The Second Arrow

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The Second Arrow

 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. Proverbs 15:1-2

All human beings possess a secret wisdom-power. It is not secret because it is hidden but because it is so seldom used. It is the power to pause and reflect prior to reacting. Taking a short pause before responding to a situation almost always has a positive impact on what happens in the aftermath. As a hypothetical example, I have a strained relationship with a co-worker who angrily barges into my office and accuses me of starting a nasty rumor about her personal life. I vehemently deny starting the rumor and immediately accuse her of being the source of the rumor since all she ever talks about is her personal life. Using the metaphor of arrows, the first arrow, in this case, was my co-worker angrily barging into my office and falsely accusing me. It probably hurt. The second arrow, however, was my angry reaction, which wounded her right back. Which arrow is most likely to perpetuate the strained relationship? The second arrow, of course. Because I responded on gut instinct instead of using my super-power to pause and reflect before reacting, I loosed a second arrow that made a stressful situation worse. We can blame the first arrow for initiating the ugly process, but we cannot grow spiritually until we recognize and accept responsibility for the second arrow.

In Buddhism there is the lesson of The Second Arrow, which goes like this:

“The Buddha was giving a teaching to an assembly of his monks and nuns. He asked, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?”

The monks and nuns replied, “Yes, it is.”

The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?”

The assembly replied again, “Yes, it is.”

Then the Buddha explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”

As long as we are alive, we will have painful experiences, which are like the first arrow. To get all upset by the first arrow and condemn, judge, criticize, hate, or deny the first arrow is like being struck by a second arrow. Many times the first arrow is out of our control, but the arrow of reactivity is not.”[1]

My workplace example, above, is about a relationship with a co-worker. Had I considered how best to react, I might have been able to redeem the first arrow into an opportunity for healing the brokenness between us. I might have invited a deeper exploration of her pain and fear. Who knows, I might have even discovered something in myself that was subtlely contributing to the situation. There is an old saying, attributed as Native American wisdom, that goes, “I will not criticize a person until I have walked 30 days in her shoes.” Everyone is fighting a difficult battle of which we know little.

The lesson of the Second Arrow, however, goes beyond interpersonal relationships to our own inner life. How we react to situations in our lives matters – not just because of its impact on others, but because of its impact on us! We cannot control who wages unfair criticism our way. We cannot control receiving a cancer diagnosis or being hit by a drunk driver or finding ourselves in the path of a tornado. We can, however, always control our response – the second arrow.

The difference between the first and second arrows mirrors the difference between pain and suffering. Pain happens to all of us – physical, emotional, and mental pain. It all hurts, but it is also a shared human experience. We are all pierced by the first arrow from time to time, so there is really no need to describe how much worse my pain is than yours. What we do with our pain, how we respond to our pain, determines the degree to which we suffer from that pain. This is a difficult lesson to learn because we all want to get rid of our pain, and rightly so. When we cannot change it, however, we need to find ways to live with it in the best way possible. That is how we minimize our suffering – by accepting that which we cannot change in this moment. That is how we keep our second arrow in its quiver where it will not deepen the wound already inflicted. That is using our super-power to pause and reflect before reacting.

This is the 25th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Jerome Freedman, The Second Arrow., January 3, 2015.

Praying the Details

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Praying the Details

 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.

Luke 18:1

I tend to think of God as a big-picture being. By this I mean to say that God is unfathomably expansive, inclusive, and larger-than-life. Such a God would not get bogged down in the minutia of our lives. If God is keeping planets in their orbits, there is certainly no time to attend to my latest facial blemish or the mixed message I may have received from an acquaintance the other day. Like many of us, I grew up believing that God was big and I was small. Praying for a good grade on a test I had not prepared adequately for was much too trivial an issue to trouble God about.

As I grow older, I continue to believe God is focused on the big picture. I also believe, however, that God is focused on the minutia. If God truly lives in and acts through us, and since the small details of our lives demand a large portion of our attention and resources, then it stands to reason that God attends to every small detail along with us. My teacher and mentor, Fr. Richard Rohr, says that God loves things by becoming them. To the extent that is true, the more we know and understand something in its richest detail, the more we can know and understand about God. Not that everything around us is God, but that God exists in the details of everything around us.

We see this playing out in our relationships with others. We cannot really know a person until we know details about their life and being. Ironically, the more we know about someone, the more difficult it becomes to describe them accurately to others. It is easy to dismiss a homeless person on the street when we keep our distance from him or her. It is much more difficult to ignore their plight when we take a few minutes to visit with them, listening to their story, and learning some of the details of their existence. If we dare to look in their eyes, we may experience a soulful tug that changes something inside of us, making it impossible to continue to see this person as an anonymous member of a homogeneous group outside of our circle of interest. Details matter. We also experience this in race relations. It is too easy to glance at those of other ethnic backgrounds and believe they all look and act alike, lumping them into a single, usually negative racial stereotype. And of course we will not be able to distinguish the unique character of any particular individual until we learn something about their details. We will not see God in them until we look in their eyes and take a genuine interest in who they are beyond their outer appearance.

