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Archive for the ‘Renewal’ Category

I’ve had occasion in recent weeks to have conversations – either in person or online – with people who self-identify either as atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  A core question in these conversations seemed to revolve around whether or not there was a “spiritual” part or nature in human beings.

So my asking “What is ‘Spiritual’?” in this blog is not about the field or practice of spirituality, it’s more about how we might identify what in us is “spiritual” when we use that word.Church-New

First, let me say that at this core level, I would NOT say that our spiritual self is defined by belief in a divine being or a set of beliefs about God, faith, or church. I say that because I think there are people who are spiritual who do not hold to the belief systems of any religious tradition, per se.

At its most basic, I think the spiritual part of humans has to do with meaning – with discovering or creating meaning about life or about the events in our lives. After all, if we’re just a bundle of cells with a brain and nothing more than thinking meat sacks that are here only to eat, procreate, and create human culture for the moment, we wouldn’t seek or assign meaning to anything. If there’s nothing more to our lives than day to day existence – no larger story or reality – why would we even begin to ask what our purpose is or why we are on this earth?

But we are a species of meanings, of narratives, of stories. That is the way we are wired. We seek to see ourselves as part of something larger, to belong to a meaningful narrative, not as just at the receiving end of a lifelong parade of random acts of suffering.

I have to confess that for many years now, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about God, about spirituality, about theology, and about how that all fits with healing, wholeness, psychology, and just the basics of navigating our way through a world that is full of both beauty and terror. Joseph Campbell said that people are not really seeking the meaning of life but that we are seeking the “rapture of the experience of being alive.”  I’ve been so steeped in all things spiritual and mythological for so long that I sometimes forget that most of my fellow sojourners on this earth probably don’t spend as much brain time on these topics as I do.

That point was brought home to me again this week in an exchange with a man who identifies himself as SBNR.  He told me he does not believe in God and is not sure if humans even have a “spirit.” I’ve felt for a long time that one of the wisest voices about the human spirit and about faith is Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and Franciscan. In a recent meditation he wrote:

The Perennial Tradition includes a recurring theme in all of the world’s religions and philosophies. They continue to say, each in their own way:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things.
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality.
  • The final goal of all existence is union with this Divine Reality.

I forwarded the meditation to my SBNR acquaintance, and he responded that he really doesn’t think very often about God, or divine reality, or scripture, and that he doesn’t place much value on those things.  In a way I found that kind of stunning, then I saw some humor in my being stunned, but I finally wondered about the value of what are seen as sacred texts to a secular world.

I sympathize when people choose to not affiliate with any organized religion – I understand why people find little of value in the Church today – even though I choose to remain within the Christian tradition. But I don’t understand why people would dismiss the wisdom of sages through the centuries who have spoken and written of encounters with divine reality. Do we really think they were all lying or having hallucinations?

It seems to me that for someone to say they don’t believe in the divine reality that others have experienced is like saying you don’t believe in Istanbul because you’ve never been there, or that you don’t believe in gelato because you’ve never eaten it.

Like Carl Jung, I don’t believe in God. I know God exists. I know divine reality exists. I’ve glimpsed it.

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Tucson, Arizona is about an eight hour drive from my home in southern California, but the long weekend of the Thanksgiving holiday afforded me the time to make the trek. While visiting good friends there, I had the pleasure of attending St. Francis in the Foothills Methodist church on Sunday. David Wilkinson is the pastor there, and we share a love of process theology though he was a student of John Cobb long before I became aware of Claremont and process thought.

Pastor David drew his sermon from the New Testament story of Paul addressing a gathering  – including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – in the Areapagus where he claims that the “unknown god” Athenians honored was the same as the creator God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:16-28). One of the main points David made in his commentary was that the term “God” was better understood as a verb than as a noun, and that the God who could never be fully known would not be pinned down or boxed in but must be followed into an unknown future.

In their book Tending to the Holy, Bruce and Katherine Epperly write that by “invoking Stoic philosophy to undergird the life-changing wisdom of Christ’s message and resurrection, Paul affirms that divine revelation is universal despite its variability from culture to culture. Paul recognizes that God is truly present in the pluralistic theological and spiritual environment of the Areopagus.” (25) In this text on preaching and teaching, the Epperlys assert the need for public ministries to affirm the “ever-present, dynamic, and intimate reality” of divine inspiration. (24) Oddly enough, such an awareness of divine presence seems hardly to be spoken of in many churches today where politics and sexual morality take precedence.  

