Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why I Love the Commercialism of Christmas!

 Why I Love the Commercialism of Christmas!
(No Jokes--No Hidden Meaning)
Thomas W. Shepherd, D.Min.

I really love it. Mall parking lots clogged with car headlights like a starry night sky in the country. Inane, convivial music wafting over hordes of harried, hopeful, hesitantly happy holiday hunters. Shop 'til you're top-heavy, arms full of packages, box-crammed plastic bags dangling from every finger.
Sure, it's an ordeal. Sure, I procrastinate every year. Sure, I spend in December, then spend January through October paying off the credit cards. Sure, I talk to myself like a pit bull puppy at obedience school: Bad boy, bad prosperity teacher—shame on you! But I don't care.

Do you hear that, world? I don't care!
I love this inane, over-rated, superficial, commercialized hollow-day like Jesus must have loved little children and the first sunshine on Easter morning. And I have three reasons.
1) Christmas provides an excuse to move closer to people. Lord knows, if you’ve read my writing, you must realize I love good questions and good ideas. But even the best ideas can only get you to the threshold of a happy life. You need not denigrate the intellect in order to say humanity shall not live by thoughts alone. Good relationships are more important than good ideas.
A few years ago, the actress Winona Ryder was sentenced to community service and a fine for shoplifting. Her problems didn't start there. Listen to what she says about her early life and the need for healthy relationships:
When I was 18, I was driving around at two in the morning, completely crying and alone and scared. I drove by this magazine stand that had this Rolling Stone that I was on the cover of, and it said, “Winona Ryder: The Luckiest Girl in the World.” And there I was feeling more alone than I ever had.[1]
          Christmas crowds people, badgers them, makes them open their sacks and offer tokens of love to people we spend too much time avoiding. Christmas makes us vulnerable, duty-bound to honor the possible...We could possibly be friends...we could possibly work together without in-fighting or envy...we could possibly get along, maybe even like each other. Oh, of course, our cynical patterns of error-belief try to tell us it won't happen. But for one brief shining moment, we allow ourselves to pretend it is all so...possible.

2) Christmas changes everybody's (or most people's) internal thermometer to warm-up setting. Some people say they see auras. Mine has been described as several colors by several different people; I don't know what that means. Either the seers are not seeing the same thing, or my spiritual energy has a chameleon setting. Whatever.
Christmas, however, transforms the psychological world of humanity like a wave of many colors, sweeping across the mindscape to warm the human psyche. Sure, it stresses people and drives some into the cold of despair...but the warm, soothing default for the season still plays in the background from every station in the inter-locking network of endless Christmas music: Do you hear what I hear? Joy to the world! Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas! I'll Be Home...if only in my dreams...

3) Christmas gives us an excuse to hope. All right—maybe the angels decorating the mall were made in Shanghai and most of the gifts won't survive to Valentine’s Day, so what? Do you remember that old truism, “It's the thought that counts...”? Well, as a Unity minister, I now realize the text should read: “It's the THINKING that counts!”
Fighting the crowds can be read as mingling with the holiday throngs, while those harried chores and endless items to cross off lists, can just as easily be read as joyful preparations and lots of fun stuff to do. (Stop muttering those naughty words. I'm just trying to work an affirmation here...) Even if it sounds idealistic—or maybe because of it—Christmas gives humanity an opportunity to pause and believe, if only for a little while, that peace on earth and goodwill are actually possible. For one brief shining moment, humanity recognizes that heaven and earth are coextensive.
So, if you haven't been to a crowded shopping space yet this year, or if you’re wondering how late the discount stores stays open Christmas Eve, or if you just want to go window-gazing again—let me suggest a radical departure: Bless the mall! See the shopping centers as holy ground. Go to the crowded places and say a silent prayer, that all these people may have someone to give and receive love, and the spirit of prosperity may spread across the human species, so the true gift of Christmas may be born in everyone's heart. If that doesn’t raise your prosperity consciousness, buy a nice gift and send it to yourself...