In praying for others, the details matter. When someone asks for me to pray for them or for someone else, I ask for as many details as they are comfortable sharing with me. On the one hand, I want to respect their privacy. On the other hand, I want to be able to visualize where the pain is so my prayer can be focused there. Knowing the details helps in that process.

In the same way, details matter in my personal prayers. It is not that God is not already aware of every little aspect of my issues, but that my awareness is likely deficient. There are almost certainly parts of the issue that I deny, repress, or otherwise prefer not to acknowledge. There may be connections to my past that I have completely ignored. I am probably reacting in ways that are consistent with the ways I have always reacted to difficult situations, and those reactions may not be helpful or honest. Being up front with God about the entire situation, searching for and sorting through the details with God is helpful once we know God as non-judgmental and accepting of us as and where we are.

Revealing the details of our situation to God and others is uncomfortable because it makes us vulnerable. Making ourselves vulnerable – revealing ourselves in our essential nakedness – allows God to meet us in our pain, which is where healing begins. Praying vague, generic prayers is like praying with one eye open in that we are not fully giving ourselves over in prayer. Praying the details is surrendering ourselves to God where those details can be resurrected into something better.

This is the 24th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

A Special Invitation: For readers of Life Notes living in or near Lawrence, Kansas, we will be performing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Mass on the World this Saturday morning, June 22, 2019, as a way of welcoming and honoring the Summer Equinox. Meet us at the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center Overlook (1365 N 1250 Rd), at 5:50 AM for the sunrise and at 6:00 AM for the service. It will last about 20 minutes.

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Fear and Awe

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Fear and Awe

 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Luke 1:30

Fear may be our biggest barrier to a happier, more fulfilled life. True, the Bible tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge,[1] and that we are to fear our God.[2] Fear, however, may also be our biggest barrier to a closer relationship with God. The type of fear referred to in these passages, however, is better described as awe than by what we consider fear today. Awe is the feeling of looking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon or gazing into a clear night sky without the interference of city lights. Awe is the feeling when a newborn wraps her tiny fingers around yours. Awe is our response when experiencing something breathtakingly beautiful, yet completely beyond words. When we are gifted with such an experience, when we are touched by such grace, our natural tendency to try to understand or explain falls away and leaves us stilled in not knowing and, somehow, not needing to know.

There are numerous biblical references encouraging us to fear God and many more telling us not to be afraid. As we learn to distinguish between fear and awe, we understand this is not a contradiction. God is so far beyond our comprehension that the only reasonable reaction to pondering God is awe. Fear, on the other hand, results from a lack of faith – a lack of faith in the inherent goodness of ourselves and others, a lack of faith that we are loved and cared for, and a lack of faith that God will make all things work together for good.[3] That sort of fear stands as a barrier between us as we are today and the person God encourages us to become. We can begin to overcome our faithless fears by developing a more intimate relationship with God through scripture.

One helpful way to read and understand the Bible is as a personal message from God. Granted, this requires more than a cursory reading. In fact, it often involves reading a particular passage many times, slowly, and out loud. It is helpful to read a commentary about each passage, researching the context and culture from which the passage arose. What did it mean when it was written? How does it translate to the world today? What is God saying to me in this story or passage? Where do I fit into the story? Engaging the Bible in this manner is a way of praying the scripture – entering the message in an intimate and open way. Fear springs from a lack of knowledge. Once we better understand what underlies our fear, our sense of helplessness eases. As we come to know more about the nature of God, our fear gives way to awe.

Placing ourselves into scripture is a key. The Old Testament stories of the Israelites’ road to freedom is our story – from what form of bondage are we trying to escape? How does their struggle mirror ours? In the story of the Good Samaritan,[4] are we the beaten person left by the side of the road? Are we among the religious folks who pass him by? Are we the one who stops to help? Chances are we have played each of these roles at different times in our lives. What if God’s message to Mary in Luke 1:30 is God’s message to us: “Do not be afraid, (insert your name here), for you have found favor with God.” When we place ourselves into the stories of the Bible, scripture comes alive for us.

The Latin term for reading the scripture in this manner is Lectio Divina, or sacred reading. It is a formal method of praying the scriptures, or placing ourselves into scripture. Perhaps finding ourselves in scripture is more accurate. It is one way for God to speak directly to us through a sacred text. God has spoken through scripture to hundreds of generations before us, and will continue to do so for countless generations to come. You can download a copy of my Introduction to Lectio Divina at:

Our search for a happier, more fulfilled life necessarily creates a desire to know God more. While we are incapable of knowing God in all of God’s fullness, by praying the scriptures we can assure ourselves that God will not desert us. God’s love, presence, and care through all of life’s challenges is dependable. Life is not always easy or pleasant, but praying the scriptures helps us live in God’s presence with more awe and less fear.

This is the 23rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

A Special Invitation: For readers of Life Notes living in or near Lawrence, Kansas, we will be performing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Mass on the World on Saturday morning, June 22, 2019, as a way of welcoming and honoring the Summer Equinox. Meet us at the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center Overlook (1365 N 1250 Rd), at 5:50 AM for the sunrise and at 6:00 AM for the service. It will last about 20 minutes.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at

[1] Proverbs 1:7

[2] Levicticus 19:14

[3] Romans 8:28

[4] Luke 10:25-37