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Transition to Peace


In June, I was asked to lead worship at the Presbyterian churches in Stinson Beach and Bolinas, California. These two churches each have just a handful of members, perhaps 15-20 people on a good Sunday and sometimes eight to ten.

As a guest preacher, you never know who you’ll be encountering; who will be hearing what you have to say. I asked around and the consensus was, “These are basic nice folk, not so interested in new ways of looking at the Jesus story, but more about feeling comfortable.”

I’m not really in the business of making comfortable people comfortable. I want people in churches to encounter the Jesus who was a heretic; the Jesus who challenged the status quo; the Jesus who got himself crucified for it but ended up changing the world; the Jesus who said that caring for the sick, the poor, those in prison, the outcasts of society was the way to live; the Jesus who didn’t really care much about the old rules, but pushed them aside when human need came forward. I resonate with the words of Finley Peter Dunne, the city editor of the Chicago Times, that it was his job to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (Martin Marty appropriated the phrase in 1983, to apply to God)

The first or second Sunday I preached in the Bolinas church, a woman came up to me and pressed a small white dove lapel pin into my hands. I was talking to everyone and had no time to engage her, but said thanks. Later I was moved and pinned it to my clothing. It was very much in keeping with my inclinations. A week later, this same person insisted that I read a book and gave me a copy. I could not politely reject the book, but if I read every book someone thinks I should read, most of which do not merit reading, there would be no time left over to actually counsel people (or write sermons).

The book sat for a couple weeks before I decided to read enough to fake it. Little did I know. . .  Transition to Peace was the title, and the more I read, the more intrigued I became. By our nature, psychologists, ministers, and other do-gooders are sometimes impractical in our approach to good things. Russell Faure-Brac, the author of Transition to Peace was an engineer.

Engineers are different. They are not so interested in theories as they are in practical application. Quantum physicists are working out the theoretical basis for new forms of computing, the engineers are figuring out how to actually make a quantum computer.

Once I began reading, I could not put this book down. Fortunately it is a small book, but it contains the seeds of how we could move to a viable world of peace. It is the result of years of research and writing from a man who began his career doing top-secret weapons system research at Stanford Research Institute.

Buy this book! If you can’t buy it, insist that your public library acquire it. Sure Amazon will sell it to you. Or you could purchase it from  

Transition to Peace
℅ Woodville Ranch
5755 Highway 1
Bolinas, CA 94924
transitiontopeace@gmail.com

I encourage you to first go to www.transitiontopeace.com and read more there, but then buy the book and read it, and let it inform your decisions. No Russell Faure-Brac didn’t have all the answers. But in his book he does proffer a lot and those take us out of our old stuck places and into new thinking.

Among the commentators I respect is Thom Hartman. Here’s what Thom had to say, “We need big, fast change and this book shows us the first steps to getting there.”

Thom Hartmann, bestselling author of Rebooting the American Dream

Another important commentor on reality is John Perkins.

 “In my book, I describe myself as an Economic Hit Man. Given Russell Foure-Brac's earlier career in the weapons industry, I would call this creative and insightful book 'Confessions of a Defense Engineer'."

John Perkins, bestselling author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

And. No, the members of those two churches are not “Basic nice folk, not so interested in new ways of looking at the Jesus story, but more about feeling comfortable.” They are great people who are very receptive to new ideas and willing to plug those ideas into their lives to follow that 2000 year old Jewish rabbi into the 21st century.

Vacation in Marvelous Mazatlan, Mexico

You can have Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, though I'm still looking forward to a week in Tulum some day. For me Mazatlan is Mexico. Not only has it great beaches but it is a real city. Most of Mazatlan is like any city; it is about living. The industry includes ship-building, the largest Mexican Naval base on the west coast and the largest commercial port.

There are, however, many sites and locations for tourists. One whole area is devoted to tourism with bars and fancy restaurants, hotels and tourist shopping. There are also the real Mexico that tourists like to see; the huge open markets, the cathedral and other churches, public squares and parks. Mazatlan has expended a lot of energy to improve the experience of living there for the average Mexican. 

