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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

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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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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Source: Grace Cathedral website

I just walked into the womb of God.

At least that’s what the labyrinth spread out upon the floor of the chapel at the Claremont School of Theology became for me this evening. We’ve been exploring a different contemplative practice in our class each week, and this week was the practice of walking the labyrinth. For those who are not familiar, a labyrinth is a winding pathway that is typically walked in a meditative way as a means of deepening one’s relationship with God. Unlike mazes, labyrinths have no dead ends or high walls; their pathway leads in to a center and then back out again.

It is thought that labyrinths might have been used to take the place of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and their use in the United States has become more popular in recent years due, in part, to the work of people like Lauren Artress from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  Here at school, we’re in the final throes of our semester, and our canvas labyrinth has been installed in the chapel to help with stress reduction as well as contemplation.

We entered the chapel adorned with lit candles, icons, and music, and I entered the pathway with a prayer expressing my intention to welcome God’s presence.  At turns in the circuit, I imagined things I wanted to be rid of – ways of thinking that no longer serve me – and immediately felt tears stinging my eyes as I prayed to let them go.

Right foot spread from heel to toe, raised leg, and then left foot following suit; over and over again, I connected body to ground, body to ground, praying for a better connection between body and soul, and body and heart. As I rounded a turn near the illuminated icons, there was Mother and Child and I saw myself held in the arms of my Mother God. I was held still in her gaze for a long moment of deep connection.

And then I knew that I was not just walking toward the center of a labyrinth, but I was walking toward the womb of my Mother God, Mother Sophia, and that it was in Her womb that I would be fed and formed and finally birthed as a new being back into the world. Every turn now brought her loving presence deeper into my body, and I breathed in this new found joy. Mother Sophia! Mother God! Now the saxophone jazz was a celebration, now the prayers were praise, now the Love was right Here.

 

Sources: The Way We Pray: Celebrating Spirit from Around the World, Maggie Oman Shannon  (Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 2001) and 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times, Teresa A. Blythe (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006.

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For the two and a half years before I went back to school to get a masters degree, I rented a 100-year-old farmhouse on eight acres of land in the northeast Georgia mountains. That region is definitely my soul’s home, and I loved living there more than any other place I’ve lived. Many days I would sit on the front porch watching the local traffic go by, or the horses in one of the nearby pastures.

On one of those days, a small fire began when a tree fell and took a power line with it that then set the grass on fire.  Because of a drought, everything was frighteningly dry and so it didn’t take much to get things smoking.  Luckily, the fire was out and the power restored pretty quickly and aside from a scorched place in the pasture, everything turned out fine.

I’ve read that a fire in a forest can spark new growth; the combination of more sunlight getting to younger trees, more air and maybe needed nutrients getting into the ground seems to kick start the life force again.

I think that can happen with people too.  We’ve all known periods in our lives that can only be described as fiery; those times when things get so hot and hurt so badly that we’re left as dark as scorched earth.  Maybe those fires are sparked by loss, illness, or by changes that we just didn’t see coming.  No matter the reason, when we’re in those furnace times, we usually just want to get out as quickly as possible.

Yet I’m always inspired by people who came out of their own fires with more courage, strength or wisdom then they had going in.  Can’t we all name people that lived out the definition of “grace under pressure?”

I was amazed several years ago to learn the story of Thomas A. Dorsey (a Georgia native) and his writing of the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”  Dorsey had been a blues pianist, working in bars, until a spiritual healing after a nervous breakdown led him to commit his life to God.  The result was the creation of modern gospel music.  In 1932 he left behind his pregnant wife to perform at a revival in St. Louis, when he finished singing he was given a telegram saying she had died in childbirth.  He rushed home to learn he had a son.  Dorsey held that baby all night, but by morning the boy had died.  He was bereft and withdrew from life, until a friend left him in a room containing only a piano.  In those quiet moments, the notes to “Precious Lord” – one of the most beloved gospel songs ever written – came pouring out.

A while back, I was listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” (as a lifelong Lutheran, it seems kind of like a requirement) and Garrison Keillor led the audience in a singing of “It Is Well with My Soul.”  Horatio Spafford, who penned the lyrics to the song, was also no stranger to fire.  He was married with five children but lost his only son in 1871.  Just a few months later, the Great Chicago Fire consumed his real estate investments and he lost all his savings.  Then, in 1873, the family planned a vacation to Europe.  Spafford sent his wife and daughters on ahead so he could tie up some loose ends before joining them a few days later.

