This is the text of a talk I gave at Minneapolis Friends Meeting on May 20, 2001.
One night last winter I was doing the bedtime routine with my 10 year old son Ben. I picked up the book we’d been reading together and opened it to where we had left off. But he wasn’t paying attention. He was busy flibbering his lips: “Bububububububububub Pbpbpbpbpbpb Budubububdubub.” I found it sort of mildly amusing, but after it went on for a while I was getting a little restless and I asked him, “Don’t you want to read?” Ben said (and I swear these are his exact words): “Prububbabubbubbubbubub. These are sacred moments. Flububububudububububdub.”
That evening with Ben, my mind was only about halfway present. The other half was off thinking about work or something. When Ben said “These are sacred moments” it snapped me right back to the present.
I spend a lot of my time wandering around in a fog. I suspect I’m not unique in this. It’s a pretty functional fog – I do manage to earn a living, keep my house from falling too far into chaos, and so on. What I mean by “fog” is that much of the time my head is buzzing with a thousand things that don’t have much to do with what’s actually going on at that moment: worrying vaguely about the future, whether I’m going to make enough money next month, whether my clients really mean it when they say they’re happy with what I’m doing for them, whether maybe I should get into a different line of work entirely, and on and on.
But now and then I get moments of clarity – moments when all the fears and noise drop away and everything is perfectly clear and simple. I treasure those moments.
The simplicity is this: I am here, now. All I need to do is to listen, follow my heart, and do the best I can from moment to moment and day to day. Sometimes there will be pain, sometimes there will be joy. Sometimes I’ll do well, sometimes I’ll make mistakes. Some day my life will end, and then I’ll be done.
My image of God has evolved a lot over the years. I was raised in a religion that taught that life on earth is a test – a test to see whether we’re good enough to be with God for the rest of eternity. It’s sort of a pass-fail deal. And God is the judge, the one that decides who passes and who fails. The criteria are simple: all you have to do is be perfect. As a young kid this didn’t trouble me; it didn’t seem that hard to be perfect. You just learn the rules, and then you follow them, right? No problem.
Well. When I got to be a teenager, somehow it was no longer so easy to be perfect. And if I wasn’t perfect, it meant I was a failure. Nobody actually told me I was a failure. But inside I felt like a failure, and I was sure God would have no use for someone like me.
As I got older and smarter, I began to question the things I’d been taught as a child, and rely instead more on my own reasoning. And eventually I ended up pretty much discarding the idea of God altogether, because it didn’t make any rational sense to me.
Well, more years have gone by. I’m older now, and maybe not as smart as I was 25 years ago, because I don’t put quite as much stock in logic as I used to. Or maybe I’ve just learned that logic can only take you so far.
These days, when I think about God, the image that comes to me is of the infinite ocean of light that George Fox talked about. To me, the light represents compassion.
We all have difficult things in our lives. I think most of you know that I’m going through a divorce. About three years ago I went through an agonizing winter as my marriage was falling apart. I remember one night in particular when some incident had sent me into a tailspin. I was full of anger and shame, and my mind was a writhing mess of arguments, rationalizations, and recriminations that just went around and around and around and wouldn’t stop. I spent a day and a night and another day like this. In the middle of my second night without sleep, out of desperation, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I prayed. I said, “God, are you out there? If you’re there, I need you now. Help me to find my way through this.”
For a minute or two there didn’t seem to be any answer. Then I felt something shift inside of me. It was as if a trusted friend had put a hand on my forehead and said to me, “I’m with you. You can let go now. It’s okay to rest.” All of my turmoil just dropped away. And I was finally able to sleep.
The next morning, my situation hadn’t changed. My marriage was still ending, and I still had a tough road ahead of me. But I had found some peace with it. I was able to focus on what I needed to do and move forward, without wasting energy fretting about things I had no control over. And what enabled me to do this was the compassion I had found.
It’s a compassion that is there for all of us, any time. It’s a compassion that’s infinitely patient and without any judgment. It’s beyond any one human’s ability comprehend. But we don’t have to comprehend it, we only have to experience it. No matter who we are, no matter whether we feel we deserve it, it’s there for us. All we have to do is open up to it and accept it.
Living with an unsettled divorce puts you in a kind of limbo that can really change your perspective on life. For one thing, it has emphasized to me what a tenuous hold I have on my home and other material possessions. At times, the uncertainty has made me want to hang on to those things as tightly as I can, but that gets exhausting. I’ve come to realize that those material things are fleeting. I could lose them. So I’d better not be too attached to them. It seems better to invest my energy in the things that can’t be taken away: my son, my friends, my health. But I’ve also realized, wait, I could lose those things, too. Bad stuff happens — things that I have no control over. A sudden illness, a car accident, and everything could be changed in an instant. So what IS guaranteed? What cannot be taken away?
This moment. This one, right here, right now. That’s what’s certain.
And the kicker is that this moment, this one thing that’s certain, will just as certainly be gone forever in the very next moment. So I can’t hold on to it.
But then I remember there is one more thing that is guaranteed: compassion. No matter what else happens, there is always that infinite ocean of light.
I want to tell you one last story. This one is a dream that I had last year.
I dreamed that my wife Victoria and I had at last finalized our divorce, and that to mark the occasion we had decided to invite a few people to gather with us. It was going to be both a celebration and a mourning of what had been lost. It was going to be a small gathering, and it was going to be right here, in this very room. But when we arrived, we were surprised to find that there was a very large crowd of Friends gathered. (That would be all of YOU!) As we walked in, you silently divided in two, half of you moving to that corner, and half to this corner. One group lifted me up, the other group lifted Victoria. I was able to let go and just sink into the arms that were holding me up. And without any words being spoken, you slowly carried us, separately, around and around and around the room.