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Posts Tagged ‘bruce epperly’

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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In the same way that tides ebb and flow, I’ve learned that my faith life can display the same kind of movement. There are times when God’s grace is surely at “high tide,” and I’m drinking from a fire hose with dreams and synchronicities abounding. Those times are heady and seductive, leaving the “low tide” periods that much more dry and distressing.

As someone who’s struggled with depression off and on throughout my life, those periods of low tide sometimes leave me wondering if God even remembers that I’m here. I’ve often joked with friends that I suspect, at times, that God may have “lost my file,” as if there’s a cabinet with manila folders all neatly labeled with each of our names in permanent Sharpie markers.

I’m just emerging from one of those dark times, and it’s been quite a rough patch.  So it surprised even me when I found myself making an impassioned declaration of faith in class the other day.

I had given a presentation where I talked about process theology’s view of Christ as “creative transformation” and Jungian psychology’s journey of “individuation” toward the archetypal Self, highlighting the ways in which I found both systems of thought complementary. I talked about Jung’s idea of the “collective unconscious,” and how it is from this shared unconscious that is both within and beyond our individual psyche that the symbols in dreams emerge, symbols that often have a “numinous” or sacred quality. Many of us who do active dream work know without a doubt that those dreams can be, in the words of Bob Haden, “letters from God.”

A fellow student asked if Jung saw this “collective unconscious” as divine, and if Jung believed in a divine “being” or not. Since Jung tried to limit his discussion to the psychological aspects, it’s not easy to pin him down on that question, but Jung did say to a BBC interviewer that he didn’t believe God exists, he knew God exists. Still, I struggled to clearly answer the question.

But then I said, “look, I don’t know what to say about the collective unconscious, but what I do know is that there’s something bigger than me that loves me.”

That, my friends, was a moment of pure grace.  

In a chapter on “wonder, love, and praise” Bruce Epperly writes in Tending to the Holy that Charles and John Wesley had a “lively sense of grace” and believed that “grace was the first and the last word of Christian experience.” (p. 22)

It was a wonder to me when those words came out of my mouth after the despair I’ve felt in the last year. Yet I think Charles Wesley was on to something when he penned these lines to his hymn “O the Depth of Love Divine”:

Sure and real is the grace, the manner be unknown;
only meet us in thy ways and perfect us in one. L
et us taste the heavenly powers, Lord, we ask for nothing more.
Thine to bless,’ tis only ours to wonder and adore.

 

 

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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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Just a little over 16 years ago, a three year old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and lay lifeless on the ground until a female gorilla named Binti approached him. Did she hurt him? No. Rather, Binti picked him up and cradled and comforted him, just as if he was one of her own. She then carried the boy to the door of the enclosure so that paramedics could take him out.

Frans de Waal, a primatologist in Atlanta would not be surprised at this gorilla behavior. I heard a presentation he delivered in 2010 at the American Academy of Religion conference where he talked about what he describes as “the roots of morality” in animals. In a blog for the New York Times called “Morals without God?”, de Waal describes humans’ similarity to apes in this way,

No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

At both Zoo Atlanta and a wildlife sanctuary in northeast Georgia, I had my own “close encounters” with primates that though, while being a safe distance away or behind glass, showed me without doubt how much we have in common, and how much presence and subjectivity lies behind their eyes.

Process theology supports this view of our connection to the non-human creatures with whom we share this planet. In Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bruce Epperly tells us that “process theology asserts that humankind is embedded in the process of planetary evolution…” Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts said in lectures collected as Tao of Philosophy that the earth “peoples” in the same way that an apple tree “apples” and that humans are more like the apples on the tree than we are like the birds sitting on its branches. In other words, humans, like all animals, are just part of the ecosystem.

Some religious people balk at the concept of human embeddedness within creation, but I remember how it felt to lock eyes with an adult male chimpanzee, how the deep connection from one sacred being to another was unmistakable. In Atlanta, I asked de Waal if he’d ever had a similar experience, and he said that most primatologists entered the field because of just such an encounter.

We can celebrate and not fear this embeddedness because, as Epperly writes,

 The fact that humans, chimpanzees, and apes share 99 percent of their DNA and have common ancestors in no way diminishes the wonder, value, and beauty of human existence. In a lively meaning-filled universe of experience, to say that humans have evolved from less complex forms of life does not deny human worth or our unique relationship with God, but places our lives in the context of a God-inspired universe in which the whole earth is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3) and everything that breathes praises God (Psalm 150:6).

Being part of the ecosystem means we can be at home here, and embrace the kin that live amongst us, whether they walk on two legs or four, or have fur, feathers, or fins.

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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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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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