Examining Assumptions, Part II

I shared in the last blog post that I was examining two assumptions:

  1. You must work hard, suffer even, for “real” progress in health, understanding or enlightenment.
  2. There is an afterlife.

IMG_4411The first assumption is re-enforced every time I get a prescription for antibiotics: you must take every pill even long after you are feeling better. It is the idea of counseling or therapy: you must work through every issue–there are no shortcuts. I have “done the work” in my life. No liquid diet fasts for me. Just exercise and lots-of-work diets.

Then Michael Pollan shared that in the clinical trials treating depressed cancer patients with psychedelic medicines experienced real measurable improvement 80% of the time. This is well beyond the 30% rates of anti-depressants and without the considerable side effects of drugs like Prozac. Only terminal cancer patients were allowed in the studies so it is impossible to know how long the benefits might have lasted or if later side effects might appear. Still, it is remarkable for its potential.

Rather than making me want to take a guided trip, I found it encouraging with regards to my reliance on acupuncture to resolve my chronic pain. I do not understand how acupuncture works but it is dealing with the underlying causes and it manages energy. To me though, it seems relatively easy compared to other therapies, especially ones that require me to relive childhood trauma. Reconsidering my assumption around the requirements of a lasting cure helped me put my faith in the possibility of good to great outcomes from acupuncture.

It also helped me look at the role prayer plays in my healing. I’ve been shy about asking for prayer. I’ve always said I believe the creator of the universe can miraculously heal people if S/He chooses and I pray for this kind of healing for others, and yet I’m reluctant to ask for it for myself. I consider myself one of the undeserving, or that I can only ask after I’ve tried to make every other remedy work. I’m ready to revise my assumptions regarding spiritual healing.

What about the afterlife? Michael Pollan and Ezra Klein both called themselves materialists and as such they believe our brains generate consciousness, thus our selves cease when our body dies. Pollan admitted that some scientists suggest consciousness exists outside of our selves and therefore, it might be possible that subject’s in the clinical trials really did experience mystical or spiritual epiphanies. As a person of faith I do not have much trouble reconciling this.

IMG_4409My qualms about the afterlife is the American Christian culture’s complete fixation with it to the exclusion of asking “how should we live today?” I have been reading Rob Bell‘s What is the Bible? as a kind of devotional. And his chapter on the Good Samaritan rocked my world in a number of ways. And one of those is that when the lawyer asks Jesus, how do we get eternal life? He wasn’t asking about the afterlife. We have somehow twisted “eternal life” from the abundant life God’s people should be experiencing every day while we live here now in relationship with the Divine, to a cushy deal after we die. So much of our faith experience is now simplified to “accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior” and then going back to a judgey, non-loving attitude about our neighbor.

At the suggestion of my friend Rebekah I listened to the Liturgists podcast interview with Rob Bell, when Michael Gungor and the other podcast host who goes by Science Mike ask questions about this book. I’m listening to an intelligent and uplifting conversation when I realize that this men are part of a growing club of people tossed out of Club Evangelical for questioning assumptions about our faith. And yet the gospels are stories after story of Jesus asking and answering questions, sometimes with more questions. These three and others also tossed out are postmodernists, whereas, the older, grayer leaders of the E. movement, such as it is today, are traditionalists or modernists. Don’t question the relatively recent constructs of what it means to be born again and who God loves and doesn’t love or risk being ostracized.

I am realizing that I believe in a consciousness outside of myself and God, and I believe that my soul or conscious goes on in some way beyond death; however, it doesn’t matter so much to me anymore. It pales in importance to the prime directive which is to be a vessel for God’s love in the world–to be living the abundant, spirit-filled life that God offers me. I’m so far from that right now and I’d rather get after that and let the after death question take care of itself.


Examining Assumptions, Part I

We all make assumptions. Humans are assumptions makers par excellence. Imagine if we got up each morning without any assumptions in place. How disconcerting and exhausting it would be to have to make sense of every day and the dog sleeping next to you without assumptions.

Until a year ago, I didn’t know I had a half sister. I assumed I only had one sibling.

And yet… assumptions can calcify and constrict over time. It makes us uncomfortable to question long held assumptions and at the same time it can be hugely liberating.

We are living through an age when we most people are challenging long held assumptions. It is unnerving and invigorating. Imagine that you are a knight going into battle in a suit of armor. Your armor is your assumptions. The other side has no armor, no heavy draft horses to carry them even. Instead the horses are pulling a cannon. This new weapon blows a side in the castle you are defending. Time to rethink your assumptions. How liberating to cast off the armor that is heavy, makes you sweat like a pig and takes a team of men to get on you and hoist you on your horse. But you go from ranked #1 in jousting to irrelevant in one battle.

