acceptance, Being Fully Human, Bible, diversity, domestic violence, glbt, inclusion, Interfaith, Progressive Christianity, st. lucia, stories, tension in the tank

Tension in the Tank

Barbara Lee AuthorI write today a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to read a blog or two because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual life.

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

Living a good life offers us another option: a life of accountability; a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure; a spirituality that challenges us to do our best, to not take what we have for granted, to take risks, to set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your journey fresh and vital?

Tension Within

Tension comes first of all from within. It is the feeling that stirs us to act when we hear about disaster relief efforts, world hunger appeals or abuse prevention programs. It is the feeling that moves us to volunteer for Family Promise, attend the Summit on Diversity, pack our bags and go on a pilgrimage. It is the feeling that makes us restless when we fail to take time to reflect, to meditate, to pursue our own chosen path.

Tension also comes from living a life that’s not always easy, not always comfortable. Not of us is spared from tribulations and trials. We have known and will know difficulty, hardship and pain. We can choose to let those experiences weaken and defeat us, or we can use them to discover strength, resolve and resiliency we never knew we had.

Does God Love “Those People”?

Tension also comes from other outside forces. Let’s be honest. One of those external sources of tension for many of us is living in a conservative part of the country. In my first year of seminary I had a disturbing experience. No. I had many disturbing experiences. This was among the worst.

The professor asked what we would want someone to know who walked into our church. “We are friendly,” came one answer, “this is a place of worship” came another. “God is here” was followed by “the location of the bathroom”—that might have been tongue in cheek. Then someone said, “God loves you.” Ooh. Hey. Wow. “How does that sound?” asked the professor. “Do we want people to know God loves them?” “Yes, yes,” we all affirmed. Whew, one question I could get right.

Then that young guy with dark hair who always sat on the far right side of the room stood up and said—this actually happened—“Wait a minute. Can we really say that God loves everyone who comes to our churches? I mean I’ve read my Bible and it seems pretty clear to me that God loves some people and he’s really upset with others. I’ve heard you talking about welcoming drug addicts and prostitutes and homosexuals in church and I think God must hate that. I just don’t think we can say God loves ‘those’ people.”

I was dumbstruck. After all, at that time I was the minister at Extended Grace where our whole reason for being was to go out of our way to embrace “those” people. People who had been told or shown that they were not welcome. People who had come to church seeking grace and instead found gatekeepers that would not let them in. Gatekeepers who thought they had the right and the responsibility to impose their truth on other people.

The Real Consequence of Shutting Doors

Of course, when we shut doors, we are merely locking ourselves in, and stopping our own journey forward. Most of us have been disillusioned by institutions that claim to have God all wrapped up in a tight little box they call “truth.” We long for a deep relationship with the ultimate reality that is beyond human description. We seek truth in a way that is not bound to human dogma, or to the boundaries of gender, race, background, ability, or orientation.

And to do that, we pursue Open Inquiry, radically opening ourselves up to possibility and wonder. Seeking to connect the body, the mind, and the spirit with science, nature and art. What truth can be found comes not just from knowledge, but also from feelings and intuition. The truth is not “out there” but right here: in me, in you, in community, in our relationships to each other and to the world. This is a quest that finds us swimming with catfish: the catfish of ambiguity, the catfish of uncertainty, and the catfish of doubt – important companions on any journey worth taking.

Stories Add Tension to the Tank

Another source of tension are the stories we hear and the stories we tell. Stories are formative, whether they come from Aesop or Grimm or Greek mythology or scripture. They tell us something about the world, something about who we are, and something about what we can or should be. They add tension to our life and challenge us to be more fully human.

Many of the stories I heard growing up were in the Bible. Now we can criticize the indoctrination we received and the lack of choices we were presented with when we were children, but the truth is there is no culture in the world that does not teach children through story. Those Biblical stories, like Esther that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, still add tension to my life. These stories don’t teach me about science, nor do they teach me about God. They teach me about being human. Story after story illustrates human beings trying to figure out the world and their place in it. Human beings who sometimes succeed in being good and gracious and just. And human beings who fail miserably at those tasks.