[1] Winona Ryder, quoted by Plugged In, Vol. 6, no. 4 (April 2001).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Lecture about Cross-Cultural Spirituality

Lecture based on my newst book from Unity House, The Many Faces of Prayer (2013)

Click here to download:
The Many Faces of Prayer - Lecture by Rev. Dr. Thomas Shepherd

Click here to
Order: Many Faces of Prayer
from Unity Books

Thursday, October 09, 2014

"Sooooo...Whatcha been doing for half a century?"

Some old friends.

(Uh, let's make that: Friends I've known a long while.)

Left to right: RevDrThomas Shepherd, Cheryl Thornburg, Mary Ellen Schultz, Beverly Reidinger.

Reading High Class of '64
50th Rerunion
October 2014

Comments at a Milestone: The gathering of aging baby-boomers.

Like salmon obeying the call to retrace the path which led us away, we returned to Reading, PA,  My graduating senior class from Reading High, which originally numbered almost 800, returned from the sea and found the home waters familiar, yet no matter how comfortable we were with each other, everything had changed.

I have been to one other reunion, the 20th, thirty years ago. (Three decades--how's that possible?!) So, I was eager to see what life had done with the raw material of youth we so brazenly threw into the marketplace of experience. Confession: With an adolescent need to look artificially impressive, I upgraded my rental car at Philly Airport to a bright red Chrysler New Yorker and drove happily onto the lot of the Inn at Reading. Of course, the parking was taken near the door, so I pulled into a distant slot and nobody ever noticed. But, what a grand car!

It was an evening of restrained merriment--we're Pennsylvanians, for God's sake, not a mob of New Orleaners cavorting at Mardi Gras. Yet, one of my favorite moments happened when a mixed dance floor packed with Germans, Italians, Poles, African Americans, and an assorted selection of ethnicities went a little wild, dancing and singing the words to "Play That Funky Music, Whiteboy!" Those lyrics would have been impossible at the Senior Prom in the Spring of '64.  I smiled and thought, "We've come a long way, Baby, and we're better people because of it."

People mingled throughout the evening, squinting at plastic-covered name tags which showed our Senior Photo as it appeared in the Arxalama, the school yearbook. I never bought a copy; my family was too poor to afford one. I joined the Army a few weeks later, and I've never looked back. The Reading School District was more-or-less integrated in the 50s and 60s when we got our public education. RHS was the lone public high school in a city of almost 100,000 souls, and unless you were Catholic with religious parents who could afford parochial school, all school roads lead to RHS. Roads, not buses.  There were no school buses in Reading, so some of us literally walked a few miles to and from school. We came from four Junior Highs, all converging on the "Castle on a Hill."

 As the evening rolled on, people dribbled out, obeying their aging bodies at last. Yet, even after the music ended, little knots of conversation lingered, as if to squeeze the last drop of completion, to find the nectar of meaning in half a century, even though, I suspect, most of us realized long ago that life is under no obligation to make sense. A still-youngish woman I knew as my age--one of those rare beauties of fifty years ago which lingered in memory and aged like good wine--made a remarkable comment in this lights-up, post-music, after party. She said--and I paraphrase--You can tell those who have kept themselves young at heart, by looking in their eyes.

As a Unity minister, I translated that observation: Thoughts held in mind produce after their kind. You get from life whatever you put in it. My classmates could not control forces beyond themselves--the dynamic changes in their world, the advance of age and the occasional battering by illness--but they could control the way the responded to it. And I saw lots of smiling retirees and people who were still working, bringing the zest for life with them after fifty years at sea.

Well done, Red Knights. See you at the 55th. (I just bought a yearbook online.)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Dark of God Surrounds Me...

Lesson from a Young Raccoon
Thomas W. Shepherd, D.Min.

[Note: An edited, longer version of this column appears in Jul-Aug 2015 issue of Unity Magazine.]
Why is light better than dark as a spiritual metaphor? The symbol of light as God-presence usually gets by without examination, yet, as I grow older, other parts of my day have begun to show the signature of God. Not just dawn, but sunset. Not merely light, but darkness. Ask yourself—what makes light a symbol of protection and dark a symbol of danger in so many parts of the world? The light-vs.-darkness metaphor travels cross-culturally among languages. From pale Scandinavians to the dark peoples who live nearer the equator, walking in the light brings contact with the divine presence while wandering in darkness often means separation.

