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Emerson’s Self-Reliance and Coffee

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Socrates said “Know thyself,” and after reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance, we could paraphrase Emerson’s main point as “Trust thyself.”

What if we trusted ourselves- our inner most thoughts, our actions, our perceptions, our wills? What if we were to strive for a more meaningful independent life and not settle for the sullen mediocrity encouraged by society’s institutions? Self-Reliance was first published in 1841, but Emerson’s words still ring with an awakening truth 177 years later. In this post, I hope to bring across some of the key points Emerson made which spoke to me personally.

Emerson states that we should look more to our thoughts and not be so dependent on the words of the past:

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.”1

This work we must do ourselves:

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that lot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”2

We must believe in ourselves:

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.”3

Emerson warns us that society will push back against those who seek to go their own way:

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.”4

Emerson states that we must shun conformity in order to find our truth:

“Self-reliance is its [conformity’s] aversion. It [conformity] loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.”5

As we venture out on this new self-reliant life, people will question us, and may even misunderstand our intentions. Emerson states that if we are misunderstood, then we are in good company:

“Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”6

Emerson makes many more wonderful points, but for the sake of time and space, I would encourage you to seek them out on your own. The last points I will make concerning Self-Reliance is that I find some of Emerson’s points parallel that of the Stoic philosphers, especially when he discusses the spark of divinity each of us possess, the importance of living in the present moment, and that our happiness is solely up to us, principles I have learned and have tried to implement along the recentstops of my life’s journey. God bless.

1Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Introduction and notes by Peter Norberg. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics. 2004: 113-114.

2Ibid, 114.

3Ibid, 114.

4Ibid, 116.

5Ibid, 116, brackets mine.

6 Ibid, 120.

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Leaning In

quote-chalk-think-words.jpgWhen I first became a Christian, one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible was Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding ; In all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” (NIV). However, as I have aged and faced various trials, I find that the road is still crooked in places, along with being bumpy, forked, and hilly. Man’s religion has taught us not to question anything concerning God, His wisdom, or His Word “You’re overthinking it,” religion says.

Why such opposition to thinking on our own? We seek God individually, yet we try to find a community of other like-minded individuals to try and make sense of it all. One of the dangers of this “groupthink” is that logic, reason, and common sense can be shunned in favor of a misplaced faith or even superstition. If you were taking a trip and you knew the path was wrong or knew you were lost, wouldn’t you stop and try to figure out a new route? Recalculating the journey would not only be for our safety, but our sanity as well. During my life I have found myself at both of these extremes- the “faith-minded,” and the “logical seeker.”

I’ll admit in the last four to five years I have drifted in my faith, going from one church to another, to no church affiliation, seeking answers in familiar places, only to be left with even more bewildered thoughts. I have been a Christian since my early twenties (as of now, I’m in my forties), I have a seminary degree, and have done missions work. I say that not to boast, I just want to give you perspective on my struggle with faith. I believe part of my struggle was not doing my due diligence of what was taught. “The Bible says it and that settles it,” would be a typical retort when faced with opposition either from my mind or someone else.

How many of us, if we were to be honest with ourselves have struggled in faith? How many of us have come down from the Sunday morning emotional high only to be slapped in the face with the Monday morning reality? Why are we so scared to seek our own wisdom? Do we fear that we will be ostracized from our comfortable group? Are we scared of the accusation of “not having enough faith?” How many of us have sat by being passively-minded waiting for the miraculous to happen and watched things get worse? I’m not saying that miracles don’t happen, but we shouldn’t always expect the supernatural, sometimes we need access the resources and means at our disposal.

I’ll admit there is still at lot I don’t understand, even as I put more weight on my critical thinking and learning. For instance, as Christians we seek to “be in God’s will,” or speak of “God’s plan,” yet we seldom have a clear understanding of these terms. How can God straighten out a crooked road if we don’t know which road to take? If feels an awful lot like guess work. In these situations, I can relate to the quote from the baseball player Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I know the theological arguments and cliches for this next point, but why does God’s plan and will involve so much suffering, even for those who can’t defend themselves? Babies born addicted to drugs, born with birth defects, children who battle cancer, face poverty, children are verbally, physically, and sexually abused by parents and others, face starvation, and other horrendous struggles, which turns them into broken adults.  It breaks my heart to see such things and at the same time hear that “God has a great plan for your life.” I’ve reached a point where it is difficult to reconcile such things.