There is something to be gained in stories from all cultures, all traditions and all religions. Because when we explore the stories, in context, and with an eye and an ear geared toward new awareness, stories challenge us to be more than we are, to be more fully human. To live a good life. In the story is the excitement about what we have been and what we could be. Stories add tension to the tank.

Your Visiting Catfish

In that way, I hope that this blog also adds tension to your life and, even though the image isn’t particularly flattering, I hope that you think of me as your visiting catfish. Yes, you find here words of comfort and support in a world that is so often hostile and full of fear. But I hope my words also discomfort you. That they challenge you to face your own shadows, to squirm in the reality that we are not being all that we can be, not doing all that we can do.

We are all human beings with different backgrounds and different lenses through which we see the world. And no matter what our vehicle of Open Inquiry it should add the tension to our life that we need in order to make a difference, to motivate us toward the good, toward being part of healing each other and healing our world.

Out of Our Comfort Zone

When was the last time you intentionally did something outside of your comfort zone? That was difficult or frightening? It is in daring ourselves to do what we haven’t done before that we discover new talents, new abilities and begin to develop new muscles.

I stepped firmly outside of my comfort zone when I traveled to St. Lucia last week. I was there to be interviewed on a local radio station. The interview itself went very well and afterward one of the people who heard the show called me as soon as it was over and invited me to come to the International Women’s Day event to be held later that day. I was glad to be there and met some wonderful, inspiring individuals.

But in the midst of all of the motivational speaking and calls to action regarding domestic violence and other abuse so often suffered by women – particularly women in developing countries – there was the continuation of the myth of a male God. These good hearted women where finding encouragement in the midst of adversity by relying on a Father God who would love them, never desert them and who had created them perfect and beautiful.

And I so wanted to interrupt everything to say, “Don’t you see what you’re doing? Stop looking for some Almighty Male God to love you and give you permission to be the amazing beautiful people you are! See that beauty in yourself! See that there is nothing out there that isn’t in here! Claim your own perfection and know that you have the credentials to do so!” Of course doing so was out of the question. It would have come across as arrogant, ignorant and rude. Any opportunity to have a positive impact, to plant a seed would have been lost.

Radio St. Lucia

There was even more tension when I answered the invitation to be a guest on Radio St. Lucia – the national broadcasting network. Having been lulled into a false sense of security in my first radio interview, I wasn’t exactly prepared for the onslaught of conservative rhetoric that was going to be thrown my way. The host was far more confrontational. He didn’t like Interfaith to begin, he didn’t like masturbation, and he really didn’t like (or more importantly understand) homosexuality. He said things that were both antiquated and offensive.

Then people started calling in. Offering many of the same challenges to my faith and my perspective. There was even one guy who called in to say, “Why do some people like to have sex with animals?” Seriously! And in the midst of that kind of tension, I was propelled to find new ways of containing my emotions in order to find a way to connect and communicate.

After the fact, I learned that Radio St. Lucia sees itself as an outreach of the church, seeking to reach those who are homebound, as well as the unchurched and the unsaved. The feel the threat of Islam and Rastafarianism. Can you believe it? At the end of the interview, I was longing for the rampant liberalism of my very conservative hometown in Grand Haven, Michigan!

So I have decided that this is my challenge in the coming days. To finding a way to craft that message in such a way that it can reach out and touch people where they are now, affirm them, and challenge them to grow in a way that respects and honors their starting point so that my words do not become adversarial roadblocks, but tools that anyone can use to propel their journey forward.

A Spiritual Life is a Life of Tension

Whatever our path, we should not be content to sit on the EZ Boy recliner of life in inactivity and passiveness. A good life, a spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths and philosophies as equal and valid and challenges societies that favor only one path, where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

For all of our advances, our world is still a place of violence. We do not live in harmony and tranquility but in a place where wives are battered and parents abuse their children. Where the earth is plundered. Where competition is glorified and losers are humiliated. Where our international relationships are full of conflict and fear and the construction of war systems that virtually assure mutual destruction. Violence is a core structural element of our lives.