Not always, though. Taoism offers its central symbol of the Yin-Yang, a ball equally divided between dark (yin) and light (yang), with a dot of the opposite quality inside each curved half. No superiority of light over dark here, just two complimentary expressions which summarize life. Other spiritual masters speak positively of dark. Jesus told his disciples to retreat into a (dark?) closet, find quiet space, and commune with God. Muhammad had his cave, presumably without lighting. Even Buddha lingered among the shadows of the Bodhi tree before reaching his insights about the Four Noble Truths. Arguably, silent communion and darkness go together naturally, or why would we close our eyes to pray and lower the house lights for meditation?

Speaking of meditation, I’m both appreciative and slightly amused during Sunday services when my fellow clergy invite the congregation to “…enter the Silence.” Marvelous goal, but likely unattainable in the brief interlude we give them. What people can accomplish in four or five minutes of quietude is to become still, but probably not enter the Silence. The Silence is a deep meditation experience in which the individual consciousness grasps the oneness and connectedness of all things. The Silence soars beyond words, and fifth century Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius perhaps came as close as human tongues can get us:

 As far as possible mount up with knowledge into union with the One who is above all being and knowledge; for by freeing thyself completely and unconditionally from thyself and from all things, thou shalt come to the superessential brightness of the divine darkness. [1] 
   I love the Dionysian language, superessential brightness of the divine darkness. A few years ago, reading that passage started me thinking about what all people have in common in regard to light and dark. As I pondered, an incident from the past floated to mind. In 1987 I was completing my last full year as an Army Chaplain. Carol-Jean and I had just returned from a three-year assignment in Europe, and we were living temporarily in Post Guest House facilities at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, until regular housing became available. 

Early one Saturday morning we took a walk around the periphery of the smallish Army base. As we strolled along Carol-Jean noticed a small furry head jutting from the chain-link fence. It was a young raccoon who had tried to squeeze through the fence but got himself stuck. He had been at it a while and seemed exhausted, but became agitated as we approach. Carol-Jean knelt down and spoke softly to him, and the little guy drifted off to sleep. Meanwhile, I flagged down a passing patrol car, which of course flipped on its flashing lights. When the officer came to the fence, the little raccoon panicked, so I gently shook the chain links. Fortunately, he was able to extricate his trapped head and stumbled under the nearby bushes, homeward bound after a long night. The story remains a Shepherd family classic, how CJ soothed the savage baby beast until mean ol’ Chaplain Tom shook him loose.                                            

We’ve laughed about this encounter for years. But I recently realized why it was so traumatic for the raccoon, even without the flashing lights and armed policeman. Raccoons are nocturnal. Yet, there he was, trapped in broad daylight, totally exposed and surrounded by danger. Humans, on the other hand, are diurnal, like the coyote, desert bighorn sheep, antelope, squirrel, and most eagles. We sleep in the dark and work in the day.

Darkness is dangerous to a diurnal animal. Humans quickly learned the night was full of creatures who might try to eat them—nocturnal hunters, like leopards, lions and tigers. Look at our cultural literature. European fairy tales show a recurrent theme: Don’t go into the dark woods alone, or the big bad wolf or wicked witch or something bad will eat you! 

What if humans had evolved from creatures from another sleep cycle? In my science fiction novel, The Princess and the Prophet, one of the secondary characters is an alien with a night-based cycle. Captain-Father Urlis Tarkamin is both commander and chief priest of a starship manned by Eldirex, a rabbit-like species. Following dinner with Captain Jeremiah Parker, his human guest, Tarkamin ends the session with a religious benediction.

After another round of pleasantries, the Captain-Father rose and offered a short prayer of thanks for the meal, the safety of the vessel, and the peace of the galaxy. His prayer ended with a personal benediction for Parker which illustrated the differing mythology of nocturnals: “May the blessings of Holy Darkness descend upon you with its gloom of protection.” [2]

Maybe it’s time to rehabilitate darkness as a spiritual metaphor for the Divine Presence. Perhaps James Dillet Freeman's Prayer for Protection could begin with a different invocation: "The dark of God surrounds me..."  Freeman's original text traditionally assures people of God's light, but breaks through the clutter of cultural habits with its ending note of eternal assurance: Wherever we are, God is.  The greatest tribute to God’s presence in light and dark must surely be Psalm 139:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
     Find a night place, my diurnal friend, and let yourself sink into loving embrace of the superessential brightness of the divine darkness.