Please keep in mind that I am not attacking God, the church, or anyone else, I just have a lot of questions on my mind that need definitive answers in this life and not the next one.

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My Vessel, My Life

By Michael W. Raley

I lie adrift in the Ocean of Perpetual Darkness.

Overcast clouds cover the moon.

The North Star has long since burned out.

This compass no longer gives me direction.

The waves bounce me back and forth,

As I try to hold it all down.

All I see is water,

No rescue ships,

No land,

No horizon.

This cannot and will not be my life’s voyage!

I then decide to stage a mutiny

Against the oppression, the passivity, and circumstance.

I am now the Captain.

This is my vessel,

This is my life.

I will set the course.

I will follow my map.

Load the cannons

Because I’m bringing the fight!

The Worlds Beyond Ours

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It is estimated that there are 100 billion, possibly 200 billion galaxies in our universe.1

Let that literal astronomical number sink in for a moment. I could not imagine have 100 billion dollars, let alone 200 billion. After taking care of my family and friends, giving towards numerous charitable causes, buying everything I could want and paying taxes, I would still have more than enough money to spare. Yet, beyond our world, our galaxy, boundless worlds that we cannot begin to imagine.

In this 14.5 billion year-old, ever expanding universe, how can we rule out the possibility of other life out there? I’m not speculating about galactic empires, Klingons, little green or gray beings, or any of the standard science fiction tropes, but just think about it for a moment.  I am inclined to think that there is life beyond what we know, even beyond where our current science takes us. What effect would such thinking have on our theology?

Up until the pioneering work of Copernicus, later confirmed by Galileo, Church doctrine taught what is known as the geocentric theory of the universe, which states that the universe revolves around the earth, which Copernicus’ heliocentric theory- which states the earth and galaxy revolve around the sun, which modern science has confirmed. We know with certainty that the literal universe does not revolve around us, but what if we are not even the apex of God’s creation? What if it is the epitome of humanity’s arrogance to assume our place while the vastness of this infinite universe?

What if beyond us is a world where its inhabitants have not spilled innocent blood in the names of war, religion, greed? What if these beings did not destroy their environment through pollution, harming the air, water, and food supply? What if these beings listened to the voices of the philosophers and poet? What if they put into action the words of their own Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, or Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr, and aspired to live out those ideals without feelings of superiority or hypocrisy?

I find the universe to be a humbling place. If we were to consider our place in the grand scheme of things, could we once and for all put aside our tribalism and live in peace? Can we recognize for a moment that according to the Big Bang, our planet was created by giant collisions with other celestial bodies and we are still susceptible to threats from asteroids and meteors that could end life as we know it?

I would encourage to take a trip to a planetarium or an observatory and view a show.  I would also encourage you to listen to Carl Sagan’s poem, “The Pale Blue Dot,” which puts a beautiful perspective on our place in the universe. Stop waiting for the apocalypse or heaven to come to earth, this is all we have and all we know for sure. Look up at night and view the stars, the constellations, admire the beauty and majesty of our universe and dream of the possibilities.

 

 

 

 

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Jesus Crosses Social Barriers

“Now he had to go through Samaria,” John 4:4 (NIV).

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Have you ever tried to avoid driving on a certain stretch of road or try to bypass traffic in a particular city? What if going through said stretch of road or city was the shortest, most direct route to your destination? Would you still avoid it? Is there some long-standing bias or bad memory associated with the road or city?

During biblical times, the average person walked everywhere or they may have rode a donkey, camel, or perhaps a horse. When there are great distances involved, especially while traveling on foot, you would want to walk the shortest route possible. In one instance, Jesus took the shortest route and crossed a major social barrier.

Jesus and his disciples were traveling from Judea to Galilee and went through Samaria, which was the shortest route. “Now he had to go through Samaria,” seems like a pretty innocuous statement for a 21st Century reader, but in Jesus’ time, Samaria was controversial among the Jews of Israel. In fact, many Jews tried to go places by avoiding Samaria all together.

