Tag Archives: gimme that old-time religion

Repetitive Repentance

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us,
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

All pray in silence.

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
eternal life. Amen.

You know those mental snapshots of childhood, when for some reason your memory captures a moment in stunning clarity? A few of mine occurred in church—not surprising, given how much time I spent there growing up. One such image was sparked by confusion and frustration over the Prayer of Confession.

The emotional anchor for this particular snapshot was the repetitiveness of this ritual. While there were a few variations, the theme of the Confession remained remarkably constant: Dear God, we messed up. Again. We promise—again—that we’ll do better next time. The same apologies, the same promises. Again and again and again.

With the simplistic logic of childhood, I wondered: Why do we keep apologizing to God? Why don’t we just stop doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong, or at least stop repeating the same old lines? Are we even trying? Do we think God’s an overindulgent or absent-minded father figure who won’t be upset that we’re just feeding him the same old pseudo-apology? “Father figure” indeed: even as a kid, I knew I couldn’t get away with that sort of thing with my earthly parents.

Imagine my surprise, then, many years later, at discovering the following chant of repentance at the Austin Zen Center:

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Borne through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

Granted, this is typically chanted only once per month, at a special service. And I do prefer the straightforwardness of not apologizing to a particular being, asking his forgiveness for the sake of his son, our friend. Still, “body, speech and mind” sounds an awful lot like “thought, word, and deed.” So here we are once more, trapped in an endless, predictable cycle of messing up, taking responsibility even while knowing that we will soon mess up again.

However, the more I study Zen the more I’m coming to appreciate the nuances of repentance. Continue reading


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American Idols

With professional hockey and basketball now entering their postseasons, and with the annual return of the national pastime known as baseball, I find my thoughts turning to the rather charged subject of false idols.

Don’t get me wrong: I have been, at times, rather fan-atic about sports myself, and I still visit ESPN.com regularly; there are still teams whose success or failure tugs at me. As a child back in the pre-Internet era, I collected baseball cards and kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. sportsingWhen, following a rather dramatic playoff loss, my father questioned why I was crying over a game, I angrily protested through my tears that “if I didn’t cry, it would mean I didn’t care!” Later, as a college undergrad I yelled myself hoarse over football and basketball teams my bands supported with great devotion.

So I hope I’m not being hypocritical here. Indeed, as I’ll explain shortly, there are idols everywhere—including self-righteous judgment. It’s just that, as in a previous post on the subject, certain aspects of the religion I grew up with seem to be making a resurgence in my middle age, ironically as I seek a more consistent, serious Zen practice.

The term idol can be taken to mean to anything worshiped falsely, the human tendency to get our priorities way out of whack and hold something up as being of infinitely greater importance than it warrants; excessive and/or blind devotion, that sort of thing.

Pretty much anything can be made the object of idolatry Continue reading

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Next to Godliness, Mindfulness

The very distinguished abbot of a huge Zen monastery wrote this little article that said, “In Zen, there are only three things. First, cleaning. Second, chanting. And third, devotion. That’s all.” Many Americans go to Zen hoping to get enlightened, but they don’t want to do the cleaning.

~ Taitetsu Unno

A funny thing happened on the way to enlightenment: echoes of my old-time religion began seeping to the surface.

For those who aren’t aware, a key component of Zen practice is a ritualized sort of cleaning, or soji. The Austin Zen Center’s online glossary defines soji as “a brief period of mindful work; temple cleaning.” Typical morning programs there close with a few minutes of silent employment at such tasks as straightening up the meditation hall, sweeping and vacuuming various spaces, and scrubbing bathrooms.

I’m not sure when it hit me, but at some point I realized that my new practice of Zen was bringing home the truth of the old saying about cleanliness being next to godliness.

This came as a bit of a shock, as godliness is really not something to which I aspire. And yet, somehow, I found something resembling it in dusty floors and dirty toilets—even my cat’s litter box, as I blogged about over a year ago. While explaining anything related to Zen is problematic—given both my inexperience and the fact that it’s, well, Zen—I’d like to at least try to capture what I mean here.

I suppose mindfulness can be defined many ways, but to me it boils down to one word: attention. As I experience it, this word attention involves immersing oneself in all the myriad, minute details of a given moment—how the body feels, the distribution of weight and intersection with surfaces such as floors, chairs, computer keys. Walking meditation, beyond providing a respite from long periods sitting, affords an opportunity to observe the many elements that comprise moving one’s body through space. Each footfall, each roll of each ankle, maintaining one’s balance throughout—everything is an invitation to practice, to live in the literal, concrete, specific moment.

And then there’s soji. Continue reading

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