Living Within Institutions

When I got up this morning, I went outside. It was still dark. Venus glowed in the east. It was cool; the sky was blue-black, with a slight lightening in the east where the earth turned toward the sun.

Looking at Venus, I thought of Jesus, who has been called the bright morning star. I paused, refreshed, not alone, enmeshed in institutionalized beauty.

I came back in the house and sat and talked to my wife. When we talk, we  usually connect, very smoothly, very deeply, very satisfyingly. My identity and her’s merge, we easily understand each other’s abreviations, our freshly invented eloquences. These work out the subliminal deep structure of our relationship, the one that exits within the institution of marriage.

Later in the morning, I drove into work, opened the door to my office, and walked into a third institution.

My office manager came to work too. We are both well-individuated, but as we talked, worked out the plan for the day, sampled the pastry we would later serve to guests, laughed at ourselves, played our separate roles, made progress, we became a useful institutional team.

What is my life? It is a life of living and moving and having my being within institutions.

What are institutions?

Institutions not places, they are not buildings, they are the rules that structure our interations with the people we know.  Institutions define the way we all relate.

The national government, our church, marriage, our school system, our economic system, even our language — all are institutions, that is all structure rules for relationships.

A woman told me last week that our church hurt her feelings.

I apologized. I hated that she was hurt. The protocol, the unwritten rules, the tendancy of a church to favor certain people — the unexamined structure of our interactions — these can damage. Institutions can brutalize people.

I have been harmed by institutions. You probably have too. But we have also been helped by them — medicine, art, family.

What to do to make our institutions healthy, good?

First, in institutions, make exceptions, regarding the rules.

Once a person didn’t meet a requriement of our church for leadership. In this case, we overlooked that one institutional requirement. We kept the requirement in general —  it’s a good one — but we made an exception in this one case. It wasn’t a slippery slope. It was just plain smart, right, fair. And it worked well. The person has proven to be an excellent leader.

This is one way we kept our institution from harming the individual — we value the individual more than the general rule.

What else can be done?

We can keep changing. A healthy person keeps changing.  Healthy institutions also keep changing. They change the rules, to address problems, to find creative solutions.

Our church is currently becoming more economically and racially diverse. So we are including more types of people in leadership. Women, ethnic minorities, young people, older people, introverts, highly spiritual people, practical ones too. We are opening the doors to a different look, to different kinds of relational structures. Some of the rules are changing, and so the institution is changing in a good way.

Today as I sat writing this in Starbucks — a major institution — two strangers got into a conversation about how to cool their houses in the current heat wave. One gave the other a new idea. This “third place” within our culture, this public office, creates a space for people to relate to each other in ways of their own choosing, and come to solutions of their own choosing.

The bottom line?

Love your institutions, use them to connect to others, to solve problems; make them work for you and others.

Not Alone

The myth of the alone, insane, artistic genius runs deep in Western culture.

Vincent Van Gogh.

It isn’t so.

I just finished reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s fascinating, well-researched, thought-provoking biography of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent fought with everyone he knew, sabotaged every close relationship, longed for family, but lived alone even when he had house companions like Gauguin. And yet not.

He suffered deep social pain, rejection and abandonment, and at times he was isolated by mental illness,  but he was not unconnected from other people.

His art, his letters, his paintings all reveal a profound link to others. They reveal the wars with his parents, the parasitic relationship with his brother Theo, his attempts at pastoring, his efforts to build family with with his prostitutes, his effort to create family with his fellow artists.

Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet, Bernard, Rembrandt, Millet, Delacroix  — all these and many others influenced Vincent.  He lived inside his own inner dialogue with them.

Vincent’s art was a product of his relationships.

Even when Vincent was an island, cut off from others in a locked room at St. Remy, struggling with his mental demons, he was in reality connected by great techtonic plates — below the surface of  deep water — to those he knew on the mainland of rationality. They were always in his head, his heart, his paint.