When assumptions no longer serve us well, when they become like a suit of armor in a the age of explosives, then we cling to these assumptions at our peril.

Postmodernism is a lot of things depending on whether you are talking about art or literature or moral values. There are a new set of assumptions that are associated with it. For example, that there are many perspectives and all of them deserve consideration. The only way to better understand reality is to consider these perspectives, but of course, we can never be certain about reality.

Does this make you uncomfortable?

Or are you excited because finally there is breathing room for a broader view, a more complicated view? One that includes you finally. Or are you threatened because you are being asked to include other perspectives that challenge your assumptions?

For me the process of challenging my assumptions is both uncomfortable and exciting. It is like Aslan’s breathe restoring life to statues that were “things I knew for sure.” They may still be useful but they may also be adjusted because of new evidence, new perspectives, new information. Or give way to a new ways of thinking that better serve me and my community.

This has been thrown into relief this week by 2 podcasts with the author Michael Pollan. The first was the Ezra Klein Show. I listened to this conversation twice because I wanted to make sure I caught it all. The other was Fresh Air podcast where Terri Gross interviewed Pollan and included a bonus portion. Michael Pollan‘s new book, How to Change Your Mind. It looks at the history of psychedelic drugs and what new research is pointing to about consciousness. He also does his own explorations and reports his experiences.

It is inspiring me to question two long held assumptions, but not necessarily to embrace their opposites. These two assumptions may no longer serve:

  1. You must work hard, suffer even, for “real” progress in health, understanding or enlightenment.
  2.  There is an afterlife.

I’ll share more about my thinking in Part II.



The Importance of Being Humble

Lake Tekapo’s Church of the Good Shepherd and the Milky Way

What would our theology be if we could see these stars every night everywhere in the world?

This is the question I asked myself and my friend Sarah after wandering out to see the stars at Lake Tekapo at midnight and then again at 4:00 a.m.

We had to wait for the clouds to break for us to enjoy this sumptuous banquet of stars. Once this was a commonplace site in all parts of the world. Now with most people living in light or air polluted places, humanity does not have this nightly reminder of our place in the universe.

Not everyone looks at the stars and sees a creator amongst them. But even the humanist or scientist does gain humility from seeing all the possible galaxies and worlds. Maybe, just maybe, earth is not the only one that matters. And perhaps the concerns and emotions that can rule my existence may be seen in a proper perspective if I spend some time meditating on or admiring the cosmos.


Maybe, just maybe, the stars could be a nightly reminder of the importance of being humble.

I was going to end my ruminations here and then I thought, maybe not everyone appreciates humility as a character trait. Certainly the media gives the vast amount of attention to the braggart and the self promoter.

Micah 6:8 says: He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (King James translation)

I read an article in The Jewish Week that said humility is the difference between a professor and a sage. (Ouch!)  They also offered this definition of humility on LetItRipple.org: Thinking yourself worthless is not humility. To understand that you have gifts and blessings and yet remain modest is an achievement of character.

Sometimes it is easier to understand humility by what it is not: proud, self-willed, arrogant. Not putting ourselves ahead of others, instead the humble understand that every human matters. And if we know that every human matters, we are a long way to seeing how everyone is interconnected, and then there is no “us” and “them”. What a world that would be!


Healing Our Democracy After the Election

hart2After the last 10 days of the is election season, women who’ve been assaulted are experiencing PTSD, and many more people are experiencing anxiety. People on both sides are fearful of the outcome of the other candidate succeeding. And yet, on November 9 there will be one person with the most votes/electoral college delegates and we all need to find a way to live together peaceably.

This is all the more challenging because of the large number of people who are expressing racist and misogynistic views. People are discovering that people that they planned PTA fundraisers or studied the Bible with are expressing feelings and values that repugnant: defending sexual assault, or saying that all Muslims are a threat. As Dylan Matthews at Vox news said, “What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast changing demographics of the country.” (Vox, “Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they are actually saying,” October 15, 2016)

So I began searching for ideas for how we can begin the healing. We need to find a way to build empathy bridges over the chasm. But if you cast the other people as feminazis or racists, then this is difficult to do. Indira AR Lakshmanan’s article “Surviving an ugly campaign: Advice from the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu,” (October 13, 2016 The Boston Globe) offers the perspectives shared in their book, The Book of Joy. “…when people vote for candidates who promote fear and anger, it’s because they’re afraid, hurting and suffering…fear, anger, hatred exist in our own minds and hearts as well, not just ‘out there.” If we realize that we can have compassion for what’s underneath the vitriol.”