Today as people who seek peace we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because the good life does not call us into a place of relief. It calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension.

This work isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do. The challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives. Prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other.

Hmmm… sounds a little fishy to me!


buddhism, china, confucianism, eastern spirituality, Interfaith, spirituality, taoism, tibet

Experiencing the Tao

Happy Chinese New Year! 

experiencing the tao

Thursday February 19 began a new year in China – the year of the goat or the sheep or the ram, depending on the inflection you use to pronounce it. Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality. Those born in goat years (1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003 and 2015) are said to be artistic, charming, sensitive, and sweet. It is known as the most creative sign in the Chinese zodiac.

China Buddha

In addition to it being the year of the Sheep, it is also the year 4713. China resisted the Gregorian calendar until 1912 but it was not widely used throughout the country until the Communist victory in 1949 when Mao Zedong ordered that the year should be align with the Gregorian calendar.

I first visited China and Tibet in 4703 and found an interesting paradox between the cultures. In Tibet, the whole country oozed of spirituality. The faith of the people seeped out of every pore and crevice. But in China, I found I had to ask about spirituality. I wanted to compare what I had learned of Eastern religion with what actual Easterner’s had to say.

But when I would ask people if they were a Buddhist or a Taoist – I discovered that we were talking about two very different things. I was asking them about a “belief.” If they supported the teachings of a particularly religion.

But they heard me ask, “Do you practice Buddhism or Taoism?” And one after another they answered “No. I’m not a disciple. But someday I hope to be.” I actually found myself fighting not to say something like, – no I just mean do you believe in what they teach – not do you really live like they teach! Time and time again people who knew and believed in the merits of a religion, refused to claim the name of that religion for themselves without making a serious commitment to living by it first.

China Taoist Temple

Can you imagine? That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you decide to love your neighbor as yourself. That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you replace the values of might and greed with justice and mercy. That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you actually start living like Jesus did. And where would that leave the Christian church in our country today?

It seems to me this Chinese approach to religious affiliation recognizes and respects something about the group, communal experience. Faith isn’t just an individual decision, but also a way of entering into community. There is something about my claim to a religious affiliation that affects other people who make that same claim. And if I am not ready to commit to that community, I refuse to usurp their name. The people of China didn’t adopt this attitude overnight but over thousands of years of life together.

Buddha China Community

One of the first places we visited when we arrived in Beijing was Tian Tan or the Temple of Heaven. The Temple was built in 1420 (a relatively modern structure given the setting). Every year Emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties came here to pray for rain and a good harvest and to make sacrifices to Heaven. The Emperors had a unique role to play as the agent between the two worlds. The Emperor was for all practical purposes the God of the people, although officially he was considered the “son of God.”

The structure of the Temple is a good representation of all the architecture of the period. It is laid out in three main sections connected by a walkway. The focus of the first section is the Abstinence Palace, a square building set on a square piece of land. The Chinese believe that squares symbolize the earth while circles symbolize heaven. This is an earthly structure. Yellow is the color of the emperor and no one else in all of China would have been allowed to use the color yellow. All yellow roofs would indicate that the building belonged to the emperor. This building and every other building in China has a raised threshold at every door and every gateway. This was intended to keep evil spirits from entering because they would have to jump over the threshold.

From the Abstinence Palace the emperor would have walked to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Here the courtyard is square but the building is circular. And on the periphery of the square is another building. Before entering the Prayer Hall the emperor would go into this building and change his clothes – taking off his yellow garments. This was necessary because the Emperor was approaching God as his son and not his equal.

The third section is the Circular Mound Altar and the Tianxi Stone. No one was allowed to stand on this raised center stone for this was the spot closest to heaven. Not even the emperor addressing his father God as his son would ever have done such a thing as to stand on this stone.

So it was somewhat heartbreaking to see people not only standing on the stone, but also assuming mocking poses. There was a great irony in my trip. That in the course of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution holy places had become tourist attractions, yet without the revolution I would never have been able to see the sights that I saw. And I was moved that the Ming Tombs and other burial places are left unexcavated – testimony to the fact that at least for the time being respect for the dead is more important than additional tourist destinations.