The controversy dates back to the Old Testament. Samaria was the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while Jerusalem remained the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judea.  The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC and deported many of the Jews. The Assyrians brought in Gentiles (non-Jews) to settle the land. These Gentiles intermarried with the remaining Jews, which created a “mixed race,” which the Jews of Judea did not recognize the Samaritan as “authentic Jews” for lack of a better term. The Samaritan Jews also believed Mount Gerizim was the holy site for sacrifice, not the Temple in Jerusalem, and recognized only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) as Scripture.

Understanding the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans gives a different context to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which probably would have angered many in his Jewish audience that a Samaritan would be hero of the story.

I will not go through the entire story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:4-42), but I want to discuss some of the highlights. We live in such a divisive time, where people only read and listen to what confirms their confirmation bias, from which they do not budge. Let us take a look at the barriers Jesus crosses in this story:

-Jesus goes directly into what many consider “hostile territory.”

-Jesus, a Jew, speaks with people who are Samaritans.

-Jesus, a man, ministers to a woman.

-Jesus does not condemn the Samaritan woman for her past.

-Jesus does not debate doctrine, cast judgment, or threaten anyone with hell.

-Jesus brings a message of hope for all people, regardless of their background.

-Jesus breaks down the barriers of  institutional racism.

After Jesus ministers to the woman, she goes back and brings people of the town to see Jesus. Jesus and the disciples end up staying in Samaria for two days and many Samaritans come to faith in Christ.

I recognize that during my more fundamentalist days, I was a very divisive Christian. I have seen the error of my ways and I am now trying to break down these man made barriers. I believe the church and all of society can benefit from this example of Christ. Just because someone isn’t the same skin color as you, believes a different political philosophy, goes to a different church, or lives a lifestyle you don’t agree with, that doesn’t make them bad people. Everybody is just like you, in search of love and acceptance, which we need to provide. There is no need to condemn anyone for their past, because we all have a past. Let’s quit treating each other like dogs and rubbing our noses in each other’s mess. If we as Christians want to be more like Jesus, we need to be tearing down these superficial barriers instead of building  higher and higher walls.

 

 

I Cannot Say

 

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By Michael W. Raley

I’ve reached a mental block,

Wedged between a wall and a giant rock.

Nothing makes sense

As my fatigue and anxiety become more intense.

I  want to break out,

But I’m also comfortable in the house.

I’m disillusioned with former truths I held dear,

As I’ve realized they were only tools for conformity and fear.

This is not the way it was supposed to be,

Bound up because I am meant to be free.

I will be free one day,

But when that will be I cannot say.

 

 

 

The Toolbox of Problem Solving

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Christmas 2000 my mom and dad bought me a large red Craftsman toolbox, complete with sets of wrenches, ratchets, hex wrenches, and sockets. (I’m doing my Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor grunt from Home Improvement as I think about it). At the time my wife and I lived in our second floor apartment, where I kept the toolbox in the living room (which is a great conversation starter if you have company). Soon we bought a house and moved out of the apartment where the tool box till this day sits in my disorganized garage.

I still have and use all of those original tools, along with others that have been added over the years. My parents gave me those tool knowing that I would need them and they equipped me for any job that may arise. I have confidence that I have “the right tool for the job,” which started with a generous gift.

Tools are great when you have to change your car’s oil, replace a garbage disposal, or put a new heating element in the dryer, but not all of life’s problems can be fixed with a 7/16 wrench. Relationship issues, health problems, finances, school, spirituality, and whatever else life throws at you require a different set of tools. There are times though, when I wanted to take a metaphorical sledgehammer to life and do a demolition and rebuild.

When it comes to life’s problems, all of us have the tools to get the job done. I believe we are equipped by God and through our own experiences to work on the problem at hand. What if we realized how empowered we truly are to face our problems? We have to take the initiative to open the toolbox. Grabbed the wrong socket? Just get the next size larger or smaller. Maybe the bolt takes a metric socket instead of a standard, you just have to see what works and what doesn’t. If the problem comes up again, you’ll remember the exact tool you need.

Have you ever prayed and prayed, and prayed some more, but nothing happened? We all have. Have you ever sat by passively waiting on God or someone else to fix a problem? Meanwhile days, weeks, months, or even years may go by with no results and we are left wondering what is wrong. We’ll shrug our shoulders and say, “It wasn’t meant to be.” or “I guess it wasn’t God’s will.” But, what if our unanswered prayers are God’s way of telling us that we have the tools and we can take care of the problem ourselves? For example, I have three hammers, it would be silly of me to call my dad and ask to borrow a hammer because I have what I need.

