If you are here to explore working with a Spiritual Director, you may well be in the right place. Explore the site, listen to how you feel while reading what's written here, and if you'd like to be in touch, the Let's Get Started page will put us together.

The spirit of my practice can be summed up in these words (adapted from Robert Mabry Doss): For those who come here seeking God ... may God go with you. For those who come embracing life ... may life return your affection. And for those who come to seek a path ... may a way be found, and the courage to take it step by step.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived

I’ve been writing in the past few posts about images of God that don’t work for a lot of people, ways of understanding this thing some call “God” which turn people off, send them away, lead them to say, “I don’t believe in God.”  As I said at the beginning of this series, the woman who trained me as a chaplain all those years ago taught me a great response:  “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.  I probably don’t believe in that God either.”

When I was studying philosophy I learned a definition of God that I’ve always liked:   “that than which no greater can be conceived.”  This goes back to Anselm of Canbterbury in the 1700s, and is an example of an ontological way of thinking about God.  In his book Discourse on the Existence of God he argued that God exists as an idea in people’s minds.  Yet one aspect of this ‘God’ is that God is Supreme, the Greatest, the Ultimate.  Anselm put it like this:  “God is that than which no greater can exist.”

So, we start by acknowleding that there is an idea of God, yet a “God” that actually exists would be greater than one which only exists in the mind.  This means, according to this argument, that God must exist, because, by definition, there can be nothing greater than God, and a God that exists is greater than a God that is only imagined.

Whether this line of thinking proves to you that “God exists,” I want to use it to try to show those who say they don’t believe in God that if God exists, the God they don’t believe probably isn’t God anyway.

Let’s say that you think God is the God of only a certain people or a certain place.  Well, a God who is God to all people and in all places would be greater, so this more expansive vision has to be true because “God is that than which no greater can be conceived.”  Right?  How about if you think that God is focused exclusively on our faults and failures, and has plans for our eternal punishment?  I’d say that a God who loves us for our strengths and our weaknesses both, and who takes pleasure in our successes more than our failures is a greater God.  Anselm’s ontological argument would say that my God — the loving God — must be the real God because it is greater than your angry and punishing one.

This works even in a counter-intuitive way about the issue of omnipotence.  You might think that the expansive, God-can-do-anything, understanding of omnipotence would be greater than my philosophy professor’s seemingly more limited one, God-can-do-anything-that-can-be-done. You’d be wrong.  Because the omni-omnipotent God, if you will, is capable of ending suffering, yet doesn’t.  And even if you say that God permits — or even causes! — suffering so as to teach us and help us to grow, that’s a pretty mean God who created things in such a way that that’s the only means of teaching us.  The more limited God, then, who can only grieve at the deaths of the innocent, comfort the survivors, and try to inspire people to help turns out to actually be greater than the God who could have prevented the disaster in the first place but for some inscrutable reason did not.

Do you see how this works?

You can try it!  If you’ve turned your back on the very idea of “God,” I’d encourage you to do this little exercise.  Write down the description of this God you don’t believe in.  Then try to imagine a God that is better than that — more loving, more inspiring, more inclusive, more healing, more inviting, more ...  Many people who’ve done this have told me that they couldn’t get past the conviction that “the God they don’t believe” in is what people mean when they talk about God.  What good is it, then, to imagine something that isn’t real?

This could bring us back to Anselm’s original argument, couldn’t it?  If you can imagine a God that is truly greater, is “more” than the God you were taught about and which you’ve now rejected, if you can get an idea of such a God in your mind, then such a God actually existing would be even greater still.  So if God is “that than which no greater can be conceived,” then your idea come to life, as it were, must be God.  Simply, that God you’ve imagened must be.

In a spirit of curiosity and exploration ... give it a try.  In my next post I’ll try to explain why I’ve been spending so much time writing about God in the first place.