[1] Thomas W. Shepherd, Friends in High Places, 3rd edition (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Books, 2006), 55.
[2] Shepherd, The Princess and the Prophet (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Books, 2003), 138.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dispatches from the Bottom of the Well

Background: On March 3, 2014, I slipped and fell hard just inside the building at Unity Institute, which resulted in painful injuries to my left hip, knee, and leg. Nothing broken, but massive swelling and severe bruising.  (Picture, left, shows my swollen knee about 5 hours after the injury; the bruising appeared the next few days and literally blackened my body from lower back to the tips of my toes.)

At this writing (May 29), the worst of the storm has passed, but I am waiting to see a specialist to work on lingering symptoms--from an accident three months ago. Immediately after sustaining the injuries, I spent at least a month in excruciating pain, so bad I could not sleep most nights. This phased into itching of the leg that defied all topical and systemic attempts to quell the fire. I don't tell you this to gather sympathy, but to set the stage for what happened to me spiritually during my months in the restless dark at the bottom of the well. Others have suffered far more than I.

The experience was both miserable and confirmational at the same time. I found myself struggling with multiple terrors. Fear of more pain, fear of sleepless nights without end, fear of spending my whole life in this condition without relief. Some of my fears were irrational. All of them were real.

Then one night, when I sank into the deepest part of the well, I remembered something important: You know that Unity stuff you're always talking and writing about? This would be a good time to practice what you teach. It was embarrassing. Did I really wait this long to go to affirmation prayer? What an idiot! And so I began affirming health in the middle of despair and pain, knowing the radiant spirit within me was not injured and never could be. I saw myself as God sees me--whole, healthy, free of pain. And I gave thanks to God, Whom I know as One Presence/One Power, for the happy cornerposts of my world that were holding up the sagging center.

Now, don't think this worked like magic. I had a lot of dark, painful, sleepless nights ahead. But since I started sending those dispatches to God from the bottom of the well, the gloom never again pulled me into despair. Life isn't a well, it's a roller-coaster ride. You can't get off until the end, and sometimes it will scare the hell out of you. But now I just open up and scream and let the terror become joy. Or, as Unity artist Jenny Hanh says, let the fear become curiosity.

Next time you're in a dark well, don't wait as long as I did to remember you're not down there forever, and you're never down there alone.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Undelivered Snow-Day Sermon

(View from DrTom's Porch during previous snow day.)

