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Archive for September, 2012

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Mark 1:9 (NRSV)

Some years back, I was teaching an adult education class at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Marietta, GA, and the topic was healing. I’d become interested in healing and healing ministries while exploring the mind-body-spirit connection and aspects of alternative medicine. Early in the class, I wanted to show the biblical basis for our study, and pointed the people gathered there to many scriptural texts that touched on healing. One of these texts described how Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs with these instructions:

 

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment…
Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

After I read this passage, one of the men in the class interrupted me, saying “Wait a minute. There was ‘good news’ before Jesus’ death and resurrection?” We all had to stop and think about that question for quite a few minutes. We had all been raised on the Gospels, we knew the stories, we knew that the core of Christianity as it’s always been taught is Jesus’ death and resurrection. So how could there have been “good news” before these events even happened?

It is clear in both of the passages above that Jesus believed there was good news to share – right then and right there – seemingly unrelated to whatever might occur in the future.

What if the “good news” of Jesus has nothing to do with what happens to you after you die?

What if the “good news” of God is more about your present life than it is about your after life?

In Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Dr. Bruce Epperly gives us the process perspective:

Process theology asserts that God’s aim for the universe and human life is toward beauty and complexity of experience and, as Bernard Loomer would assert, greater stature in our embrace and transformation of diversity, novelty, suffering, and beauty…I believe that process theology embraces Jesus’ sense of vocation…Living out his vocation as God’s beloved messenger, fully open to God’s wisdom and power in his life, Jesus saw teaching, healing, and transforming at the heart of his mission. Although deeply rooted in the Jewish faith of his parents, Jesus nevertheless challenged his tradition to reflect God’s all-embracing realm of Shalom, that included oppressed and oppressor, outcast and righteous, and foreigner and neighbor. Jesus’ message and mission, process theologians assert, was not supernaturally-oriented toward life beyond the grave, but a call to embody God’s vision for this life and this world. [italics mine] (p. 70-71)

If we ask, with John Cobb, “Can Christ become good news again?”, I believe the answer is yes, but only if we share the real good news with our neighbors.

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My transistor AM radio in 1970 was always tuned to WABC where I especially loved hearing Cousin Brucie. I’d carry it with me as I walked back and forth to Grace Wilday School in Roselle, NJ, the first community to be lit by electric lights and overhead wires in 1883. One of my favorite songs of that era was “Spirit in the Sky,”

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky

Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best.
(© 1969 Norman Greenbaum)

At the time, I thought it was quite cool for a pop song to mention Jesus and I still think it’s a really catchy song. But I no longer believe in the Spirit in the Sky.

That is, I no longer believe in a Spirit that’s just in the sky.

I believe that God’s Spirit is present everywhere, in everything, and in every being, human and non-human.

Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, where I am a doctoral student, recently hosted an event featuring Brian McLaren as one of the speakers. McLaren serves on our Board and is a known figure in the emerging church. His books include A New Kind of Christianity and his most recent, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? During the presentation, he told us a very compelling story.

Seems an economist friend and McLaren were discussing our current environmental crisis and what might be done about it. The economist had written that he believes we have been operating under two narratives in the U.S., both of which are “ecologically devastating”:

  • The first is the story of the “Grand Machine” that undergirds naturalistic science. In this story, the world and all of its non-human components are just machines or machine parts that have only instrumental value, and no intrinsic value or subjectivity of their own. According to the economist, this story is “bankrupt” and “cannot catalyze human energy” for addressing our very present crisis.
  • The second is the story of the “Distant Patriarch” that undergirds Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In this story, there is “a dangerous and threatening divine being” and all of our human energy must be focused on appeasing this being. This story also has little power to mobilize us to take action even while the crisis worsens before our eyes.

What’s needed now, said the economist to McLaren, is a new narrative, the story of the “Integral Spirit.” This story says [in as close a paraphrase as I can offer],

The world is not just math and physics. There is a Spirit here that is involved in the processes of the universe, a present Spirit working within the universe that can help us deal with our problems. Everything has value and is a manifestation of this Spirit, and we’re all connected. Only this story can offer hope and has the power to heal, but this story – embraced by many – has no institutional home.