Pax tecum,


Friday, January 26, 2018

Buff Santa in a Toga

A section of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" in the Sistine Chapel 

I was leading a discussion with a group of senior high youth, exploring the various ways they thought about God.  Or, rather, most of our time was spent looking at the ways they thought other people thought they should think about God.  In other words, we were having a conversation about the kinds of ideas they'd heard other people use to describe "God," and, as you might imagine, much of it revolved around "God's" they didn't believe in.

One of them cracked us all up -- and stopped the conversation for a while -- by announcing that they'd always believed that people thought of God as "a buff Santa in a toga."  For all it's shock value, I think it's actually a really good depiction of one of the ways lots of people think about "God."

For one thing, the conscious or unconscious image many people have of "God" is that of an old man much as Michelangelo depicted him -- white, somewhat long and wild hair and beard; male; white skinned; strong features; etc.  This image of God has an ancient feel, as a figure for a long time ago, a time long passed.  And while you or I might see the garment he's wearing as a robe, this young person thought of it as a toga.  So there's the "in a toga" part.

The reason she or he (I honestly can't remember which after all these years) described this "God" as "buff" is that he (of course) is generally depicted as muscular, which, of course, is a traditional way of understanding, and personifying, power and might.  This is, after all, "the Almighty."  One of the traditional attributes given to this "God" is omnipotence.  This "God" can do anything; there's nothing that he cannot do.  (Of course, one of the great challenges to this idea is captured in the question, "Can God create a rock so big that he can't lift it?"  One way or another, lovers of this paradox point out, God's power is supposedly proven to be limited.)  To embody this attribute, this person all those years ago memorably described "God" as, "buff."

That brings us to "Santa."  Right off the bat there's the whole white hair and beard thing. Admittedly, Michelangelo's God doesn't look all that much like Edmund Gwenn, (my personal choice for quintessential Santa), but if you were to put a red suit onto him and relax his stern face a little, he'd sure be able to get work in your local mall.

The real reason this person said he'd thought of "God" as "Santa," though, is God's reputation for bestowing gifts.  This might be the inverse of the "God" whole doles out nothing but punishment.  This "God" is the source of All Good Things, and will hear the cries and supplications of the faithful, rewarding them by answering their prayers.  After all, aren't "all things possible with God"?  Doesn't God perform miracles?  Jesus is remembered in the Gospel of Matthew as saying, "Ask and it shall be given."  (Much like, this young person reasoned, like writing a letter to Santa Claus.)

If the Westboro Baptist Church is the epitome of the God-as-Cop metaphor, as I wrote about on Wednesday, then something called the "Prosperity Gospel" could be seen as the ultimate expression of this boon-granting "God."  The prosperity gospel teaches that your financial and physical health are an indication of your relationship with God.  If you are faithful, keep a positive attitude, pray rightly, and, last here but not least, donate generously to religious causes, God will bless you with literal, material abundance.  (If you don't, of course, he won't.)  The Wikipedia article on the prosperity gospel puts it like this:  "Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity."

While this may seem a more benevolent depiction of "God" than the one that condemns, it is no less problematic, and has caused as many people to give up on the idea of "God" entirely, because this is not a "God" they can believe in.

In his controversial (and wonderful) book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Episcopal Bishop John Spong explains why he came to reject this notion of God.  His wife had received a cancer diagnosis with a very negative prognosis -- she was not expected to live.  He wrote, 

"Because we were a well-known and publicly identified family in New Jersey, this news became public knowledge almost immediately.  The religious resources of our people and our friends were quickly mobilized.  Prayer groups throughout the diocese and even in ecumenical settings added my wife to their list of special intentions."
Seemingly miraculously, his wife's cancer went into remission, and to the shock and disbelief of her doctors she lived for another six and a half years.  And as the word of her near impossible improvement, he writes, "the people who were most concerned and whose prayers were the most intense began to take credit for her longevity,  'Our prayers are working,' they claimed.'"