Unity of the Lakes  intended for

Sunday March 2, 2014   

Sermon:  I Can See Clearly Now: Your Gift of Daily Divination

The title of this sermonic essay is, “I can see clearly now:  Your Gift of Daily Divination.”  Although this work was influenced by the classic rock song (“I Can See Clearly Now” written and performed by Johnny Nash, released in 1972), its true inspiration came through a reading from Emmett Fox, one of the foremost New Thought Christian writers and ministers of the mid-20th century. This week, I was reading an excerpt from Power Through Constructive Thinking by Emmet Fox (see below). Listen to a few lines:
“…there exists a mystic power that is able to transform your life… This mystic but intensely real force can pick you up today, now, from the midst of failure, ruin, misery, despair – and in the twinkling of an eye…solve your problems, smooth out your difficulties, cut you free from any entanglements, and place you clear, safe, and happy upon the highroad of freedom and opportunity… This Power is to be found within your own consciousness, the last place that most people would look for it.”
Note what Fox does NOT say: He does not say you will henceforth and forever avoid failure, ruin, misery, despair and problems…” Rather, when those impostors come your way, the “mystic power” of God can instantly “pick you up” and as Fox says: “…place you clear, safe, and happy upon the highroad of freedom and opportunity...”
Here’s an opportunity for an affirmation: I can see clearly now…I see the world with such faith that I recognize problems are the leading edge of opportunities.
When I was an Army chaplain serving in Colorado, I once had a very beautiful young female soldier come to my office with tears in her eyes. She and her soldier-husband were being evicted from their apartment. I told her the power of God can accomplish any task.
 She said, rather sharply, “Can it pay the rent?”
She was expecting my positive thinking to be silenced by that complaint in question form.        
But, like a good Unity person, I said, “Yes.”
“Immediately?” she insisted. “Today?”
“If that’s what you need, yes,” I replied.
She scoffed…quietly. After all, she was a junior enlisted member and I was a captain. But I insisted it was true.
She turned to leave my office and her husband met her at the door with news of a new apartment he had just found. I was affordable, and they could move into right away. Today.
I didn’t say a word. When you work with Unity principles, you can get a little smug sometimes if you’re not careful. Fox wrote:
This Power is to be found within your own consciousness, the last place that most people would look for it.
In 1980, astronomer Carl Sagan used his PBS-TV mini-Series Cosmos to teach the Western world about cosmic evolution. We learned that the metals and heavier elements in our bodies were formed in the supernovas of long-gone stars, “billions and billions” of years ago. “You are star stuff,” Carl Sagan said. He taught people all over the world to see themselves from a new vantage point, standing on the shore of the cosmic ocean where our chemistries were born.
 As it is true about our bodies in the physical Universe, so is it true of our essential nature. You are not just star-stuff…You are made of God-stuff.  Because you exist, and there is only One Presence and One Power…God, the Good, omnipotent. God is in all and through all. That means your consciousness is God-consciousness. Previously, I have spoken about “substance”, which is the God-energy behind everything which outpictures in the Cosmos. When we understand the fundamentals of Christian metaphysics, nothing can faze us. Nothing can disturb us.
I love the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila, which we’ve used so often it has almost become an “official” prayer for me:
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing affright you.
All things pass.
God is unchanging.
Patience obtains all.
Whoever has God needs nothing else.
God alone suffices.
We strive for this kind of deep, abiding faith. To know God is all we need because God is All. It is absolutely essential that every Unity person understand this concept:
“There is only One Presence and One Power in my life and in the Universe, God the Good, Omnipotent!” 
How shall we illustrate this One Presence/One Power? Let’s try it this way. When I turn on a lamp, I am converting energy to light. The light from this lamp is powered by the electricity flowing through an extension cord, which is hooked up to an outlet, which draws power from the electric grid. Now, imagine with me, let’s get a little sci-fi here. Suppose this orange cable did more than just power the lamp. Suppose it was a Star Trek holographic cable, and it generated the lamp and the light.
There already are holographic images; it’s not impossible. Just go along with me for a second…I’m getting to something. Suppose, then, like a Star Trek holographic cable, it generates both the lamp and the light. The energy of the power plant causes not just the light to be, it causes the lamp itself to be, if this were a holographic lamp. Got it?
Now, think about the energy of God…Divine energy… Divine Power…. Unity says, God-power is the only power which exists. So why do we see so many different things, all seeming to have power themselves?
You got it.
The Cosmos is God’s holodeck. Everything and everybody exists and has power to think and act because God empowers them to exist, think, and act. You are a projection of God power, localized, expressing as the person you are today. You were different in the past…you were a baby, a toddler, a teen-ager…a young adult… You will be different in the future…older and hopefully wiser… But you will always be you, because you are that same Divine energy continuing through the years, making choices, learning and growing as you allow more and more of the Divine Power to manifest itself in your mind, body and affairs.
You say:  What does this have to do with my life? Remember the question that female soldier asked, “Will it pay the rent?” and my answer, “If that’s what you need, yes,” ? Why was I so absolutely confident the Unity principles would “pay the rent” when properly applied? Because I knew the secret:  There is no limit to the Divine Power. And do you know what’s other secret most people don’t know? No matter what happens, good can come from it—so your faith can NEVER fail you, unless you fail to have faith. If she and her husband had been evicted, something good could have come from that bad experience, too.
The only limit to God’s ability to outpicture good in our lives is our limited ability to visualize it, believe it, accept it, feel worthy of it, and allow it to appear. As Emmet Fox has said, the Power of God-within “can teach you all things that you need to know, if only you are receptive and teachable…”
Daily Divination?  “Divination” means to see the truth. To “divine” the truth. Most of us remember old movies, usually comedies, where they showed somebody walking around looking for water with a forked stick which they called a “divining rod”.  One of our main tasks is to “divine” the sources of good in our lives.  It all becomes so clear, once we understand the basic principle of “One Presence / One Power, God the good”.
Everything is a potential source of good! Every circumstance can yield great bounties for everyone concerned. Does that mean everything which happens is a good experience? Of course not! We suffer sometimes. We lose friends, relatives, loved ones, to the arms of death. We fail in business, make mistakes, say foolish things, crash into walls or wade through thorn bushes because we’re off the path. But the Unity Way of life knows this great secret: No matter what happens…God-power within us can convert this apparent evil into a good.
When tragedy strikes, we start anew. We face new opportunities. We build again. We love again. We expand our minds to expect greater good, and it comes. It surely comes. It cannot be prevented from arriving unless we refuse delivery! “I can see clearly now…”
 When we realize the True nature of all things, we’ll see clearly. All obstacles in our way will stop being “obstacles” and become benches to rest upon, guideposts to mark the path, or refreshing stopovers along the journey.  “Patience obtains all. Whoever has God needs nothing else. God alone suffices.”
You are God-stuff… With God-stuff, there’s NOTHING you can’t handle. Problems are the leading edge of opportunities. No problem can defeat you. Bring it on, Universe. The next time a great, big problem presents itself, if you’re following the Unity principles, you’ll see that big, hairy problem coming your way, and you’ll rock back on your heels and look it in the eye and say, “Where you been?”
Excerpt from: Power Through Constructive Thinking by Emmet Fox
 Strange as it may seem to you, there exists a mystic power that is able to transform your life so thoroughly, so radically, so completely, that when the process is completed your own friends would hardly recognize you, and, in fact, you would scarcely be able to recognize yourself... This mystic but intensely real force can pick you up today, now, from the midst of failure, ruin, misery, despair – and in the twinkling of an eye…solve your problems, smooth out your difficulties, cut you free from any entanglements, and place you clear, safe, and happy upon the highroad of freedom and opportunity.
It can lift you out of an invalid’s bed, make you sound and well once more, and free to go out into the world to shape your life as you will. It can throw open the prison door and liberate the captive. It has a magical healing balm for the bruised or broken heart. This mystic Power can teach you all things that you need to know, if only you are receptive and teachable….It can furnish you with the prosperity that means freedom…
But where, it will naturally be asked, is this wonderful, mystic Power to be contacted? …The answer is perfectly simple. This Power is to be found within your own consciousness, the last place that most people would look for it. Right within your own mentality there lies a source of energy stronger than electricity, more potent than high explosive, unlimited and inexhaustible.


Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Snowy Memories


Promise Keeper:  I promised; she's a keeper.  

Back in the early 1980s, I told Carol-Jean if she married me, I'd take her to the great cities of the world. She said yes, and I have delivered on the promise. Of course, I neglected to specify what season we would stroll the capitals of Europe. Two of them, Paris and London, we managed to hit in the middle of an record snowstorm and winter cold. (We trudged beneath the snow-swept Eiffel Tower, but picture above was downloaded from internet, and is not CJ.)

And there was a rather hot springtime in Athens, and an unseasonably wet summer in New Orleans.
But I have come to believe weather days number the pages of our lives for easier reference when the memory banks are full of a lifetime's occurrences. Kansas City is marking a February page in white cold lettering as I type this blog. The roads are doing an impressive impersonation of the Olympic ski slopes at Souchi. And there's not much to crow about beyond this winter wonderland. My Broncos got trounced last weekend in the Superbowl. The politicians are gearing up for a presidential election although Barack Obama has three years to go on his four-year term. I'm dieting. My car needs repairs--it's overnighting at Midas. There's no wine in the house. And my UMag column is due.

So, this is the time I escape from it all and remember the promise I made to Carol-Jean that night so many years ago. Hey, honey. We're living in Kansas City, one of the great towns in America. She grumbles about the snow-blower not working, and I know it's score one for us promise-keepers. Maybe summer will be unseasonably hot...