No institutional home. Is the Church listening?

This story of the “Integral Spirit” has been told by process theology for decades. As Bruce Epperly has written in Emerging Process,

In contrast to Enlightenment deism and conservative supernaturalism, both of which are grounded in the belief that God operates from “outside” the world, intruding occasionally in ways that subvert nature’s regularity, process theology affirms that God’s Spirit moves within all things, inviting us and them to be ‘more’ than they or we can imagine…Imagine a spirit-filled world! Imagine God’s spirit, breathing in and through all things, giving them life, energy, chi, ki, prana, ruach, and inviting them to evolve toward the wholeness in God’s realm of shalom, beauty, and love. (p. 88-89, 91)

Imagine how much could change if we embraced this story, if we really believed that God’s wondrous, grace-giving, enlivening Spirit was right here, right now. I think even Norman Greenbaum could tap his toes to that tune.

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In a 1959 interview with the BBC, Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung was asked if he’d grown up believing in God, and he answered that he did. The interviewer then asked if he now believed in God. Jung responded that the question was difficult to answer. “I know,” he said, “I don’t need to believe, I know.” We might ask what he knew and how he knew it. Of course I can’t speak for Dr. Jung, but I believe he meant that since he’d personally encountered God – since he’d had direct experience of God – his experience replaced “belief” with more concrete “knowledge.”

A deeply important part of my spiritual journey has been the practice of dream work and the examination of synchronicities – those occurrences in daily life that seem to be meaningful coincidences – along with other kinds of inner work based on the psychology of Jung and those who work in his tradition. I’ve also – like many Jungians – used myths, fairy tales, and sacred wisdom stories to show me where I am in my journey, as they reveal archetypal patterns of life and the psyche. This kind of psycho-spiritual practice has led me to experience a God who…

  • speaks to me personally through dreams and powerful synchronicities
  • reveals meaningful stories to me when they are most helpful
  • is moving me through refining fire for transformation and healing|
  • calls me to my true path or destiny just as God called Abraham, Jacob, Mary of Magdala and others.

Though one can see similar divine encounters in the stories of God’s people revealed in Christian and Jewish scripture, this is not the kind of God that is described by the traditional or classical Christian theology that was so heavily influenced by Greek thought. Traditional theology describes a God who is:

  • Wholly other; who cannot and does not interact directly with humans except through supernatural revelation and that kind of thing stopped when the last page of the Bible was written,
  • Absolute Ruler, Unchanging, the Unmoved Mover, and not influenced by humans’ situation or sufferings,
  • So offended or dishonored by human sin and error that humans are therefore separated from God by an unbreachable chasm,
  • No longer reachable by direct experience of “regular” people no matter what early Christians experienced,
  • And, that our personal experience of God should not be trusted because there’s no way to “know” or “prove” that we are encountering the “real” God as God is in God’s self

Who is the God you know? And if you don’t feel that you know God, which God would you put more trust in – the Unmoved Mover, or the God who knows your deepest troubles and who calls to you, personally, as “deep calls to deep” in that still, small voice?

Many in the church would have you believe that the only theology that is “right” is what has been handed down for centuries in our tradition. But as Bruce Epperly reminds us in his text Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed,

Postmodernism cautions us that all theology is concrete, situational, and time bound. Postmodern theologians warn us that universal theological statements are abstractions that can be both oppressive and irrelevant to flesh and blood human beings… [on the other hand] Process theologians affirm that people can still tell a universal story, but…this story is grounded in experience and perspective and must be open-ended and liberating. (p. 1)

Each one of us has our own theology, and we are engaging in theological activity “whenever we try to discern the meaning of our lives, fathom the reality of suffering and tragedy, and discover our place in the universe.” (p. 2)

The question is, does your theology help transform your life and your heart? Does your theology open you to experiencing the Living God so that you can say you know God exists? Does your theology free you from whatever binds you?

If not, what good is it?