The ship on which they sailed collided with another, and 226 people lost their lives.  When she reached safety, his wife sent him this heartbreaking telegram: “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”  He left immediately to bring her home, and when his own ship crossed the waters where his daughters drowned, he wrote these words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Out of the ashes; life.  Out of the ashes; song.  Listen, and you’ll hear the sound of faith.

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What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then? ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I love dream work. I don’t even remember when I began working with my dreams, although I know that I began my love affair with all things Jungian after reading Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. That book and her audio series Theatre of the Imagination are truly banquets for the soul. I’m glad I still have a car with a cassette deck so I can keep listening to Estes’ evocative voice and entrancing storytelling while driving. But I digress; we were talking about dreams.

Dream work is commonly done in Jungian psychology, and it is based on the idea that our psyche is made up of both conscious and unconscious aspects. Jung believed that the unconscious held information of which we were not yet aware, but which could be life enhancing and important for our well being. In addition to our personal unconscious, he believed there was a transpersonal collective unconscious which holds the kinds of archetypal patterns that come to humanity in dreams, fairy tales and wisdom stories or myths. He believed that there was a pattern of wholeness in each psyche that he called the Self, and that this Self could use the symbolic language of the unconscious to speak to us through dreams.

Rev. Jeremy Taylor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and author, believes that all dreams come to us in the service of health and wholeness. I personally believe – and have experienced – that dreams are a language that God uses to be in dialogue with us, to show us love and to give us guidance. Tuning in to our dreams, I believe, helps us tune in to God’s purposes for our lives.

I’m currently in a doctoral program at Claremont Lincoln University, and taking a class in Teaching Contemplative Practices. Last night, I led our class in a contemplative practice using dream work. Though I’ve led groups before in dream work – where the whole gathering works together on one dream at a time – but last night’s practice was different, more meditative. I suggested that this practice could be almost like a kind of lectio divina, where the dream is approached as a sacred text. After the participants reviewed their dream in their minds, and then wrote down the images and the associations they held for each, I invited them to hold all the images in front of their minds’ eyes and contemplate them like an icon, like a window to the Sacred, opening themselves to any message that the dream may have come to offer. Finally, we paused in silence and gratitude for the dream and the Dream Giver.

Many of the participants shared that they’d had an “aha” moment of new insight into something related to the dream. Certainly, those kinds of insights can be just as sweet as any rose with which we awaken.

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One of my favorite movies is 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” starring Sally Field, Ed Harris, John Malkovich and Danny Glover.  It is set in Depression-era Texas where Field plays a young woman suddenly widowed when a young black boy who’d had too much to drink shoots her sheriff husband and then himself and thrusts her into the role of provider for herself and her two small children.  She is helped in her efforts to raise a crop of cotton, and to bring it first to the cotton gin for extra prize money, by Glover’s character – a drifter – and the blind “Mr. Will,” played by Malkovich.  It was through this movie that I first heard the hymn “Blessed Assurance,” one I’ve loved singing ever since.

The movie is full of pain and tragedy although, thankfully, it ends on a positive note.  I’m not sure if the saying I’ve associated with it ever since was featured in text in the opening credits or not, but the words I remember go like this: “There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; pain must be in order that they be.”  I take this to mean that the sad truth about human existence is that our hearts can be expanded – new places created – through painful events.

In searching the Internet for that phrase and its attribution, I’ve learned that it was written by French author Leon Bloy and that mine is not the correct version.  In truth, Bloy wrote:

Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

The writer who set me straight says that Bloy’s wisdom reminds him of something said after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by President Kennedy: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

I’m also aware of a passage from the 30th Chapter of Isaiah that the Jerusalem Bible translates in this way:

When the Lord has given you the bread of suffering
and the water of distress, he who is your teacher will hide no longer,
and you will see your teacher with your own eyes.
Whether you turn to right or left,
your ears will hear these words behind you,
‘This is the way, follow it.’

What this says to me is that if God emerges as our visible teacher after we experience suffering, then God is first our invisible teacher through the disguise of that very suffering.

Oftentimes, a sticking point for unbelievers is the inability to understand how an all-powerful God could allow suffering.  Yet it’s my opinion that a human coming to an understanding of suffering is like a dog coming to an understanding of calculus.  We’ll never have the capacity to reach that level of perspective.  From my limited perspective, though, wisdom isn’t the only by-product of suffering; it is in suffering’s pressure cooker that we develop compassion and humility as well.