Her parting words are wise, “The key to finding our way back to civility may be to recognize that that anger is out there and face it, head on. Our political, spiritual, and media leaders have an obligation to speak, listen and find common ground–even with those that are slinging the last dregs of mud.” One way to do that is to find a softer way to think of people who hold white nationalist views. I’m not suggesting we tolerate hate speech, but unless we can find a name for what’s underneath the vitriol, we cannot be empathetic.

EJ Dionne offers a way to do this in his Washington Post column (October 14, 2016). The late Rev. Andrew Greeley called those who love the particular patch where they were raised or that they have adopted as their own as“neighborhood people.” Being “citizens of the world” is not high on their priority list, whereas it is a point of pride for “cosmopolitans”.

Dionne says, “I suspect that many of Trump’s backers are neighborhood people. Economic change, including globalization, is very hard on them. It can disrupt and empty out the places they revere, driving young people away and undermining the economic base a community needs to survive. Liberals and conservatives alike insufficiently appreciate what makes neighborhood people tick and why they deserve our respect. Liberals are instinctive cosmopolitans in the citizens-of-the-world sense. They often long for the freedom of big metropolitan areas. Free-market conservatives typically say that if a place can’t survive the rigors of market competition, if the factories close, the people left behind are best off if they find somewhere else to live.” And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand how for a neighborhood person such a sentiment would feel hostile.

Finally, we are all in this democracy together. As tempting as a divorce may seem, we need to find a way to restore the respect and care for one another that makes our community at large work. I am reminded that the opposite of love is not hate it is disdain or disinterest. That is an emotion we cannot afford to indulge.


Habits for Happiness

This morning on the American River Parkway in Sacramento.

I am reading Gretchen Rubin‘s book, Better Than Before, to share strategies for making and keeping good habits and break bad habits. She find making and keeping habits easier than most people. She is among the small percentage of people who are “upholders”. These are people who are motivated by both internal and external expectations. Thankfully she is empathetic to the ways different people approach habits and she provides a multitude of strategies that make success more likely.

Reading this book is giving me an opportunity to rewrite my story around habits. I woke up this morning and thought about what I have to do today and for the holiday weekend. I realized that I have about six super flexible days. I can make it an at-home writer’s retreat. I am calling it my Freedom Writing Retreat.

The Tour de France also begins on Saturday and this is the first time since 2013 that I will be home and able to watch on television for the entire race (July 2-24). This is exciting because I will be able to immerse myself in an event I truly love. I will also be able to frequently hit the open bike trail and enjoy cycling, which reinforces how much I enjoy watching the professionals ride.

These are not habits that I am trying to form for life. I am just focusing on a blitz of behaviors that will make me happy for the next six days, and some other behaviors that will also make me happy through July 24. My questions include: will this increase my overall happiness and energy for daily life, will these habits be easier to uphold because I have reframed them based on my own tendencies and personalities? I will let you know.

In Remembrance: Orlando Innocents

20160619_090201I arrived at St John’s Lutheran a few minutes into the processional hymn. Usually there are about 80 people worshipping but today all I could see was a sea of black suits as the entire Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus was sitting in the last 3 rows on each side of the sanctuary.

I took my pew seat and looked at the order of service. I immediately began to look for a kleenex in my purse because the service was dedicated to remembering and honoring the victims of the Orlando massacre in the Pulse nightclub. Their names were printed in the bulletin and I was already tearing up.

Pastors Frank and Leslie led us through a beautiful, emotional morning of worship. Jesus was among us, offering comfort, inviting us to express our sorrow at such a tremendous loss of life. Prayer is an act of love and we prayed a lot this morning.

The Gospel lesson was Luke 8: 26-39, the story of Jesus healing the man with many demons. Jesus asks the possessed man’s name and he answers Legion. Pastor Frank asked us to treat evil seriously and to name it: bigotry, and hatred. Jesus meets us here in this mess and helps us to expel the darkness and replace it with love.

It is disheartening to have to remember the innocents slain in another mass murder with a semi-automatic. It is salt in the wound to know that some “Christian” Pastors incite more violence with their vitriolic and hate-filled responses. It was wonderfully healing and a comfort to join with members of the St John’s community and ring a bell for each one murdered while their photo, name and age was shown on a large screen. We rang a bell for Omar Mir Seddique Matteen but did not show his photo in recognition that violence affects all involved. His family lost a son and have to live with this tragedy too.