Anyone of us, with our various versions of insanity, can retreat from others because of relational pain and hurt, and yet even there we will not be alone. We will always bring with us the voices of our community, our critics, our family, our friends, and our self.

What is insanity? What was Vincent’s mental illness? I’m not at all sure. But perhaps insanity has something to do with us not being able to work out our relationships with our community, family and sweet ones.

We are connected, and we are all a bit whacked; the issue of life seems to lie in how we mangage to come to terms with that.

That struggle, that deep longing for connection, that is one of the great forces of life that results in great art, in great pain, and in great love.

“Love,” commanded Jesus.

All beauty comes from that.

Variations of Gratitude

“Say, “Thank you.'”

We have all been told or said that, or some variation of it, “You could a least say, ‘Thank you,'” or “Aren’t you going to say “Thank you?””

In modern American culture, such “Thank you’s” are protocol; they are our appreciation cliches. They are ubiquitous, often perfunctory.

Yesterday at the store the checkout my clerk thanked me for shopping at her store. I thanked her for serving me.

Verbal ettiquite is rote, a tote, a quick vote, but that’s okay. Our light-weight apprreciations are perhaps tributes to our aspirations for cultural nobility, perhaps small island-hops in our perpetual flight from selfishness.

But there is present in life a deeper gratefulness, a profonde gratitude, a heart-felt appreciation, which arises from within, which comes out of surprising places and has a substantial mooring in our souls.

Lately I have experienced deep gratitude.

I am at loss for words.

Repayment is impossible. The words “Thank you!” are in no way adequate. I have no eloquence for this, I have no thank you gift for this. I suffer gratitude paralysis; I can do nothing to properly say, “Thank you.”  I will never have anything that can adequately convey appropriate gratitude.

For what?

For God!

God has been so good to me and my family. He has approached us with such gentleness. He has lavished us with such love. And He has softly redeemed our personal brokenness, saved our self-inflicted and our others-inflicted lostness, gentled our unique brand of fragility.

You have no idea.

Many are offended by God, his allowance of suffering, his seeming distance from us in times of need, his standards, his judgments, his absence.

I am not. Certainly I get it. I too suffer over the many unexplained injustices of life, the horrible suffering, the mysteries of our failures and successes, and yet in God’s own way, in his own time, as he has seen fit, He has very uniquely proven his love for me lately, and for my family and my friends again and again and again.

Things have happened to work things out, to create new realities, to take care of old needs, to give us new peace, to bond us to each other and to others, to create hope.

I am dumbstruck. I have no gratitude cliches. This is very personal, between God and I, a very, very deep gratitude.



Ahhh …





                                Amazing is your presence — after your absence.

This week NASA showed us close up images of Pluto — astonishing! I’m in love. The high ice mountains — incredible!

Last night my wife came home from a archivist conference that had her away from home for three weeks. She spent the evening unpacking, singing and humming, sitting and catching up,  surrounded by her fanily and her cats. This is more astonishing than Pluto.

Amazing is a presence, after an absence. It is good to come home, to Pluto, and to each other.

The cosmos is boffo ergo Io and Pluto. My wife Linda is more so.

Until recently in history, it has been rare to peek in on our solar system wonders. All hail to Galileo, Kepler, Cassini, Tombaugh.

But the rings of Saturn have been there all along.  It is not so much that they are newly astonishing as much as that we have been oldly unaware. The truth is that the extraordinary is found everywhere, in what is seen and unseen, in  a presence after an absence, in the wonder of small conveniences, in the profundity of reunions, in solar system extraordinarosities and in  the comforts of home..

Normal, ordinary, everyday, common place — these are amazing; this is known by the very sick after they recover. This is known by the traveler and by the colonizer  and by the traumatized and by the at peace. Amazing is the new normal for the newly aware. The astonishing is what is right in front of us in the gorgeously articulated super-now.

