or theological add-on so new it’s almost absent from the Old Testament. As such, trying to bring it into our mental system is a bit like introducing an alien body into our physical being: we want to build antibodies against it, or even to reject it.

We tell our outraged friends, “Just let it go,” but that’s not easy.  And sometimes the offense is so grievous that it’s impossible. I think here of the inscription found carved into the stone wall of one of the German death camps: “If there is a G*d, He’s going to have to beg my forgiveness.”

And we can understand that sense of despair, of the ultimate offense that can never be forgiven. Nevertheless, we keep telling ourselves that brotherly love is an absolute requirement of our faith and necessitates the corollary of “forgiveness.” We preach that forgiveness brings relief, at least for the one forgiving…that hate is a poison that kills the one who hates…that this is part of the etiquette that greases our social interaction…that God will be pleased and ultimately we will be rewarded for our generous spirit.

All these may be true, but for many, they are simply more reasons to feel guilty that they cannot forgive this or that. “Forgiveness” and its necessary precursor “brotherly love” are the bedrock of Christian teaching—but so difficult that many Christians reject them as “foreign bodies,” ignore them altogether, and revert to survival mode, to striking out, to Old Testament hate and persecution. It’s far easier to hate and ostracize and persecute than to love and forgive.

That’s a sad betrayal of a beautiful idea, isn’t it?

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Forest-Bathing

There’s a lot being said about the positive healing effect of trees. Of being in “God’s great outdoors.” Whether you call it “God’s” or not, the beneficial effect is well-known and widely-known. In Japan, it’s called shrinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest-bathing.” In Norway and Sweden, it’s called friluftsilv. Elsewhere in the world it may not have a poetic name, but the cleansing and restorative effects are noted and praised…even prescribed by one’s doctor, as in Scotland.

In a Toronto case involving two studies (controlled for demographic and socioeconomic factors), the results are startling: those ten trees per block “could improve how healthy a person feels as if they made an additional $10,000 a year or if they were seven years younger” [my emphasis]. Citizens living there also had decreased hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, etc. Remember, this is Canada, with universal health care. The difference is trees, not money. Several European studies show that children who grow up deprived of ready access to “green space” are more likely to have mental disorders later in life.

Why the boost? Less pollution? That’s possible. More beauty—and better moods and reduced stress? That is also possible. Less clutter and clatter and fewer distractions? Probably. Free aromatherapy? And maybe there’s more….Test your own recollections. Do you recall times when you stretched out on the grass in a park? Swung in a hammock swung between a pair of shady trees? Sat on your porch and enjoyed the rain, or birds chattering on a feeder? Led yourself to a place beside still waters?

How mellow did you get? How was your blood pressure? Even without a nap, did you feel restored? A question for those who meditate—are these experiences similar? Science tells us being outdoors boosts energy and is good for your vision. It mitigates pain and boosts your immune system and gives you your daily Vitamin D. It enhances creativity. It certainly alleviates SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder—even better than the lamps whose artificial light is said to do the same thing.

I suspect the phenomenon is closely allied to that faith called “pantheism” which finds a higher power in nature and in the forces of nature. Properly understood, it goes beyond a simple seeing of gods in thunder and lightning and rain, etc. and strives for a close identification with nature, seeing oneself as part of the natural world.

I suspect this accounts for a recent finding which says that those who live in areas of natural beauty are less likely to be “religious” in the usual institutional sense. In some way, Beautiful Nature can accomplish a soothing of the spirit, a lessening of anxiety, a centering of the mind, and easing of the body. “Be still…” the psalmist tells us, and somewhere in the stillness—beside those waters or on a mountaintop—we are given a measure of peace.

Wendell Berry said much the same in his great poem “The Peace of Wild Things”: “For a time/I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” Perhaps Dr. Benjamin Rush was right more than 200 years ago: “It would seem…that man is naturally a wild animal, and that when taken from the woods, he is never happy in his natural state, ‘till he returns to them again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Just How Do YOU Look at It?

My parents hated and feared playing cards—except for Rook, the only deck of cards in the house. For some reason, Grandmother Kidd had a deck of regular cards at her house and when I spent the night with her, I played Solitaire. When Mom and Dad learned this, they were alarmed, fearing that such cards would make me grow up to be a gambler.