You might imagine that someone, especially someone who could unquestionably be called, "religious," especially someone as "religious" as a Bishop in the Episcopal Church would have agreed with this interpretation.  After all, "God" is a "buff Santa in a toga."  All things are possible with "God;" nothing is impossible for the omnipotent and Almighty One.  Yet Bishop Spong didn't react this way.

"Despite my gratitude for the embracing love that these people demonstrated, both for me and for my wife, I could not help but be troubled at their explanations.  Suppose, I queried to myself alone, that a sanitation worker in Newark, New Jersey, probably the city with the lowest per capita income in the United States, has a wife who received the same diagnosis.  Because he is a not a high-profile person, well connected to a large network of people, socially prominent, or covered by the press, the sickness of his wife never comes to public attention.  Suppose he is not a religious oriented person and thus prayer groups and individual petitions in hundreds of churches are not offered on his wife's behalf.  Would that affect the course of her sickness?  Would she live less time from diagnosis to death, endure more obvious pain, or face a more difficult dying?  if so, would that not attribute to God not only a capricious nature, but also a value system shaped by human importance and the worldly standards of social elitism?"
Capricious.  That's really the only word to describe this "Buff Santa in a Toga" God.  Well, capricious and cruel.  Because a God who can do anything, who does do anything if one lives a certain kind of live and prayers in a certain kind of way, yet at the same time allows 3.1 million children to die of hunger each year?  It is estimated that roughly 1 person dies from hunger every 10 seconds.  What else can you call a "God" who could do something to prevent that, yet doesn't?  Cruel certainly comes to mind.

And when the cruelty of this understanding of "God" becomes unavoidably clear, people of good conscience can do nothing but reject the "God" being described.  When I was doing my chaplaincy training at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, I engaged with a family whose daughter was dying.  They were angry.  They were furious at God.  Years before this same daughter had been sick with lupus, yet after lots of prayers -- like those for Joan Spong -- their daughter had a full recovery.  The doctors were flabbergasted that there was absolutely no sign that she'd ever been sick.  In gratitude, this family began a radio prayer ministry, and they had many, many stories of people who had experienced miraculous recoveries which they all attributed to the power of prayer.  The put everything they had into this ministry -- all of their resources of time, energy, and money.  Yet here they were, after having done all that, and their daughter was sick again, dying, and this time God seemed to be doing nothing about it.  What kind of God was that?  And in their anger, they turned their backs on the "God" they had so recently revered.

I was lucky enough to study philosophy in college with a man named Richard Creel.  He posited a different way of interpreting the concept of God's "omnipotence."  His thought that, rather than denoting the ability to do anything, the word "omnipotence" really described the ability to "do anything that can be done."  We live in a universe governed by laws (which, some would argue, God himself ordained).  There are some things that simply cannot happen in this universe.  Humans, for instance, simply cannot breathe underwater, or fly through the air, unaided.  Those are things that just can't be done, so our inability to do them doesn't show any lack on our part.  Similarly, Dick argued, God's omnipotence exists within the confines of the laws that guide the universe.

Even if you are someone who believes that God created not only the universe itself but also those laws which govern it and who, then, could certainly bend or break them at will or whim, I would think you'd also think that God had had a reason for establishing those particular rules.  If so, then, why would God create rules that "he" knew he would at some point have to circumvent?

There are those who have answered this critique by saying that God created these Laws, knowing that he was going to circumvent them, in order to provide for us humans the experience of "miracles."  It's also been said that "none can understand the ways of God," which is pretty convenient when a logical inconsistency is uncovered.  The Unitarian side of the Unitarian Universalist tradition used to argue that if God gave us brains he probably intended for us to use them!

So let's return to Prof. Creel's assertion that the best way to interpret "omnipotence" is not "the power to do anything," but, rather, "the power to do anything that can be done."  The Universalist side of UU ancestry often summed up their theology in three words:  "God is love."  Putting these two things together you get the description of God having the power to do what love can do.