It is a cosmopolitan city, not to the extent of Guadalajara or Mexico City, but for a city of 300,000 people, the amenities are not insignificant. For example, the Angela Peralta Theatre is the location for much professional music, ballet and other shows. There are art museums all over the city.

For over twenty years, I have vacationed in Mexico and usually in Mazatlan. In 2002 I spent six months, living there and studying Spanish.

In fact, beginning about that time, I started thinking about moving to Mazatlan permanently. I could have purchased a home for a very reasonable price and enjoyed the sunshine, the beach, the breezes–and a lot of friends. But, I didn't. And sometimes you don't get to remake decisions. 

In fact, I haven't even visited Mazatlan for three years. During that time, my good friend David Bodwell died. David was the editor and publisher of Richard Grabman's book, Gods, Gachupines and Gringos: A People's History of Mexico,  among the best books I've found for the non-historian to understand Mexico. 

My friend Anne Fisher, from Akron, OH whose husband was my teacher and mentor through my Ph.D., will be joining me. Bill died over two years ago. Anne has never been to Mexico so I'm looking forward to showing her the many amazing beauties of Mazatlan as well as introducing her to many of my Mexican and expat friends.

We are already set with a beautiful suite at the Loro de Oro Inn, owned and run by Tony Feuer and his lovely wife, Lucy. I understand that they closed Lucy's restaurant so we will just have to find elsewhere to eat. Not to worry, it is only a block away from the Plazuela Machada, one of the main town squares which boasts ten or fifteen great restaurants in the few blocks around the open square.

Another friend, Martha Armenta is the organizer and energizer of a "wild animal hospital". Martha is going to give us a tour of Conrehabit, the hospital ranch, and maybe also the Mazatlan aquarium where she is a leading light.

Mazatlan is the source of some of the best shrimp. It is one of the prides of the city. There is a large shrimp market where you can walk along and find raw shrimp of every size imaginable and at unimaginable prices. The Mazatlan shrimp fresh off the boats is so much tastier than can be purchased in your local grocery. I'm sure we will eat some/much. I don't know Anne's taste in oysters, but Mazatlan is also known for several varieties of oysters.

For beer fanciers,  Mazatlan is the source of the great Pacifico beer. Pacifico is not low-quality commercial beer like Coors of Budweisser. It is a high-quality light beer. (Unfortunately, beer connoisseurs tend to like heavier beers like Negra Modelo, Indio, Bohemia, etc. So Pacifico doesn't get much publicity.) 

Then there is the Amigos de los Animales, the local animal shelter which is a model for others all over Mexico. We will take some time on the beach.  It may be cold and wet here in Marin County, but it is 80 degrees and mostly sunny in Mazatlan. 

Since Anne will be coming from Akron, Ohio, the weather change will be even more of a shock to her than to me. Still have to wait another month and a half. We're not going until March 2, and only for one week. I'm looking forward to this. It is always wonderful to reunite with old friends from Akron and from Mazatlan.

 

Philip Economon Died Last Week

I was tempted to use the word "passed", but Phil would not have let me get away with that. He would have said, "Say what you mean." Among his other traits, Phil was a truth-teller.phil

In 1992, I returned to Marin after living in Oregon for two years. Looking for a church community of people who try to live lives modeled after Jesus, I visited several, eventually trying out a church pastored by one of my seminary classmates, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon. I soon met this gentleman who was "different". He was obviously "not young" in years, but the things he kept saying told me that he was mentally and emotionally alive and exciting.

As I came to know Philip Economon, I was drawn to a man who spoke his mind, no watering down the truth as he saw it just so others would like him better. Not that he suffered for a lack of friends. Everyone in the church knew and loved Phil. As I came to discover, he was also well-known and well-liked by the general community.

I could fill this blog with his exploits from an illustrious past, including traipsing across France, Belgium and Germany during World War II, part of the liberating army that defeated "that maniac in Germany" as Phil speaks of Hitler; or his taking olive trees to Afghanistan to help those farmers or the many ways he volunteered in Marin. But I only want to write about his influence on my life; the things he taught me.