Back home here in California, you can find me most afternoons at one of the local dog parks with Cotton, and today we met a woman with an Australian Shepherd named Benji (we humans never learn each other’s’ names!) After sharing where I was attending school, our conversation quickly moved to a deeper level, and Benji’s “mom” told me she was a “recovering Catholic” who had little patience for a church who saw women and other faiths as “less than.” She described herself as “spiritual” and as someone hungry for a community of faith, but she wondered what the church could offer to skeptical people who reject exclusivist and misogynistic doctrine.

The Epperlys describe the responsibilities of a Christian pastor in this way:

To share the gospel so that congregants may experience the fullness of God in their lives, discover the life-transforming presence of Christ, discern the guidance of the Spirit, find comfort in times of uncertainty and pain, and commit themselves to becoming God’s companions in the quest for shalom in their local and global communities. (28)

I think if more churches did just this, we wouldn’t be bleeding out membership and headed toward irrelevancy.

 

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There’s a memorable scene in the movie “City Slickers” where the grizzled cow hand Curly played by Jack Palance passes on his wisdom to Mitch, played by Billy Crystal. It goes like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [bleep].
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

There’s an only slightly less opaque conversation between Jesus and Martha that appears in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42). In that story, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed at the home of sisters Martha and Mary. While Jesus is sharing his message with the assembled guests, Mary is plopped down at his feet, listening attentively while Martha is “preoccupied” with getting everything ready for dinner. Martha’s not too happy about this arrangement and takes it up directly with Jesus.

Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’

Most biblical scholars pit Mary and Martha’s tasks against each other, either asserting that clearly contemplation and study are of higher value than domestic work, or, in the case of feminist scholars, pointing out that everyone would have gone hungry if Martha hadn’t been in the kitchen doing work that men have typically negated or taken for granted. I’m not so sure Jesus was dismissing domestic work in favor of contemplation so much as he was urging Martha to focus on the “one thing” that was important to her in that moment rather than being “worried and distracted by many things.” My suspicion is that if Martha had been peaceful in her meal preparation, doing what she could do by herself without succumbing to the pressure of time while allowing Mary to do what was important to her in the moment, Jesus would have honored her choice as much as Mary’s.

In his text Four Seasons of Ministry, Bruce Epperly notes the need for healthy balance in ministry and quotes Charles Hummel on the importance of finding “freedom from the tyranny of the urgent.” (62) Our Buddhist sisters and brothers teach the freedom that comes from doing even mundane tasks mindfully, as this mindfulness brings a sense of inner quiet. In Holy Adventure, Epperly notes that “the church as the body of Christ exists to join seamlessly the inner journey of contemplation and the outer journey of action in its vocation as God’s partner in bringing healing and wholeness to all creation.” (123)

Maybe if we can learn to do just the one thing that is necessary in every moment, we’ll bring more healing and wholeness to our lives and the lives of those around us.

I think even Curly and Mitch might agree.

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Influenced by the surrounding zeitgeist of courtly love and the Beguine movement, 13th century Flemish mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp embraced a very embodied mysticism. As Andrew Dreitcer writes in his notes for a class on Christian Spirituality through the Ages, “For Hadewijch, the Divine was known most fully in and through the experience (with attendant physical and emotional manifestations) of loving and being loved.” In courtly love, the love of the knight for his “sworn love” was infused with erotic human desire married to spiritual transcendent passions in a way that was both “exalting” and “humiliating,” “passionate” and “self-disciplined,” and “illicit” and “morally elevating.” [Maria Bowen, “Hadewijch: Background Notes” (San Francisco Theological Seminary, January 1995), 5, 7] These pairings were sometimes consummated though not generally.

“Hadewijch was the first to appropriate the image of courtly love as love for God,” writes Bowen, and she perceived a reciprocal relationship between God and humans as lovers to one another.  In the midst of this deep intimacy and mutuality between humans and God, God is still portrayed as “distant” and an “unattainable lover” who must be “conquered.”  With such an emphasis on mutuality, I wonder why she doesn’t see God more like Francis Thompson’s “hound of heaven” who either never ceases in God’s pursuit of us, or even a God who is deep within us and must only be awakened within? What if our longing for God is stirred within us by God’s already existent presence?

 I wanted to write a poem that honored Hadewijch’s style of mystical love poetry, and so this is what I will offer as my testament to the God in whom I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

 

The Beloved

My heart yearns for the Beloved

my body aches

to merge in union with the One

who sees my holiness.

If only my own eyes could see

what my Beloved sees of me.

If only my own ears could hear

what my Beloved hears of me.