This post has already gotten too long.  (Thanks to those who’ve stuck with it!)  I want to leave with this last thing.  At a great many weddings people use the words from the Christian scripture of 1 Corinthians (specifically, chapter 13, verses 4-8) to describe what love is really all about.  If “God is love,” then these words should be equally apropos if you wrote it like this:

God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud. God does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  
God never fails. 

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Cosmic Cop

Michelangelo painting "Last Judgement" in the Sistine Chapel 
Without doubt one of the most pervasive images of "God" in the popular imagination is, essentially, a kind of Cosmic Cop.  This depiction has God always on the look-out for some kind of infraction, some breaking of some sacred law.  And like some cynical detective on TV, this Cosmic Cop has seen the worst of humanity so often that he now expects it.  (And these fictional cops -- like this fictional "God" -- is almost universally imagined as a "he.")  You are, in this cop's eyes, guilty until proven innocent (beyond a reasonable doubt).

In fact, while often unsaid, this image of "God" is also sort of like a vigilante.  Vigilantes are those who "take the law into their own hands," and since "God" is often seen as the creator of these laws as well as their defender, this might not seem like a fit.  And yet, the other aspect of the classic character of the vigilante is that they act as, "judge, jury, and executioner," and that is certainly part of this image of "God."  Not only does this characterization of "God" police our every action, but judges -- often harshly -- every violation, and then condemns the accused to, in most cases it seems, eternal punishment.

There is perhaps no more famous example of this way of thinking that the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which was preached by the colonial preacher the Rev. Jonathan Edwards on July 8, 1741.  It contains this rather memorable passage:
"The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider of some loathsome insect of the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.  His wrath toward you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.  He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours."
Actually, there is a modern example of such an understanding of "God" taken to an extreme in our own day.  Some will certainly say that it would be to choose just one, but I think that the Westboro Baptist Church, under the leadership of Fred Phelps, is arguably the most hateful.  These are the folks who show up at funerals to "share their message" of "God's"  utter revulsion at, among other things, "LGBT people, CatholicsOrthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, U.S. soldiers and politicians," to quote from the Wikipedia article about them.  In fact, this "church" believes that "God" hates pretty much everybody.  They wrote and recorded a parody of the rather remarkable so-called "charity song" produced in 1985 by more than 45 of the top musicians in the United States at the time, "We Are the World.".  The Wetboro Baptists Church's version is called, "God Hates The World," and you should only follow that link if you have a strong stomach and want to see how truly pervert a view of "God" some people have.

If this is "the God you don't believe in," then I couldn't agree more.  Yet this is not the only way that "God" has been conceived.  The Universalists, whose tradition forms one half of the lineage of today's Unitarian Universalism (the faith tradition I serve) did not believe in this "God," either.  Their name actually comes from the central teaching in their theology -- that salvation is universal.  Not only doesn't God sit in eternal condemnation of humanity, but God's relationship with creation is like that of a loving parent and their child.  God as "father" (or "mother") is one of the most common ways of talking about God, and if this truly is what God is like, then you have to ask what parent would ever condemn their child to eternal punishment no matter what they did.  All you have to do to convince yourself that we are not born "in sin," predestined to suffer in hell, is to look into the eyes of a baby. 

One might argue that Universalism was branded a heresy, and outside a proper understanding of Christianity.  (I could argue the reverse -- that the kind of "Christianity" we're talking about here is the true heresy, and that Universalist Christianity is the proper understanding, but I digress ...)  Yet even if I were to agree that Universalism is a fringe (which, again, I don't), there are many, many examples of a more Universalist understanding of "God" within mainstream Christian traditions.  In fact, it's been said that one of the reasons the Universalist Church of America  dwindled the way it did was that it essentially won the debate.  Some form of Universalist theology is being preached in a great many mainstream Christian congregations today, so you no longer had to leave your Methodist or Presbyterian church to hear the message of God's love (as opposed to God's wrath).
As an example, look at Matthew Fox.  Fox was a Catholic priest who was silenced by the Vatican and eventually moved to the Episcopal Church, developing what he called "Creation Spirituality."  One of his books is titled, Original Blessing, and contrasts this concept with the idea of the centrality of "original sin" which forms the foundation of the kind of theology we've been talking about here.  "And God saw that it was good," is recorded in the Hebrew Scripture of Genesis as God's first judgement of creation.