Phil was part of a group at Westminster that I call the Community of Heretics. The official name is the Faith Cafe, but my term is better. This is a group that ranges in age from about 65 up to just under 100. In other words, the older people who actually like to think. It can be a contentious group. Leaders have torn their hair out trying to control these heretics. Why heretics, this small group–about 10-15–seem never to have encountered an idea they would not entertain and examine.  And Phil was right there in the mix, one of the free-thinkers.

Don't try to sneak in some abstract, but meaningless verbiage, Phil would pipe up with "Say what you mean." pushing us to be honest and not obfuscate. Don't use a six syllable word when a common three syllable would be more understandable. Another of Phil's frequent and useful interjections was "How do you apply that in YOUR life?" If you are saying something important, it can't be left as abstraction.

Phil believed that humanity is progressing. Despite all the problems and evil in the world, the arc of history bends toward justice and progress and increasing positive behavior in people. Sometimes the evidence seems thin. Reading the news media is disheartening at times. The frontpage stories are of police murdering citizens and civilians murdering police, rape, torture and war. But what Phil knew is that there is really less of this now than at any time in history. Well researched statistics support Phil's notion. The headlines may scream, but the reality is that there are fewer wars among nations now–not that wars in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere are to be taken lightly, and Phil did not take them so. There are fewer violent crimes. We are safer in our homes and on our streets than ever before. Health care is improving. Phil might complain about the sluggishness of progress, but he never doubted that the future would be better than the past.

Only rarely did Phil come up with an aphorism or metaphor. Mostly he was too straightforward. But after a special moment when I heard him challenge a visiting authority figure, I was so in awe, I blurted out, "Phil. When I grow up I want to be like you." He was taken aback at first, but then he said "David, don't grow up. When you grow up, there's nothing left to do but die. That's the way it is with flowers and with us. Just keep growing."

I never again heard Phil say anything "guru" like that again, but instead I watched him live his life in that way.

There is a great scholar, theologian and philosopher, John Shelby Spong who often says that what as Jesus followers we are called to do is to "Live fully. Love wastefully. And be all that we have been created to be." Philip Economon personalized this for me.

And now he "grew up" but he continues to live in his influence in my life and directly in the lives of hundreds of others.

 

Being Ordained a Heretic

I've been pondering the fact that next year will be the anniversary of my ordination as a minister by the Presbyterian church. Among my thoughts are the folly of such hubris as that a religion can "ordain" someone. Of course, I guess that would work if the word "Ordain" simply means to give the person a task; like "Hey Joe. Go clean out the dog kennel" or "Glenda, you are really good at writing interesting articles, we're gonna ordain you to be our PR contact."

The folly comes when the religion says, "David, we are going to designate you as a holy teacher or an interpreter of the gospel." 

It was in the context of this ponderous pondering that I thought about my sense of purpose of my life. My inspiration comes from the Hebrew bible, the book of Jeremiah where God says to Jeremiah,“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (1:5).

I don't want to burden this passage with some literal meaning, but if I was ordained, according to this, it happened long before the Presbyterian church knew I existed. Somehow, most of my life has been about a connection with "More"; a spirituality. I left the religion of my birth, Judaism, to become a conservative Christian. As I've grown, I became more and more progressive and liberal. I have lived for a very short period in a Zen monastery, became part of a Zen Christian community in Tokyo.  And I have had a Zen practice now for over 40 years. Spiritual, but not religious in the usual sense. The word that best fits me is probably "heretic."

Though all these years, even when I rejected, as I once did, everything that was blatently "spiritual," there was still that connection to "More". So if I was ordained, at least as Jeremiah was, then it took place long before the Presbyterians did it.

"Before I formed you, I knew you and consecrated you, a Heretic." I see that as my job, being a heretic.