Chinese architecture dragon

Kevin was my tour guide for this trip. His real name is Yang Ger Gong. Kevin is always cheerful and he reminds you of a mother hen, leading her chicks about, always looking back to be sure no one has strayed off course and gotten lost. And he tends to loosen up a bit and tell Chinese jokes after a bit of Bourbon!

Kevin’s grandparents credit Mao Zedong and the Communist Revolution with saving their lives. He calls them Maoists. His parents, a geologist and a photographer, fled to Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. When Keven was 10 years old the Chinese government allowed children in exile to return to the mainland. Kevin moved 300 miles away from his parent’s home to live with his grandparents. His parents practice no religion, but Kevin, at 24 years old, had come to embrace Taoism.

Interfaith Pilgrimage

As he shared his faith, I found myself deeply resonating with his convictions. One morning I woke with the vision of Pilgrim Spirit Tours imprinted firmly in my mind. I knew I would return to China and that I would lead others who wished to experience the spirituality of the East. I began talking to Kevin in earnest about what such a pilgrimage would include and it was his suggestion to visit the 5 Famous Peaks – the holy mountains of Taoism, as well as spiritual centers for Buddhism and Confucianism.

It was exciting planning the return trip but what I had not anticipated was Kevin’s joy. As we walked out of Beijing International Airport two years later and boarded our first bus, Kevin told us that this was to be a special trip. He explained that very few people – including Chinese Taoists – ever make it to all five peaks. He had been to two of them himself. Kevin’s joy would only magnify as we journeyed together for the next two weeks.

There are the three main belief systems in China: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Buddhism is a transplant religion from India. Both Confucianism and Taoism originated in China over 2500 years ago, 500 to 600 years before the time of Jesus. Older still is a book both of them use called the I Ching.

The I Ching was written in the early part of the Chou dynasty that began in 1120BC. It is sometimes used for divination or fortune telling, but more often it is used as a philosophical text. The I Ching is based on yin and yang – the two great interactive forces that are the polarities of existence and life’s basic opposites, such as good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, summer and winter, passive and active.

Pilgrim Spirit Tours

The symbol for Yin Yang is called the Taijitu (Tai-G-to) and it has come to represent Taoism. The two halves complement and balance each other. Each moves into the other and exists in the deepest recesses of its partner’s domain. And in the end both find themselves at home in the circle that surrounds them, the Tao in its eternal wholeness.

So what exactly is the Tao? Huston Smith provides three definitions for the Tao. It is first of all the way of ultimate reality. It cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom. Second, although it is ultimately transcendent, the Tao is also immanent. It is the way of the universe, the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Finally, it is the way of humankind. Kevin put it this way, “The universe has a Way but nobody knows where the way is, and still everyone follows it. That is Tao.”

The Tao accomplishes great things by means of small things. Taoism seeks harmony with nature and all things through a principle called wu wei or non-action or an ever better phrase “creative quietude.” Creative quietude combines supreme activity and supreme relaxation. It flows through us when our private egos and conscious efforts yield to a power not their own.

China Pilgrimage

In Confucianism the Tao is understood as the moral way to which the ruler as a superior man should aspire. Its most used sacred text is called the Analects. Confucius taught social and personal morality that stressed the practice of key virtues. No matter what the specific religion or lack of religion of the Chinese people, they are also Confucian. It is so historically socially bred in the culture that you could call say its part of the DNA.

Confucianism is almost exclusively cognitive which is why it is considered a philosophy rather than a religion. It teaches that one becomes a “superior man” when he reaches moral and intellectual maturity. This non-inclusive language is intentional as women were not expected or encouraged to pursue self-cultivation in that time.

The chief virtue is Benevolence. Filiality is another virtue that involves reverencing one’s living ancestors and worshiping one’s dead ancestors. It stresses deference, obedience and faithfulness to parents. The virtue that we saw most plainly lived out as we observed traffic patterns and moved among the Chinese was the value of Propriety or “ritual correctness” or “good manners.” Almost everyone we had any contact with seemed to have a highly developed sense of politeness and civility.