In one of his books on contemplative prayer, Fr. Thomas Keating gives what is by far my favorite expression of the antithesis position on God from the idea that God is some kind of Cosmic Cop (and judge, jury, and execution) It is a story that Cardinal Basil Hume, used to tell on himself:
When he was a child, his mother would take his brothers and him into the pantry where there was a cookie jar. She would tell them that God was always watching, and would know if they ever took a cookie out of that jar between meals.  And, so, young Basil grew up thinking of God as some kind of Cosmic Cop, always on the lookout for even the smallest infringement of the rules.  Even so – or, perhaps, because of this – he went on to become a priest.
But he remembers the day when in prayer he received what he considered a tremendous grace.  He suddenly realized that if God had been watching him take one of those cookies, God would have said, “My dear boy. Why don’t you take another?"
"My dear boy, why don't you take another?"  That is a God I can believe in.

Pax tecum,


Monday, January 22, 2018

Tell Me About This God You Don't Believe In ...

As part of my preparation to become an ordained minister I took a unit of C.P.E. -- clinical pastoral education.  Simply put, for a year I became a part-time hospital chaplain.  I learned a lot!  Perhaps especially because I am a Unitarian Universalist, the need to be able to be of service to people with a wide variety of religious and spiritual beliefs was excellent training.  For those not familiar with the religious tradition I serve, Unitarian Universalism does not demand that people assent to a particular creed.  Instead of asking "What do you believe?" as our foundational question, we ask, "What kind of world do you want to see?"  We think that if we agree on the vision of the world we would like to create together -- if we can agree what justice looks like, for instance, or how inclusive community should strive to be -- then we can recognize each other as religious/spiritual kin.  The question of belief only comes up secondarily -- I believe that we should live in this kind of a world because I believe Jesus Christ shows us the way.  I believe that we should live in this kind of a world because I believe that all things have Buddha-nature.  I believe that we should live in this kind of a world because there's nothing but us and we need to take care of one another. 

In a Unitarian Universalist congregation you can find Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Wiccans, Transcendentalists, Spiritual-But-Not-Religious folk, and atheists sitting next to one another as one community.  This same diversity exists for hospital chaplains.  You can walk into one room and find a Seventh Day Adventist, and then walk into another room to talk with a Buddhist.  One challenge I found, and others have encountered as well, was walking into a room and being greeted by, "Thanks for coming, Pastor, but you don't need to spend your time with me.  I don't believe in God."

My supervisor taught me a response that I have used many, many times in my career.  (I have since seen it pop up in other places, so I'm not sure of its ultimate origin, but I'll always be thankful to my C.P.E. supervisor for it.)  When someone would say to her, "You don't need to bother with me.  I don't believe in God," she would respond, "Why don't we talk about this God you don't believe in.  I probably don't believe in that God, either."

To some people, the only thing that qualifies as "pizza" is the kind you can get by the slice in New York City.  For others, "pizza" means deep-dish, Chicago style.  When I was in Japan I ate "pizza" with a crust so thin that it was like a cracker.  And these very different foods are each called "pizza," and each is considered by some the only way that word should be used.  "It's not pizza if you can't fold it in half."

This is true of the way people use the word "God," too.  Some people believe that you can only use the word to refer to a male, interventionist deity who judges all of our actions within very narrow proscriptions.  Others, when they say "God," are thinking about an all-loving Mother.  Some people understand "God" to be singular, others a trinity, and still others a multiplicity.  And some find the word to be utterly meaningless, like "purple tap dancing unicorn with dentures," or "flying spaghetti monster."  And, as with pizza, there are people who think that their understanding of the word is the only understanding of the word.