I used to use the word "heterodox". It has a similar, though not the same, meaning. Heterodox means to choose anything except orthodox. Heretic comes close, but the heretic is more affirmative. The heretic looks at the common wisdom, the orthodox ideas, sees their weakness, then looks for and attempts to becomes a proponent of a better idea. Thoughout history, it was the heretic who provided the path to the advancement of humanity. Heretics have been telling us that we are destroying our planet and the living environment. The orthodox, common wisdom kept saying, "Not to worry. We'll simply rebuild it."  Now we know the heretics were right.

Thiis article is just a bunch of musing. It is just the beginning. No real conclusions yet. I welcome feedback and ideas.

The Future of Mental Health

Eric Maisel has been writing provacative books for a long time. The first of his that I read was Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning. When I read that, I thought, here's a man who is willing to be honest, and innovative and, even better, much more right than most. I've now read a couple other of his books, but the latest one has been especially telling. The Future of Mental Health: Deconstructing the Mental Disorder Paradigm, takes apart the "bible" of the psychotherapy industry, DSM V and demonstrates its lack of usefulness except to the insurance industry and to therapists who really don't want to treat human beings, just patients.

I find myself appalled at the thoughtless way traditional psychotherapy pigeonholes people. Equally inexcusable is the almost automatic use of a prescription pad to dispense what are, at best, questionable psychotropic chemicals. The person, who shows up in the doctor's office brings real pain and suffering, not from a lack of an anti-depressant, but from real life events either in the present or in their history or childhood. To simply prescribe a chemical which often carries horrendous side-effects should be considered malpractice.

Spirituality: A Detective Story

David M. Pittle, Ph.D., M.Div.

I've been on the trail of this culprit for a very long time. "Why culprit", you ask. Because it disturbs my life and keeps shaking up what I think I know for sure. It leaves me sure that I don't have the answer and the more I do my "detectiving", the less sure I am of my answers. On the other hand, it does leave me more certain of the bankruptcy of my old answers. A friend of mine has a bumper sticker on her car, "Don't believe everything you think!" Amen!

Born to an ultra-orthodox Jewish mother, I early realized that her answers, while satisfying to her, were not adequate for my life. So I became a convert to Christianity. Like most converts, religious or otherwise, I accepted the most orthodox dogmas. (Have you ever listened to an argument among theoretical physicists? Now there is a clash of orthodox dogmas.)

But the path led from there to more progressive forms of Christianity, including non-doctrinal ones. And on and on. Now, I'm out of the box. A “Heterodox, Non-theistic, Zen follower of the Way of Jesus.” I would love to put that on a bumper-sticker, but I don't have a car wide enough. And, of course, as soon as it becomes a bumper-sticker it also becomes a new doctrine.

Among my most cherished learnings is that “Every statement of dogma or orthodoxy is always wrong—including this statement.”

So I continue my detective work. I have gotten some clues from a large range of sources: The writings of people like Br. David Stendl-Rast, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marcus Borg, Meister Eckhart, Alfred Korzybski and even Albert Ellis. I know that spirituality is not limited to people who believe in a super-natural god. I've known some very spiritual folk who are not theists–including myself.

As an aside: I think that most people fit into a small number of categories in regard to the word "god".

  • There are theists. People who believe in a supernatural god who (or which) is beyond nature and controls nature–or at least created it.
  • There are agnostics. People who haven't seen enough evidence to be in the theist camp, but also not enough to discard such a belief.
  • Another group are non-theists. These are people, like myself, who don't believe in a supernatural god, but for whom that word is a metaphor which points to truth.
  • Fourth are the atheists. They, like the non-theists, don't believe in a supernatural god and they choose to eliminate the word god from their vocabulary.
  • Another group are the anti-theists. They are not simply atheists, but "fundamentalist" doctrinaire atheists. They are reactive and militant and oppositional. I think that a Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens are examples. They react to what the conservative religious theists teach, but can't acknowledge other alternatives and are absolutely sure that their own dogmas are true.