Tools and resources are available and we must seek them out. Miracles just don’t fall out of the sky, as we have to live in the real world. The real world is a messy place, where we will get greasy and sweaty doing the hard work. We live in a time if great resources and information, thus there is no excuse for us to wallow in ignorance or portray a helpless victim.  Open up your toolbox and start with what you have, where you’re at. You have the tools you need for now and you’ll keep adding to them as you go. Work on being the master craftsman of your life.

The Irrational Prison

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By Michael W. Raley

 

I feel it coming on,

That sinking feeling of dread.

I do what I can to procrastinate,

Trying to make the feeling go away.

It’s not working.

My breathing becomes faster and more intense.

I don’t want to leave my safe space.

I become fully aware in the moment

And begin to reason with myself.

It isn’t logical for me to feel this way

And I know that.

There’s nothing out there that’s going to get me,

But my heart races more and more.

Nothing has happened to make me fear leaving,

This just happens and I can’t explain it.

Just go and do what you have to do,

I say to push myself out the door.

I finally muster up the courage to leave

And accomplish an attempt at a productive life.

This is no way to live,

But it is the way I live,

Behind the bars of an irrational prison.

 

Thoughts and Prayers

It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.” – Epicurus

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Thoughts and prayers.

After every mass shooting, terrorists attack, tragedy, or natural disaster, the words “Our thoughts and prayers go out to [Insert situation]” are posted all over social media, from everyday people to world leaders. While the intentions of these people may truly be noble and sincere, has the expression “thoughts and prayers” become another cliched and knee-jerk platitude? Do we say this because we are overwhelmed by the circumstances or is this a way for us to simply feel like we did something?

I’m not discounting the need for prayer as prayer is an essential part of all of the world’s major religions. However, I believe a comforting presence or a donation of time, food, money, or even donating blood in the event of a medical emergency can do more than simply praying for a few minutes. Action must accompany belief. A former spiritual mentor of mine once said, “Nobody cares about what you know until they know you care.”

I’ll admit that I find it difficult to pray these days, because it literally feels like I’m talking to a wall. From a standpoint of reason, I find prayer to be a paradox. As Christians, we pray to an all-knowing, all-powerful God, who knows how every event in human history is going to turn out before it happens, yet allows tragedies and suffering to happen. So we are praying for God to comfort victims of a tragedy that He allowed in the first place? I’m sorry, but that does not compute.

To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, if I know your sect, I know your argument. Sin entered the world with Adam and Eve, God’s ways are not our ways, God has a plan for each of us, The Lord works in mysterious ways, God will use this tragedy for His own purposes/good. Were there any that I left out?

I’m just being honest and realistic, I’m not being facetious or mocking anyone’s beliefs, but our thoughts and prayers aren’t going to wish away our problems. The time has come for action, we must get to the real root of our problems and provide real solutions for them. We have to stop falling back on empty and hollow rhetoric and being swayed by every slick talking politician in a suit. We must stop holding on to old beliefs simply because our parents, grandparents,or great-grandparents believed it. We must examine what we believe spiritually and socially, in order to see whether or not we are truly helping the situation or making it worse.

The marginalized, the maligned, the shunned, and the forgotten must be brought into the fold. We cannot allow old prejudices, fear mongering, and ignorance to rule our lives, we must allow our world’s wounds to heal one person at a time. That is why with what platform I have with this blog and any other medium to advocate for those who cannot help themselves. Jesus and the apostles, the Buddha, Gandhi,  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others have went to where the people were suffering and lent a hand, not just  their thoughts and prayers. I am challenging myself and you as well. Let us not treat this world with disdain in the hopes of a life beyond, but let us seek to make this world a better place.

What Has Came Before

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By Michael W. Raley

What has came before has prepared you for this.

Every triumph, every setback, heartache, failure,

And every victory are lessons learned in life’s classroom.

This is why you did all that work,

Faced your fears,

Prayed the prayers and meditated on the outcomes.

You anchored yourself during the storms

And held on with everything you had.

It all has brought you to now,

This seminal and transcendent moment in time,

Which has the potential to transform life as you know it.

This is the only life you get,

Give it everything you have and don’t hold back.