The dominant culture in the West seems to reinforce the idea that "God" is a triune being, who actively intercedes in people's lives and who ultimately stands in judgement of us all.  (That judgement being, more often than not, condemnation.)  And since that seems to be the predominate understanding of the word "God" in our culture, people who don't find that understanding to be true often end up believing that that have to reject the idea of "God" altogether.  In other words, there are a great many people who "don't believe in God" because they reject a particular understanding of "God."  And, so, the invitation:  Tell me about this God you don't believe in.  I probably don't believe in that God either.

In future posts I'll explore some of the ways people understand and experience what they call "God."  For now, I'll encourage you to think about the God(s) you "don't believe in," and to try to define more clearly -- and personally -- the "God" that you do believe in.

Pax tecum,


Friday, January 19, 2018

Talking To Yourself, Part 2

On Wednesday I suggested an exercise in which you imagine an encounter with your younger self, asking how that version of you thinks that this version of you has done with their life.  It is, in essence, an exercise intended to help you to look at the choices you've made along the way, the ways you've stayed true to your earliest visions and ideals (and not done so), the evolution of your visions and ideals ...  In other words, it's a way of looking at where you are now through the lens of how you've gotten here.

Today I'm offering another version of this exercise, although it calls on your imagination to work in the other direction.  Today I'll encourage you to imagine your future self.  Again, as with the previous exercise, try to make your imagining as fully realized as possible; try to picture yourself in the future with your thinking alone.  Image seeing both how you look but also where you are, both in as much detail as possible.  What can you hear?  What fragrances surround you?  How do your clothes feel against your body?  How is it with your spirit?

Once you have a pretty clear picture of your imagined future self, engage in a conversation with them as you did with your younger self.  This time, though, ask them more about them:  How are they feeling?  What are they doing?  What do they think about the stage of life you're in now?  What lessons have they learned on the way from where you are to where they are?

It ultimately doesn't matter if this dialog is "real" or not.  Like a dream, this imagined conversation can offer you material to dance with, open your thinking to the surprising and unanticipated.  On Wednesday I encourage you to try not to over-think the exercise, and that's true again today.  Try to avoid imposing what you think your future self should be telling you, and what lessons you think you should have learned.  Try, even, to avoid insisting that your imagination create the vision of your future self that you hope you'll become.  As much as possible, try to remain open and receptive to whatever your imagination creates ... just as you do in dreams.

If talking with your "younger self" could provide insights into how you've gotten to where you are, talking with your "older self" can help you to see more clearly where the trajectory you are currently on might lead you.  What future is your present preparing you for?

My ancestors, on one side of my family, were Vikings.  I have read that the ancient Nordic understanding of time was not tripartite as is ours -- past, present, and future.  Instead, as I understand it, they understood time as a two-fold reality:  That Which Has Been (everything from the beginning of time until this moment), and That Which Will Be (everything from this moment until the end of time).  From this perspective, where you are in your life right now, in this very moment, is the coming together of who you've been and who you're becoming.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Talking To Yourself

Today I want to offer an exercise.  You can do it once, or several times.  You can do it in your head, out loud, or in a journal.  The only thing you need, really, is the right attitude -- be playful.  If you over-think it, it won't work.  If it does work for you, though, it this can be really illuminating.

Think back to a time when you thought you had a pretty good idea of how you wanted your life to be.  Maybe you were 16 when you had it all figured out; maybe you were 12.  Maybe, for you, it was even a little younger than that, or a little older.  It is certainly possible that at different ages you had it all "figured out" in different ways.  So here's your first chance to avoid over-thinking.  Don't try to come up with the "right" age, the "perfect" age.  Just think back to a time when you thought you had a pretty good idea of how you wanted your life to be.

When you have an age in mind, create a scene for this younger you.  What were your favorite things to wear?  What kind of music would you have been listening to?  Would your room have smelled like incense (or something else)?  Or do you see yourself somewhere else?  Try to imagine yourself, at the age you've chosen, in a setting that makes sense to you, and try to give all of your senses something to play with.