I know that spirituality is not religion. Not all religion is doctrinal, but most is. I think that spirituality has something to do with asking several questions (and the quest to find satisfactory answers) like, "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", "Where is here?", and "Who are all these other creatures here with me?" The quest is not entirely cognitive. Spiritual answers are not all thought out, they are partially felt out and they are articulated in metaphor.

Even if one does not credit a supernatural being, in most lives there are certain moments, when one stands in awe, reverence or gratitude.

Here's a quick summary of the clues I have; I'm still working on. I would be delighted if other detectives–less defective than I–have found more and can share in the comments.

The first clue:

On any given day, the patient population at our local hospital will be between 90 and 100 people. Of those, three to five will be under forty years of age. When a patient is admitted they are asked two questions: What is your religious preference? Would you like a visit from the chaplain while you are here? The answers to those two questions are clues. Of the more or less 95, about 55 will answer the first question with “None.” Six or seven will answer the second question with “Yes.” Of those who do not answer “None,” twenty will say “Roman Catholic” and this will include five of the Yes answers. Three or four will say “Judaism,” and another three or four will have answers of Islam, Hindu, Sikh,  Buddhism or some other non-Christian religion. Most days there are one or two who state their religious preference as “Atheist.”  Finally, twelve to fifteen will have answered the first question with some variety of Protestant denomination or simply “Christian.”

I used to spend one or two days a week as a volunteer Chaplain at that local hospital. Chaplain is a word that originates from Christian history, but today there are Jewish and Buddhist volunteer chaplains at our facility and we would be open to many other forms of spirituality. A chaplain provides pastoral (spiritual) and emotional support for “guests” in the hospital without limiting to the chaplain’s own religious preference.

If a patient has stated a religious preference, one of my first questions when I enter a patient’s room is “It says on my list that you are a [Faith community name], is that correct?” (That’s not really a throw-away line as occasionally the admitting clerks will misunderstand—especially when a patient is admitted through the Emergency Department and may herself be in too much pain and distress to be clear.) Even among those who have stated a preference, the answer most often is “Oh. I was brought up as a XXX, but I don’t believe that anymore.” If there is no stated faith community, I am there as a spiritual and emotional support–though my initial question will be different.

As a small child during World War II, and afterward as a teenager, I frequently heard that “There are no atheists in foxholes.” The hospital patients are emotionally “in foxholes,” many of them fearing their futures—or their end, and I assure you that there are atheists in foxholes.

I am certainly not saying that these people don’t have spiritual and emotional needs. They do, and we do everything we can to support them, regardless of their religious affiliation. In fact, we speak of ourselves as “spiritual and emotional support providers,” whenever we feel that a patient will be put off by the word “chaplain.”

Clue number two:

For more than fifty years, my heart has resonated to the line in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.” (My resonating heart is not cognitive, but “meta-cognitive.”) I don't have to "believe" in a literal bible to find it a great source of spiritual metaphor. (And some not so great stuff too.) I have a sense of calling to love people, not just individuals, but also the whole human community and to further social justice in the political arena. Politics is from the Greek word “politika” and it means the way the people govern themselves. Though some, but not all, of our politicians have besmirched the word, politics is truly a high calling and even in this age of cynicism about politics, we can look to some of our politicians with admiration.

The biblical passage, Genesis 1.1 and following, is often translated as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form and void.” But the original Hebrew can also be translated that at the beginning the earth (The whole universe except the heavens) was in chaos, without form and void). God began the work of bringing order and life to this chaos, eventually creating humanity as a partner in this process.

Clue number three:

Cosmological and particle physics are increasingly discovering the basic structure of material reality. They are, however, also pushing into a level of reality which is beyond “material.” Make no mistake, I am a novice and a layperson at this, but I read popularizations that have been “vetted” by those who know the legitimacy of the books I read and approve them—Not the uninformed pseudo-science ideas of “What the Bleep Do We Know”, but actual, recognized physicists like Brian Greene, Brian Swymme, Michio Kaku, etc.