 

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I’d spent half that day in 1995 holding on to my hat as the open-air truck bounced us around Canyon de Chelly, a most beautiful National Monument in Arizona. Under expansive and gorgeous azure blue skies, we saw cliff dwellings perched precariously in the red-brown canyon walls, examined pictographs sketched centuries earlier, drove through occasional groves of green cottonwood trees, and passed homesteads of Native Americans who farmed in that rugged landscape. When the “shake and bake” truck tour ended, I decided to get a bird’s eye view of the canyon from one of the overlooks at the rim.

I drove my rented car into the lot of the first overlook I came to, noticing that there were no other cars and no other people. I walked out and sat on a rock hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, watching the now-ant-sized truck tours below and listened to the hawks and the gentle breeze.  It had been an interesting vacation where I traveled alone, flying from Atlanta to Albuquerque, renting a car, and driving about a thousand miles to see a good bit of the American Southwest. This canyon was my last stop before getting back on the plane the next day.

As I sat on that rock, in what the Celts would have called a “thin place,” my awareness and sensory experience suddenly underwent a dramatic shift. My consciousness expanded and I could fully feel in every cell of my body this one truth: I was an infinitesimally small speck of dust in the universe. And I was connected to everything. I would say that the rest of my life since that moment has been an attempt to integrate that one truth. That moment – one that could be called “mystical” – revealed the Holy for me. It was certainly a “big” picture view.

Last week, I wrote about meeting God in a hummingbird, probably one of the smaller of the earth’s creatures. So the Holy can be revealed just as clearly in the “small” picture view as well. But isn’t it all too easy to miss God in those small moments?

As a scholar of process theology, I am most drawn to this school of thought because of the way in which it presents God as being very much in this world, not just transcending it. In “emerging process spirituality”, writes Bruce Epperly, “God is present as a source of guidance and inspiration in every moment of experience and in every encounter. According to process theology, all things and every moment reveal the holy.” (p. 132, Emerging Process) He writes,

Revelation is not other-worldly, nor does it draw us away from our concrete experience of God’s wholeness/holiness in the here and now of historic, relational, and embodied experiences. Encountering God calls us to love God in this concrete, ever-emerging world, rather than deferring issues of justice, peace, and self-realization to a disembodied afterlife.

Might God be revealed in our day-to-day encounters with friends? In our workplace? In our dogs, cats, and the wild things out back? In our battles with depression? In the crying infant a few rows up in the airplane? In our night time dreams and the meaningful coincidences or synchronicities that give us pause? Where do you meet the Holy?

 

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In one chapter of his book Religion in the Making, created from lectures delivered in Boston in 1926, Alfred North Whitehead explores the historical effect on religion of travel beyond what he calls “the tribe.” He suggests that when people were exposed to “others”, strangers, outside the tribal boundaries in a way that was kindly, those extra-tribal explorers could think more “dispassionately” (and with less hostility) about others than before their travels. The result of empires and trade was that “everyone traveled and found the world fresh and new. A world-consciousness was produced.” (p. 29) Whitehead felt the “disengagement” from one’s social location that came with travel led to a change in how people perceived their relationship to God. In the old way of thinking, he writes,

Alfred North Whitehead

Conduct is right which will lead some god to protect you; and it is wrong if it stirs some irascible being to compass your destruction. Such religion is a branch of diplomacy. But a world-consciousness is more disengaged. It rises to the conception of an essential rightness of things…The new, and almost profane, concept of the goodness of God replaces the older emphasis on the will of God. In a communal religion, you study the will of God in order that [God] may preserve you; in a purified religion, rationalized under the influence of the world-concept, you study [God’s] goodness in order to be like [God]. It is the difference between the enemy you conciliate and the companion whom you imitate.  (p. 30)

Too many religious people these days talk about God as if God were an enemy to “conciliate” or placate. According to a 2010 article written by Amanda Terkel on thinkprogress.org, Virginia State Delegate Bob Marshall (R) suggested that year that women who had had abortions were punished by God through being given disabled children in subsequent births. Who could even worship such an evil and immoral god? Shouldn’t we at least be able to assume that God has the level of morality of the best human beings we know?