The reality-bending final scene of “Places in the Heart” is unforgettable.  In that scene the congregation shares the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and all are present in that feast – from the hard-working heroes of the story to the now-dead drunk who shot the sheriff and even those who in their racist fury beat Glover’s character to try to prevent his success.  All are at this table of forgiveness – those who suffer and those who caused that suffering – for we all contain both aspects.  This is the humbling truth of human existence, we all fall short and we are all still loved just the same and the suffering we experience along the way can give us new places in our hearts of more forgiveness, more compassion and more love.

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We are coming upon the end of the Christian season of Lent, with tomorrow being Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. Most people may not think about this aspect of these days much, but this course of days is a living out of the life-death-life cycle that we see everywhere throughout all of creation. It’s represented so wonderfully in a favorite hymn called “Now the Green Blade Rises,” with text written by John M.C. Crum in 1928:

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Most of us don’t think about that when the new plant life springs up, it’s a result of the death of the seed. We don’t like to think about death, but it’s as much a natural part of the universe as is life. And it’s a requirement for new life to come.
I recently went through my own death and rebirth, due to ideas about God that I was carrying around that had to die. The seeds of this death were planted in me just about three years ago, and so today I’m going to share an essay I wrote at that time in 2009 when I was living in northeast Georgia and did a silent retreat in Cullman, AL.

What Will Happen if We Wait for God?

Before the fruit is ripened by the sun
Before the petals or the leaves uncurl
Before the first fine silken root is spun
A seed is dropped and buried in the soil.

We are currently in the Church’s season of Lent, which, like Advent, is not a season of celebration.  These are times of waiting and of the kind of light-scarce in-between-ness that those who only visit churches on Christmas and Easter typically want no part of.  Lent is meant to honor the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested.
So it’s fitting that I am spending five days of my own Lent this year in a retreat house run by Benedictine nuns in Cullman, Alabama.  I’ve been in some spiritual distress lately, and needed to immerse myself in the silence of a place outside of ordinary life, where I could seek some measure of resolution.

For the last several months I’ve been busy submitting applications for graduate school and though I’m very excited about this new pathway of theological education, some old familiar dragons have been rearing their ugly heads again.
Like many people, my early life was no picnic, and those years left a host of bumps and bruises on my psyche.  I’ve spent most of my adult life digging the corpses out of my inner archeology, but even after all that effort, I am still haunted by disembodied voices that seem to be able to moan only one tune – and it’s full of rejection.

Most days I can keep a lid on that voice and go about my daily business with confidence and cheer, but when that self-rejection demon is unleashed it returns with a vengeance.  It’s became very clear to me that this is not a voice I want to take to graduate school.

So I came to this monastery to find the courage and the loving space to deal with this part of my shadow.  I’d read a book in which the main character learns that running from his dark shadow only gives it more power, but turning to face it and recognizing it as a part of himself allows him to embrace it and, in so doing, to become whole and free.  I adopted “whole and free” as my new credo and came to the convent armed for spiritual dragon, ready for figurative sword fights.

I’m writing this three days into my retreat and things have not necessarily gone as planned.  I think God is asking me to put down my sword and to stop working so hard; that I don’t have to stand on my head to be loved.  I think God is telling me to take my hands off the wheel of this bus.

I think God is teaching me that God is not a big angry Father in the sky or even a Benevolent Cop that I have to appease by perfectly following all the rules in order to be given permission to live.  But I’ve lived my whole life turning myself inside out to please a stern Father-God so I could be loved, and feeling like no matter what I did, it was never quite good enough.
So what will happen if I let go of the reins and quit trying to make healing happen through my own sweat and tears?  If I just hang myself and my heart out here – naked, hungry, scared and vulnerable – will God come?

I don’t honestly know.  So I wait in this time of Lent.  I wait in the darkness before dawn, like the seed that is first buried in the soil before it is reborn to new life.  At least that is my hope.  Today we sang a hymn called “Before the Fruit is Ripened” by Thomas H. Troeger and Carol Doran and it ends with these words:

Before we gain the grace that comes through loss
Before we live by more than bread and breath
Before we lift in joy an empty cross
We face with Christ the seed’s renewing death.

* * * *

The rest of the hymn about the rising of the green blade goes like this:

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

I hope this season brings new life to whatever places in your heart are “saddened, grieving or in pain” and that the Sacred Life within you arises green.

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