Their fears were compounded by a revival sermon we all heard when I was a youngster, a sermon in which the preacher spoke of the diabolical and heretical nature of cards: the king was Satan, the joker was Christ, the 10-spot represented breaking of the commandments, and so on. The home discussion following focused on the evil of cards being even greater than my parents had suspected and whether I’d ever be allowed to play Solitaire with Granny’s deck again.

Since my parents never listened to a radio, they missed another view of cards that appeared in a “talking” country song about the same time, a few years after WW II. I think the first version was T. Texas Tyler’s, but many others have come out (including one by—of all people—Wink Martindale). The basic story is that a GI in Italy was caught playing cards in church and brought to a court-martial. There he explains that the Ace represents God; the deuce, the two testaments; the trey; the trinity, 52 represented the weeks in a year; and so on. The singer ends claiming that, as he has no Bible on hand, the deck serves him as “Bible, almanac, and prayer book.” He is exonerated. Of course.

Because they had not heard T. Texas Tyler or Tex Ritter (or Wink Martindale), my parents were convinced by that sermon I was headed to perdition. Had I known this song and been a cleverer lad, I would have recited it to them and argued I was destined to be a preacher.

I’m reminded of a conversation some years back when a reader of this column expressed interest in attending the church I was serving, but when she found I didn’t always agree with her take on certain verses, she grew irate and said she wasn’t interested in one of those “believe what you want to” churches. Well, that’s an unfair and extreme distortion of my position at the time, and of the point I make here, which is simply that sometimes there are differing points of view. An event or verse can often be interpreted in multiple ways. To wit: Have you heard that “Santa” is a rearrangement of the name of “Satan”? For proof, just note that red suit, and surely those elves are Satanic imps.  And given time, I could come up with a diabolical interpretation of a deck of Rook cards.

 

 

 

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More Than Just “Aloha”

A few years ago, my good friend Lewis married a chiropractor. Cathy is the true love of his life, they are a contented couple, and we are happy for them.

Lewis was nearing fifty at the time, just when a man should seriously consider marrying a chiropractor if the opportunity presents. It’s an eminently practical choice for one’s middle years—far better than a first tattoo or first sky-dive or sleek red convertible, not one of which can enable you to get out of your easy chair without pain or reach over to tie your own shoes. It’s a time when growing sense of our own mortality says to each of us, “Take care of yourself.”

For some, it’s also the time of life to work on one’s spiritual health. They resume church attendance and begin to explore the Bible and other inspirational texts. They ask the hard questions of life and dive into soul-matters in a far more mature way than they did as youths.

The story is told about W.C. Fields, a notorious hell-raiser, that as he grew older, someone once caught him reading a Bible, “Bill!” the friend exclaimed. “Whatever are you doing?”

“Looking for loopholes,” he drawled.

Sometimes this new quest for spiritual health is no more than that—an expression of the fear that perhaps those scary stories we heard as youths just may be true, and we’d best be building a bridge to the Great Beyond.

Sometimes the quest is more this-worldly: we see discord in our present situation, or we sense a lack of meaning and direction in this life. In that other meaning of “salvation,” we are looking for “salvation” on this side of the grave—literally, “a healing,” a peace, a harmony, a sense of balance and rightness.

These are also the qualities embodied in that ancient word “shalom.”  Occasionally we hear it used as a synonym for “peace,” but that’s an inadequate translation. As W.T. Towner reminds us, “shalom” was the original state of the world: whole and wholesome, unbroken, in right relationship with God and one’s fellow man.  

When Jacob asks about Laban, “Is it well with him?” the literal word is “shalom.” “How is his shalom?” That’s a serious, probing question. Reread that scene in Genesis 29 with this understanding, and you’ll find a new and deeper meaning in it.

Likewise, to greet someone with “shalom” means far more than a simple “Howdy,” and to wish him “shalom” upon departure is to ask a deep blessing upon him.

It’s a good word, a noble word, a righteous word—a word we English speakers should return to our language and our thoughts. We should seek it as a spiritual goal for ourselves and ask that it be a spiritual gift to others. And so I wish all of you, “Shalom.”

 

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God and Football

The Super Bowl is over, and somebody’s team won. I have no doubts that some players in each locker room prayed for victory, and half of them are disappointed. Now, I’ve been a sports fan for decades. I know many players and coaches tell you they do not ask for victory, but just to do their best and to avoid injury. Yet each game some players make bone-headed plays; several players get hurt; a coach makes a loopy call. If they are in the “Yes-No-Wait” school of prayer, some clearly got told “No.”