Then imagine you, as you are now, entering the scene.  Introduce yourself to your younger you.  Make whatever small talk comes to you, and then ask the question:  so ... how do you think I've done with your life?

Remember ... don't over-think this.  If a feeling comes up, listen to it.  If words -- whether they surprise you or not -- go with them.  Don't question your younger you's responses, just pay attention to them.  Ask questions, but don't challenge or defend.

It's good to make some kind of record.  Write the "conversation" down in a journal, if that works for you.  Record yourself narrating the encounter, if that's easier.  And -- once more -- don't over-think this.  Be playful.  Be curious.  If you like, think of this as a kind of lucid dream, and see what you might learn from it.

Pax tecum,


Monday, January 15, 2018

If Only ...

My wife and I were each born, and grew up, in New York State.  I went to college in Ithaca -- for the first two years, at least -- where lake effect snow from Lake Cayuga means it snows during the winter!  For a time my wife and I lived outside of Boston, and for my first settled ministry we moved to Yarmouth, Maine (north of Portland and south of L. L. Bean).  We lived there for a little more than a decade, and that's where our kids came into the picture.

Speaking of pictures, somewhere I have a picture of our boys as toddlers, making their way through the paths we'd shoveled from the front and back door to the road.  The walls of the paths were taller than the kids!  And there's a picture I took to show a friend in Texas that Maine winters weren't all that bad -- I'm wearing snowshoes, standing on the two or three feet of snow in the front lawn, shoveling snow off the roof!

All this to say ... my family and I like snow.  Love it, actually.  And now we live in Charlottesville, Virginia where they close the schools because of a "prediction of precipitation later in the day that might cause icy conditions."  There might be icy conditions on the roads later in the day, so the closed school entirely.  I do understand that even slightly icy conditions can be treacherous, especially if you're not used to driving with ice on the road, and you live on one of the way-back-there country roads.  I get that, and I'm glad the schools put the kids' safety first.  Still, it's hard not to make fun of school being canceled for a Prediction-of-Precipitation-Later-in-the-Day day.

Even when it does snow here, very often the temperatures shoot right back up within a day or two and everything melts.  In Maine, the first flakes to fall at the end of October could still be on the ground, under a mountain of their followers, at the time Mud Season begins in what others call the Spring.  Here?  You can be back out in a tee shirt and shorts by the end of the week.

It does get cold, though.  Not Ithaca, Boston, or Yarmouth cold, but cold enough.  And when it does, invariably someone in the family will say something to the effect of, "I don't mind the cold ... as long as there's snow on the ground.  Without the snow, what's the point of so much cold?"

In other words ... if only there was snow, the cold would be okay.  Most of us probably know that feeling -- if only.  If only finals were over.  If only I could get that promotion.  If only my wife didn't have to work so hard.  If only my dad wasn't sick.  If only ... if only ... if only.  It is so easy for us to fall into "if only" thinking, so easy that we don't even always know when we're doing it.

The problem with "if only" is that it pulls us out of our lives as they are.  Because the truth is, no matter how much I prefer my cold days to have snow in them, the cold day I'm alive in today doesn't.  But when I focus too much of my energy into "if only there were snow," I miss the possibilities in the day as it is.  I miss this day, because I'm pining away for that day, even thought that day doesn't exist.

Around a decade ago I wrote a sermon exploring all of this, using as my jumping off point a couple of lines from a Willie Nelson song.  (I wrote a brief synopsis on my blog A Ministers' Musings.)
Here I sit with a drink and a memory. / I'm not wet, I'm not cold, and I'm not hungry. /  Classify these as good times.  Good times.
I know that I can layer my life with so many expectations and desires, so many if onlys, that I forget to be satisfied with what I do have.  Maybe you do, too.  If only we didn't ...

Pax tecum,