If only my own mind could know

what my Beloved knows of me,

I would be healed.

If I, like Mary, let him

have his way with me,

I will conceive his Word

and birth divinity.

So ravish me, Beloved.

Satisfy my desire.

Enter every closed and darkened place

and pour your radiant Light,

your blazing Love

into every part of me.

Set me on fire,

so that all that is dross

is turned to ash.

And I am left

breathless,

shining.

 

 

 

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Wikipedia quotes Isaac Newton as saying about “non-locality” or “action at a distance” that it is “so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.” On the other hand, Albert Einstein, certainly someone with quite a well-developed “Faculty of thinking” called the exhibited “non-locality” of quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance.” Meanwhile, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program, which ran from 1979 until 2007, was established so as to “to pursue rigorous scientific study of the interaction of human consciousness with physical devices, systems, and processes common to contemporary engineering practice.” PEAR showed up on the public’s radar screen some years back in relation to its experiments in “remote viewing,” heavily discussed in Lynne McTaggart’s book The Field.

While many of us have experienced the power of prayer, the majority of people in the Western world with its post-Enlightenment worldview grounded in scientific materialism dismiss such ideas as distant healing and the efficacy of prayer as so much gobbled-gook and supernatural mumbo jumbo.

Even modern theologians and religious scholars, heavily wedded to rationalism, focus on a “historical Jesus,” and wave away any notions of healings and seemingly miraculous events. In his book, Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church, Bruce Epperly puts his finger on the unsatisfying nature of such dismissals when he writes that,

Totally deconstructionist or one-dimensional naturalistic visions of the gospel narratives fail to address the life-transforming experiences of first-century followers of Jesus as well as the profound interdependence of mind, body, and spirit: they also neglect God’s activity within every ‘natural’ process. (75)

Though I have been a fan of such writers as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan for a long time, I’ve often noted – as Dr. Epperly does – that they seem not to take into account the insights of “process theology, quantum physics, recent medical research, and global complementary and energy medicine, all of which allow for surprising acts of God and lively releases of divine energy arising from the interplay of ‘natural’ causes.” (75)

Years ago, while a student at the Atlanta School of Massage, I learned various healing modalities – alongside Swedish and deep tissue massage – that focused on the energy fields of the body. Though I could not explain why they worked, I knew that I experienced a greater sense of peace and wholeness after such treatments. Later, while supporting a fellow church member and her family as she died of cancer, I witnessed firsthand the calming effects of therapeutic touch and prayer. As well, I’ve known for a long time that “healing” doesn’t always mean “curing.”

There were times when I’d run into a more conservative Christian who would claim that any such healing work not done directly in the name of Jesus was of the devil.  Jesus ran into the same kind of narrow thinking when he healed a demon-possessed man and was accused of doing so through the power of “Beelzebul.” Jesus set them straight with the illustration that Satan cannot throw out Satan, for a house divided in such a way cannot stand. He went on to point out a tree is known by its fruit and anyone who insults the Holy Spirit is in serious trouble. (Matthew 12:22-33)

I agree with Dr. Epperly that we “must somehow redefine our understanding of the natural world to include non-local causation (action at a distance), paranormal phenomena, and healing energy.” (74)

 

 

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 There are few hours in life more agreeable
than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

~Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
(quoted on p.39 of The Metaphor Maker,
by Patricia Adams Farmer)

 

Though it was never accompanied by much ceremony, I grew up drinking tea. It was a habit of my mother when I was a child to have a cup most every evening, and it’s still a ritual we both enjoy to this day. And though we have no roots on the other side of the pond, we drink it British style, with milk. Though Mom has of late been foregoing any kind of sweetener, my preference is to add a spoon of honey from the Webb’s bees in Clarkesville, Georgia.

After my sophomore year at Purdue University, I left the dormitory for apartment life, and my roommate Laurel and I would commiserate about boys in our small eating area off the kitchen. Those conversations always seemed enriched by a cup of tea and a Pop-Tart. Hot tea soothed broken hearts and sometimes we held onto those best-friend rituals as if they were lifesavers. They were lifesavers.

In The Metaphor Maker by Patricia Adams Farmer, recent college graduate Madeline finds a sweet job in Eve’s tea shop where tea is held in very high regard.