The stunning twin wonders of the body are its bright eyes. The triple gorgeousness of the person — mind, soul, body. The glory of the immediate second — that I am communicating with you.

Look up from your computer!

Behold — the amazing present!

Squinting At The Future

Yesterday morning I sat on the beach at Half Moon Bay, in Northern California and watched the waves. I looked out to sea. I was squinting —  at the future. What did I see? I saw a future in which I reflect, learn, write, think and speak about what is true.

In other words, I see a future that extends and expands on what my whole life has been about — figuring out what is true and sharing that with other people.  The path ahead for me looks like the path behind.

Later in the day I hiked the little creek trail at Butano State Park near Pescadero, hoofing it lazily through sword ferns and sorrel with my wife Linda, weaving through the giant redwoods, following the little stream thorugh patches of gorgeous green sunlight and shade. We paused, sat on a log, took it in and I did a little more squinting, again, trying to see the future — my future adventuring through the divine sunshine, shadow and splendor of the known universe.

What is the future? It is a vast ocean,  seen and unseen, known a bit by exploration, not nearly all known yet. The future is a redwood forest, mostly unknown, except the trail, the one taken out, and then taken back again.

It is said that sixty percent of the planet is covered by water more than a mile deep. Seventy-nine percent of the entire volume of the earth’s biosphere consists of waters with depths greater than 1,000 meters. We lilve on a deep planet that we have not nearly explored.

There is so  much that is yet unknown.  Neuroscientists estimate that we are conscious of only about five percent of our own cognitive activity. We have depths, inside of us, unchartered waters, operating in sync with our organs, our emotions  and our actions. It isn’t that we aren’t using all of our brain  power; we are always using a good deal of it, without being aware of it.  We are oceans,  we are forests, yet waiting to be discovered.

And so I am squinting,  along with many other people,  at the future, because I want to see what is coming, and I want to control it a little bit, if that is possible, by the wise choices I make.

What is out there?

One way to cxplore our own human consciousness and its tie to the future is through paying attention.


By paying attention to our own consciousness, and by exploring our unconsciousness, by getting  below the surface of the self. To do that, it looks to me like we must stop, pause, rest, rest deep, reflect, pay attention, consider options, choose.  This means looking back along the path we have come from, and then looking forward along the path that goes back to where we came from.

I don’t do too much of this kind of looking, becuase I stay busy, with work and play. Many moderns do. It’s good, it’s healthy, but what is needed to grow in self-awareness and meta-awareness and to see further into what can yet be. This will require some deep rest, long time outs, extended inactivity, a cessation of activity, a time for looking, just looking and listening to self, past, present, future and God.

I recommend more of this. We need to stop, take stock, consider the possibilities, explore options, listen to the future, watch for the flow of time in a given direction, make plans.

Some might counter, but you just can’t know, and you certainly can’t control the future. I disagree. We can know possibilites, we can see potential, we can see options and we may — if health doesn’t fail and people intrude —  even choose some of what will be. If God is willing, we may travel the same path twice, going in different directions, foward and back and begin to see a bit ahead a different angle on what we have seen before.

I give you deep rest, I recommend deep consderation, deep planning, hoping, thinking, brooding, listening,  acting. I suggest moving with the flow of the divine, moving with the rhythms of liffe, looking out to sea, looking up the trail, looking, looking, looking.

In front of you,  your future.

Will you take it?

Aim High

I’m trying to raise roughly $10,000 to take the next step in creating a beautiful space for people. Last week I added up the gifts. They came in at roughly $6,5oo. I’m aiming high, I’m hitting reality.

We all  have hopes, and hopefully some of them are high. I’m for aiming high no matter what we hit.

I have high hopes to know God, I mean really know him, personally, to be like Abraham, God’s friend. We talk, God and I, some, and sometimes I hear him. I’m aiming high; I am hitting reality.