Before this year’s game, a major research firm polled Americans and found that 26% believed God would decide the winner. Last year’s fan poll, with some different questions, showed 31% believe their team was cursed, 33% pray for their team to win, and 25% perform rituals of some kind (undescribed) to push God into their corner.

I suspect the numbers are similar in other sports. When it comes to Cubs fans, probably 100% think their team is cursed. (And polls find 21% of Americans believe in Bigfoot….whatever that means.)

That category of “rituals performed” makes me recall fans who cross fingers before a player shoots a free throw….and cheerleaders who cross arms, legs, and for all I know, their eyes, before that free throw shot. And if we believe the stories about players’ and coaches’ superstitious rituals, they get mighty strange: from lucky bats, to not shaving, to wearing the same pair of socks for weeks, to…..whatever.

We may easily dismiss “superstitious rituals” as a real influence on sports. But what about prayer? It seems to me that’s demeaning to most people’s notion of God and his love. Why would he care to influence a football game, yet allow Ebola to ravage parts of Africa? Does he love Tom Brady more than Russell Wilson, and both more than suffering Africans?

Think back to Tim Tebow (remember him?) Someone recently asked the inelegant question, “If faith is the deciding factor, why is super-devout Christian Tim Tebow’s career in the crapper?”

I don’t know what to conclude here. Maybe God is not a sports fan, after all? If we got as many Americans praying for Ebola vaccine as for a Super Bowl win, we might get somewhere? Perhaps God really, really hates the Chicago Cubs?

Or we might decide not to mingle our faith and our enthusiasm for sports. One is serious, the other frivolous—and let’s not confuse the two.

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The Christian & the Moola, or Mammon Unleashed

I went into the ministry for the money. You know—grand salary plus benefits and annuities—those Nike endorsements, the big book deals, appearances on the Today show with half-naked starlets and John Grisham.

I thought all these grandiose thoughts because I was hearing that if you ally with Jesus, you become Rich. Materially Rich. You get Blessings Abundant and a batch of CDs in the bank.

I really thought as part of my Blessings Abundant, I’d get a Bentley, or maybe a BMW M-5 or a Mercedes SL-500 or a Volvo S80. A BMW. Always wanted to say “I drive a Beamer.”

I’d fly first-class, stay at four-star hotels, and have a second home in Vail so Josh could go skiing, and another in West Palm Beach so we could enjoy the sunshine and beaches with the other snowbirds.

I’d get a trainer and slim down this little potbelly, have the chin lifted and eyelids done. I’d try to get this undistinguished gray hair to that special glowing silver tone you see on the TV evangelists. When the lighting is right, they look like they have a halo. I’d like that, too. Nothing says Blessings Abundant like a halo. That slightly crooked front tooth has to be fixed, though. God wants only Beautiful People in His Kingdom.

After all, preachers are God’s Special Chosen Ones and should expect no less than Blessings Abundant. God wants his Special Chosen Ones to shine, to show the world the Blessings Abundant He’s unloading on them. God would feel embarrassed if preachers have just one home and drive a ’94 Jeep which leaks oil and smells like something’s burning.

I’ve had Expectations almost this lofty ever since I became a Christian, even before the ministry. When I was baptized, I was told that I was to expect More. God was going to make me Prosperous.

Salvation—a better life—doing good in the community—these were not the real changes I was to expect in my new life as a Christian. I was going to be Prosperous. Even Rich.

After all, God would be embarrassed for the world to see His people poor. The last thing any self-respecting God wants in His Kingdom is a passel of poor folks. His standing and His self-esteem depend upon the display of Blessings Abundant by His followers. How could they claim they are Blessed when they wear bib overalls and have trouble making house payments?

No, I wanted to be Prosperous. Even Rich. CDs in the bank.

“Rich” means you are a more Blessed person than the “merely Prosperous.” I had high hopes for Riches, because the man who baptized me already had three homes and a private jet.

I began double-tithing to his church, and if I mortgage the home place and triple-tithe, maybe I can speed up the delivery of God’s Blessings Abundant—which, I admit—are arriving a tad slower than I had expected. We have just the one home which needs some repairs and maybe a new roof, and there’s that ’94 Jeep which leaks oil and smells like something’s burning.

That Beamer is a-coming, though—I can just feel it. That Beamer is important to me… and to my parishioners. How can I get in that pulpit and preach about God’s Blessings Abundant when I’ve got that ’94 Jeep parked out front where everybody can see it? It hurts my credibility.

 

 

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