My professor in seminary, who taught what we used to call Old Testament (And now, more properly call “Hebrew Bible” or “Tanakh.”) was a great scholar, a part of the group of translators which produced the Revised Standard Version of the bible. Dr. Muilenburg was fond of hyperbolically saying that “God speaks Hebrew.” I have the temerity today to disagree. I think God speaks mathematics. Every advance in human knowledge of physical and psychological reality is made with mathematics. Yes, psychology studies human and animal behavior, but the results would be meaningless without statistical methodologies based in mathematics.

Of course, particle physics and cosmological physics are similarly only possible because of mathematics.

Clue number four:

Increasingly what traditionally has been designated religious or spiritual has been discovered to be pre-scientific doctrine and dogma. Beginning before Copernicus and Galileo, the “what and how” of reality is better described by science than by religion. But the “why” is only amenable to a different kind of answer.

This has led some to become militant (fundamentalist?) anti-theists. (See definition above) They rant and rave against religion and spirituality. Of course, there is much against which to rant and rave. Conservative doctrinal and dogmatic religions keep providing more and more ammunition against themselves.

The ranters and ravers are mistaken however, if they believe that they have proven their conceit. When the question is “How does something occur” or “By what process or mechanism can we achieve a particular physical goal” then certainly a questioning enquiry will reveal better answers than any scriptural compendium or any doctrine. On the other hand, when the discussions move to questions of purpose, values, ethics and other “why” subjects, there is a much broader field of inquiry where ancient metaphors sometimes contain deep wisdom.

Clue number five:

The oft-quoted statement of Albert Camus, the 20th century French existentialist philosopher, that "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Why not commit suicide?" is a good starting point from which to consider spirituality. If life begins in pain and discomfort, as it does for every new born child—that’s why the first utterance of a newborn is a cry—and it ends in pain as, without morphine, it surely does for most people, and if along the way, much of most lives is frequently lived in discomfort, pain and illness, then there is a good argument for the absurdity of life.

Of course Camus has a response to this absurdity. Each person must create, discover or choose a reason for existence. The quest for that purpose for existence is a part of the larger spiritual quest.

Camus wrote that statement in his 1942 monograph, The Myth of Sisyphus. In 1942, Camus found his “purpose” in the French Resistance and the fight against the Nazi occupation and evil. Afterward, Camus’ purpose took other forms. It was not a static spirituality.

In his, The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich speaks of committing to a “ground of being”, which I believe is the purpose for existence, the reason for not committing suicide that Albert Camus was stating. It is a spiritual quest. The ground of being may be god, but it may equally be a struggle for human growth and social justice—perhaps the same thing.  Perversely, it may also surely, be the pursuit of personal gain, another kind of god. Furthermore, the Ground of Being, like Camus’ purpose, is not static. It is dynamic and changing in response to the awareness, reality and discernment of the person.

This pursuit, this Ground of Being on which we stand, is not merely a par of spiritual quest. It is at the heart of spirituality.

Clue number six:

Spiritual seems to be the only term to apply for the feelings of awe that many have when faced with the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, the power of the rushing Mississippi or Amazon Rivers, or the wonders of Alaska. It is also the feeling and emotion of reverence at the birth of a baby or at the memory of a loved one.

Spirituality seems also marked by the profound sense of gratitude which so many have when they recognize the many gifts they have received at the hands of the universe. It has nothing to do with recognizing a supernatural being, but the gratitude is for the gifts and in total disregard of the designation of the giver. The gifts are still the same, from wherever they come.

Clue number seven:

You tell me.

Clues Not Prescription

To be sure, these are clues, not descriptions of spirituality; not proofs of God; nor the certainty that leads to hubris. The fact is that even with all these clues, we still don’t know what we mean by the either of the words “Spiritual” or “God”. Many try to “sell” this spiritual practice or that, this book of certainty or that; this scripture over that; this doctrine or dogma or that. What it would better lead to is replacing hubris with humility, and acceptance in love in place of ostracism and separation.

The great Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, has proposed a new word, “Inter-being.” We Inter-are with all life. That is a truer spirituality; perhaps a truer god.