Community can come in all forms. Worshipping together is one way of bringing diverse people together: strangers become the family of God. As Dorothy Day says in The Long Loneliness, “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for Him.” (p 243)

We gathered this morning and the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus sang:

No never, never will we have that first time, or this last time, or just this time.

Never get to live our lives all over. Never. Ever.

Oh! Life will take us where it will. New beginnings. Ends.

Take each moment as a gift. Give it back again.



Just Mercy for the Mentally Ill

Just Mercy

Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk (see below) is like a teaser for his excellent book, Just Mercy. I was especially interested in the chapter “Mitigation” about the mental health crisis and how our jails became substitute mental hospitals. Deinstitutionalization (the closing of mental health hospitals and the release of patients without replacement treatment and housing) occurred at the same time as the ramp of mass incarceration. Mentally ill people became victims of society’s appetite for imprisonment, often for drug and alcohol abuse and sometimes for behaviors their communities would not tolerate.

“Today, over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness. In fact, there are more than three times the number of seriously mentally ill individuals in jail or prison is a terrible place for someone with mental illness or a neurological disorder that prison guards are not trained to understand.” (p. 188)

He mentioned working with Pete Earley to raise the profile of prisoners on death row. Earley was one of the most popular speakers of all time at Housing California’s annual conference. So I pulled my signed copy of his book Crazy.  He tells the story of trying to get help for his son suffering with a mental illness and his year long investigation of a Miami-Dade County jail. I skimmed the book again but did not read it because I can only take so much learning about how screwed up our justice and mental health systems are in one week.

It makes me appreciate “stonecatchers” all the more. Bryan explains the term in the last pages of Just Mercy reminding readers of the New Testament story of Jesus stopping a stoning of a adulterous woman by challenging the Pharisees: those without sin, cast the first stone.

The Equal Justice Initiative law project helps people on death row and works to end the death penalty; working to end excessive punishment and improve prison conditions; Free people who’ve been wrongly convicted and stop racial bias in the justice system; help the mentally ill; and stop putting children in adult jails and prisons. (p. 293) I applaud EJI’s leadership on these issues.

“You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something… We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains is our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.” (p. 289)




“Genny’s World” A Modern Tragedy in 3 Acts

mental health scream

At the core of the policy debate about chronic homelessness is our broken mental health system. Chronic homelessness is usually coupled with mental illness. Often the person you may see inebriated on the street is “dual-diagnosed,” that is someone with mental illness who is self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

As the recent Sacramento Bee article “Genny’s World” by Cynthia Hubert illustrated, every person without a home has a unique story. Some common elements emerge.

  1. They are loved by family, friends and kind strangers who eventually exhaust attempts to get the person help. Mental health and supportive housing is not plentiful enough to make access easy. Especially at early onset of the illness when it will make the most difference.  My friend Noel is a smart, capable and resourceful person who became completely frazzled seeking help for a close friend who had a mental breakdown in her 50s. By the time she was able to secure a spot in affordable supportive housing the woman had been victimized by others so that she had no condo, no car, no computers and no other possessions of value. And most tragically no dignity. Noel had succeeded in saving her friend from a death on the street but little else.
  2. Mentally ill people sometimes do not believe they are impaired and need treatment or help. They have a condition called anosognosia and results from damage to the part of the brain that determines self-awareness. As Hubert explains, “It is, according to studies, the second-most common reason that people with schizophrenia decline treatment. The first is the negative side effects of the drugs designed to treat the condition.” One of the most frustrating aspects of advocating for people experiencing homelessness is the countering the common misperception that they want to be homeless.
  3. Mental illness is still shrouded in stigma and ignorance. Some people do not believe in mental illness, characterizing the symptoms as demons. Others choose denial over seeking help because they see it as a character failing or might expose their family to judgement. Many families choose isolation over seeking help. Sometimes people underestimate the seriousness of conditions such as depression.

There are other challenges.When help is sought it is often very difficult to find and pay for it. Often insurance companies dodge providing needed services.  Or as someone once told me, “Do not use Kaiser’s psychiatric services–they are more harmful than doing nothing.”  Or as a social worker told a friend about a mental health facility: “I would never let anyone I love go to that place.”

Therapies need to improve! As the earlier quote stated, for some people dealing with schizophrenia the side effects from the meds are worse than the symptoms of the illness. And we need to exponentially increase the supply of supportive housing where people can have an apartment home with the social support they need to stay healthy.

As citizens and leaders, what is to be done? And why are we tolerating doing so little? I am going to continue to pursue these questions. Stay tuned.