China Pilgrimage

Taoism, on the other hand, is clearly a religion. Taoists claim Lao Tzu as the religion’s founder. After he died, Lao Tzu’s disciples wrote down his teachings in a book called the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius. The Chinese even claim that he traveled to the academy in which Confucius taught. Today there are statues at the Academy that commemorate this meeting.

In contrast with Confucianism, Taoism teaches superiority not through self-cultivation but by tapping through inactivity into the superiority of the Tao. Taoists describe Confucianism as difficulty in the midst of ease; Taoism as ease in the midst of difficulty. The Chinese say, “Confucius roams within society, Lao Tzu wanders beyond.”

There are two kinds of temples prominent in China – those built by Chinese Buddhists and those built by Taoists. When I asked Kevin the main difference between these faiths, he offered two: That Buddhism includes many lives and the focus is on the one to come. Taoism believes only in this life and so the focus is to live in the now. Taoists kowtow at the altars three times like this. Chinese Buddhists bow in a similar way to the Tibetan Buddhists but with an important difference… The palms are significant as they take on a surrendering pasture in Tibet, and a receiving posture in China.

Dragon Carving in China

When we had reached the fifth peak, we had accomplished something few people – even Chinese Taoists – ever achieve in their lifetime. I made an offering of incense and kowtowed in the Temple to show my deep respect for the Tao that had led us and been our Way. Another pilgrim did the same. Then as we began winding our way down the mountain, something was amiss. Kevin – our leader – was nowhere to be seen. It turned out that this one time instead of leading us on, he had lagged behind, kneeling in prayer, offering his own thanks for this pilgrimage and to the Way that had guided him there.

Having learned so much about the different approaches to life within China, I asked Kevin what he thought the main difference was between the East and the West. He said, and I quote, “The West is more confident and selfish. The East is more public” meaning there is an emphasis on the group or the community.

I emailed Kevin after I returned home. I asked him what he wanted me to tell others about China. This is what he said: Just tell them about the China you saw. The real China.

China Taoism That China is a beautiful place, calm and majestic, musical and ancient, vibrant and mysterious, shrouded in mists and striking in color. A country that dances and somehow each person knows the steps so that everything is fluid and flowing. This is what I discovered in China – a giant dance floor in which everyone moves and no one steps on any one else’s feet or pushes anyone else to the periphery of the dance floor.

On busy streets and marketplaces, on bamboo boats and farmer fields, in lush parks that draw young children and old friends, there is a richness in the dance movements that one can only make with other partners who have also learned the steps. China offers us a picture of a community of people who care enough about each other and their common ancestry to actually learn the steps.

Taoism on Chinese Pilgrimage

How much more beauty unfolds in the dance when all people join it – when it includes the rich textures of diversity from the North and from the South, from the East and from the West. This is the dance you and I are invited to experience. The dance of life.



More pictures and the Power Point Presentation at this link:

20150222 c3 experiencing the tao chinese new year

Being Fully Human, change, Christian Mysticism, Compassion, Heresy, Heretic, Humility, Interfaith, pluralism, Progressive Christianity, Spiritual

Tension in the Tank

Tension in the TankI write today with a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to go online because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

 When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual lives. 

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

The spiritual journey offers us another option: a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure, a life of accountability. It is in our spirituality that we are challenged to do our best. To not take what we’ve received for granted. To take risks. To set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your faith fresh and vital?

A Conservative Country 

One of them, I have to guess, is living in the United States where we seem to be having an upsurge of Fundamentalism. Here in West Michigan I am perpetually challenged to be compassionate and understanding toward those who truly believe they owe it to me to let me know I am going to hell. When I was at seminary I had a fellow student who actually took offense at the idea that God could actually love everyone! That was one of the first indications that I was, in fact, in the wrong place!

And of course, so are you. As a spiritual person, you really don’t belong here at all. Which is why you are so infinitely needed here. Right here in this place of tension. We all have had times when the Spirit has broken through to add a little tension to our life.