One of my greatest email pleasures is reading Fr. Richard Rohr’s brief meditations that arrive in my inbox bright and early each day. A recent entry touched as well on the idea that God and Jesus might best be thought of as those we should imitate due to their goodness. He writes,

 It seems to me that it is a minority that ever gets the true and full Gospel. We just keep worshiping Jesus and arguing over the exact right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says, ‘worship me!’, but he often says, ‘follow me’ (e.g., Matthew 4:19).  Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, inclusive, and loving. We made it, however, into a formal established religion, in order to avoid the demanding lifestyle itself. One could then be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain at the highest levels of the church, and still easily believe that Jesus is ‘my personal Lord and Savior.’ The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

The suffering on Earth is great, indeed. Does it lessen that suffering or increase it if we pummel others with an image of a God who is not worth worshiping or following? It seems pretty simple. If your God tells you to kill an ambassador, or to kill an abortionist, you’re listening to a false god.

Update:  As I can hear the distant hoof beats of accusations of heresies such as Arianism on the horizon,  I just want to clarify a line of thought in this post. First of all, Fr. Rohr does not use the word “imitate” and it’s really not the exact word I’m looking for here.  Nor am I saying that we should not worship and be filled with praise over the grace that flows to us from Christ. What I believe, though, is that those who worship Christ but who are not willing to walk his path are merely projecting their healing onto Jesus as an outer figure, but that those who follow Jesus, walking the Way he walked, will experience the inner transformation of the Christ, and realize the Reign of God that Jesus realized as present right here, right now. In Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, Boniface Ramsey, O.P. writes of the spirituality of the early Church: “Christ was the measure, the model, and the goal of the spiritual life.” This is still true for Christians.

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Yesterday, my church was a sycamore tree and God was a hummingbird. Maybe I should qualify that by saying that God was POSING as a hummingbird, but I believe that the Logos or Word of God is present in everything created so, for me, there’s not that much of a difference.  After all, the Gospel of Thomas has Jesus saying, “Raise the stone, and there you will find me; cleave the wood, and there I am.” But back to my September Sunday church in the sycamore tree…

I was not actually IN the sycamore tree, but the patio of my second story apartment places me right next to the extensive branches of the stately tree, and so when the light filtering through the leaves tickles my face as I rest there, it’s as if I can become a part of the tree itself. There are times in the morning when the leaves are haloed and especially gorgeous.

My time on the porch Sunday morning was primarily for the purpose of reading Dr. Bruce Epperly’s Holy Adventure (a 41-day guide to “audacious living), and so with my body resting on the two-seater there (and my dog, Cotton, occupying the other seat), I began to read. While I was immersed in the reading for Day 4, I heard the constant chattering of one of the hummingbirds that frequents my feeder, just when Dr. Epperly invited his readers to “Visualize yourself sitting in your favorite place of beauty.”(p. 45)  It was nice that I could do even better than that, as I was already present in that very real place. He continues, “Experience the unique beauty and wonder of this place. Feel its peace and tranquility.”

Hummingbirds are always a wonder for me, and to be able to catch them in a rare moment of stillness, perched on a branch, seems like an overabundance of grace. As I listened to the hummer’s vocalizations, I began speaking softly back, whispering my gratitude and love for this perfect little being. He or she grew very quiet and almost seemed to be listening to me as well. In that moment, everything paused and I experienced a brief respite of inner peace that was nothing short of a Eucharistic communion.

As Elizabeth Barrett Browning has written in her poem “Aurora Leigh”, and Dr. Epperly has quoted:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only [she] who sees, takes off [her] shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Here, in this place, the Spirit of God whispered on the breeze through the branches, outlined leaves in light, spoke through the chattering of a hummingbird, flowed through my mind in grace-filled words, and held my heart in the palm of Her hand for a blessed moment of stillness and beauty.

Marble cathedral  Sunday services rarely get any better than that.

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