Eve went to prepare the tea, which was easy enough since she had already put on the kettle for herself. As she poured the boiling water over the dry leaves, she felt the significance of such a simple ritual. The very act was like a thread of history, linking Eve to her mother and to past generations, all of whom found comfort from the woes of life – toothaches to heartaches – with a calming reassuring cup of tea. (86)

Between the years of 2006 and 2009, I lived in the north Georgia mountains near the small town of Clarkesville and it’s the place I consider the home of my soul. During that period, I wrote a twice-monthly column for the local newspaper, and in one of those essays I described a recent visit to a monastery.

I spent a few days earlier this year in silence at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.  It had been a very hard and sad December for me – for a lot of reasons – and once we rang in the New Year I just felt the need to leave behind all the distractions of telephone and email for at least a few days.

The Monastery was established in the 1940’s when a group of Trappist monks traveled to Georgia from Kentucky to build a new community.  It’s a beautiful place with a lake, ducks and geese, and the beauty continues inside as well, especially in the cathedral with its soaring ceiling and stained glass windows.

Retreatants that come to the monastery are welcome to join in any, all or none of the worship services led by the brothers, but what felt most holy to me was the last service of the evening that began with the monks’ chanting in a deep darkness broken only by candlelight.

When your soul is carrying heavy burdens, the evocative beauty of holy ritual can lift those burdens like steam rising from a comforting pot of tea.  Holy moments of synchronicity kept tapping me on the shoulder, showing me over and over again that God saw me and knew my heart.  And after a Divine accident put a book in my path that brought tremendous healing, I knew once again that I had been touched by Grace.

Tea and Grace. Sometimes that which is most simple and earthy can be accompanied by that which is most holy.

 

 

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I’ll never forget the day that in a class on “Jesus and the Gospels” at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Dr. Ray Pickett made this comment: “Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s response to Jesus; resurrection was God’s response to the Roman Empire.” I loved the power and simplicity of that statement.

In Proverbs of Ashes authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker make a compelling case against both traditional and contemporary Christian interpretations of Jesus’ death, but the greatest power of the book lies not in its theological arguments – though they are very strong – but in the vulnerability displayed in the telling of their personal stories involving violence, childhood sexual abuse, and other forms of victimization experienced both in their own lives and in those of others they encountered.  Parts of the book are emotionally devastating.  Ultimately they question whether anything remotely like salvation can ever come from violence.

Had he desired to do so, Jesus could have wrought the reign of God through power and might – some of his followers may have even expected or hoped for that kind of outcome – but Jesus went the opposite route; he became completely vulnerable to his tormentors. It’s typically taught that his sacrifice is what saves us.  

Many years ago, I went through a wrenching heartbreak when a man I was dating chose to date someone else. Up to that point, both of us only had a tentative toe in the dating waters, keeping much of our hearts behind a curtain – or wall – of fear. We both feared rejection and I feared vulnerability, and so we confronted an impasse rather than relationship. But a day or so after he broke the news, we opened up to each other in a way we’d not yet done, disclosing our innermost thoughts and fears. As I drove in tears the next day to visit friends in another state, I thought about our hearts broken open, at the freedom that brought, about Christ on the cross, and about how it seemed when we were at our most vulnerable, we were really at our most powerful.

And in that moment, I felt the presence of God in the car with me.

In the book, Rebecca Ann Parker writes of her repeated sexual abuse as a five year old at the hands of her next door neighbor. She describes one especially horrific episode this way:

When I was raped as a child, there was a moment that I have been able to remember in which I was quite sure I was going to die – and perhaps I was, in fact, close to being killed…In that moment I knew that there was a Presence with me that was ‘stronger’ than the rapist and that could encompass my terror. This Presence had a quality of unbounded compassion for me and unbreakable connection to me, an encompassing embrace of me and for that matter, of the man raping me. I understood that if I died, I would somehow still be with this Presence, this Presence would ‘take me up,’ this Presence was ‘greater than’ death, and ‘greater than’ the power of the man who was raping me. This Presence could not stop the man from killing me, if he chose to. And, at the same time, it could stop him. Because, I knew, if he noticed it he would be stopped. You couldn’t be aware of this Presence and do what the man was doing to me. He only could do it by not noticing, not knowing. So, this Presence did have the power to save me from death and there is a way in which I believe it did. (p. 211-212)

Parker recognizes that our awareness of the Presence of God is sometimes made keener in such moments as when we are near death or in crisis, but she’s equally adamant that the Presence is with us – and available to us – all the time and everywhere.

But we have to be open to it to see it, to feel it, to recognize it. We have to be a little bit vulnerable.

 

Note: One of the best talks I’ve heard about vulnerability is the TED talk Brene Brown delivered a few years ago (that has now been viewed over 6 million times). It’s well worth a watch.

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