Over the last three to four years I have written about 3,5oo axioms, epigrams, thought proverbs, wisdoms. I am aiming high, attempting to contribute to the store of wisdom in the world, attempting to add to the English language. A couple of people have repeated my lovelies,  a few websites have carried them, I quote myself from time-to-time. I am aiming high, sometimes I fall low, I am hitting reality — with as much wit, pith, drollery, and linguistics unholiness as I can muster.

I am also attempting to lead an old church into a new era, an era of freedom, of creativity, of beauty, of honoring individuals, of knowing God, of healthy relationships. of honesty. It’s fun; it’s a lot of work. We are rebranding, remodeling, re-energizing, refining. We are a re-church in a re-era doing re-theology. We have gained many new people, we have lost some too, to moves, the military, to life. We are aiming high. We are hitting reality.

Here is the deal. Aim at nothing, hit whatever happens to be flying by, or hit nothing, which isn’t actually a hit at all. Aim at something high, a least you have a chance to hit  something that is along the road to high.

I hate giving up, quitting, whining, negativity, low standards, cynicism, criticalness, not aiming, not getting anywhere.

Being negative or being apathetic is so chicken!

I love trying, especially trying hard things, and the apricity that comes to one through pluck, and trying again, and having another go at it, and celebrating the soigné that exists in everyday effort, and the neuroplasticity of the active mind —  eunoia, affirmation, helpfulness.

I love aiming high.

It’s high, even when it’s lower.

Secrecy, Shame and Healing

I asked someone recently why they had kept something from me that would have been best to just get out sooner than they eventually did. I assumed it was because they knew that what they were doing was harmful,  but wanted to keep doing it anyway.

That may have been a part  of the motive for the secrecy — the motive of desiring to continue the guilty pleasure — but it wasn’t the main reason.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I finally asked, straight up.

“I was ashamed,” they said.

I can identify. We all keep stuff to ourselves that would be shameful to tell, if nothing else, some of our thoughts. This is normal, protective, even sometimes appropriate.

It’s just that some things need to come out to be recovered from. Some things need the light of day to remove the fear and guilt and shame and anger that remains when they are kept closeted in the dark.

Sharing a shameful thing can be freeing, theraputic, healing, especially if someone who had power over us coerced us into keeping it a secret. By speaking shameful things, we can sometimes defeat them.  By speaking about wrong, we can rob it of some of its power over us.

“There,” we can say when we have said it. “I said it!” It’s out! I don’t have to contain it, house it, let it rot in me, alone, anymore!”

By getting secret stuff out — wrong stuff that really happened — we begin to take control again. By speaking the truth, by refusing to keep dirty-little required secrets, by saying what we did worng or what someone else did wrong, we expose mold to light; we expose disease to medicine, we cure harm. And even more, we recieve the support of those who understand, who have gone through a similar thing, who get us.

Yes, some people will get angry when others speak the truth, some will say it isn’t true even when it is, some will condemn an exposé as being unkind or inappropriate or as showing  unforgiveness or being vengeful. What should we make of that? Well, a vindictive “getting back” at people does sometimes happen, and that can be a harmful thing in itself, certaintly if the things said are not true, but we must be careful not to condemn victims for wanting justice.

When all is said and done on earth,  there will, I believe, have been too many dark secrets, not enough truth, and not enough exposure of abuse and harm. And when people who have done wrong are exposed, the shame  or embarrassment that they experience — they brought that on themselves. Being exposed as harmful is the natural consequence and social punishment for having been harmful.

For those who speak the secret shames others have forced them to keep in the dark — or tell things they have done and themselves have harmfully supressed — I approve of the honesty. Jesus himself advocated honesty saying the truth would set us free, and he predicted that hidden wrong will be exposed, and that what has been whispered in an ear will be shouted from a rooftop.

I applaud the bravery within openness, and I uphold and support everywhere the commitment to take back the parts of our lives that have been stolen from us.

Talking — it’s a shame cure.