For me, those moments began when I was quite young. I was welcomed into this world by Lutheran parents. Parents who brought me to church to be baptized at one week of age because the pastor was leaving and they wanted to slip me in quick before he drove away. When I grew older I attended public school. For a while I thought I was incredibly fortunate. Here I was living in the best place in the whole wide world learning the one true religion in the whole world. I was amazingly blessed. But by the time I was in third grade I started wondering about things. Here I was being told at school about those terrible Russians that I was supposed to be afraid of. And for some inexplicable reason it started to dawn on me that Russian kids right at that same moment were in school being taught how terrible and frightening I was.

Then I started to think about those kids who lived in the most remote parts of China, who didn’t know about Jesus and would die without ever knowing Jesus. How come I was so lucky and they were not? What weird twist of universal fate left me in the most envious position in all the world and left others consigned to hell? I didn’t even know the words yet, but that was when I became a heretic and a pluralist. I realized that those kids were being raised in another tradition and that I had no more right to tell them they were wrong and try to take that away from them than they had to try to take my beliefs and understandings away from me.

The Path of Pluralism 

I still feel the same way. I haven’t met anyone yet who shares my exact same concept of reality, my version of Truth as best I have crafted it to date. And hopefully, neither have you. Because if you have then chances are one of you has not done their own thinking.

I am very proud to be a heretic and I like to be in the company of other heretics. Because I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses our spiritual journey becomes tasteless and soggy, if not stagnant and dead.

If we are truly caught up in the mystery then we have to discover at some point that no one can give us the answers, because the answers are always inside of us. Truth can be pointed to, suggested, guessed at, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully find the words to express the great mystery of our existence. And so we speak in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.

Which means we fully embrace the faith journey of all spiritual traditions as equally valid and rewarding, recognizing that we move to a place close enough to God that the distinctions we draw between our faith experiences and others become more and more important as something to raise and up celebrate and less and less important as something to divide and separate us.

Father Thomas Keating reflects that religions are probably supposed to be the starting point of the spiritual journey. Pluralism and the interfaith movement are not about detaching ourselves or uprooting ourselves from our own spiritual history and tradition. In fact, mystics have very rarely separated themselves from their historical religions. Without changing a single letter, they came to understand the meaning of these religions more deeply. Dorothee Sollee writes that, “It isn’t suspicion that turns people away from the church; it is hunger that drives them to seek help wherever their dignity and their right to have a life are being respected.”

If I have to define myself at all, I say that I am a Christian Mystic Taoist. Mysticism is the direct experience of God. The path of the mystics is toward a transforming union with God. Mystical experiences happen in every culture and every faith tradition, among people of all different backgrounds and every walk of life. The question to ask when exploring mystical experiences is not “Who are these people? How are they special?” The question is “What kind of culture honors these experiences and which destroys them?”

For example, childhood is ripe for mystical experiences of awe and amazement and wonder. Among the Native indigenous people of North America, a mother will begin a conversation with her children by asking, “What did you dream?” In my non-indigenous North American home I was always more likely to lead with, “How was school? Do you have homework?” When our dreams and visions are not honored, they tend to become meaningless, embarrassing or simply forgotten.

We Are All Mystics 

The truth is that all of us our mystics and most of us have experienced heightened sensations of awareness or unity or being grasped by the certainty of knowing Spirit’s presence in our life – often at very young ages. But in our haste to leave childhood behind, we may end up labeling those experiences as crazy or silly or the product of an overactive imagination.

The trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest anti-mystical force among us.

To have a mystical experience is to have an altered state of consciousness derived from an encounter with the divine reality. This state is referred to as illumination, enlightenment, awakening or the union of the soul with God. Mysticism is really no different from the promises many religions describe in the language of being made whole, liberation, the peace of God, coming home, and redemption. But mysticism deals with these experiences differently, by lifting them out of doctrine and freeing them for feeling, experience and certainty.

Mysticism claims that it is in existential experience, in the actual feeling of it, that we finally know what grace is all about. And to feel grace is to know ecstasy. Mystics claim a relationship with God based on love that arises not because of the demands of powerful institutions or of God, but out of utter freedom. Ken Wilber describes a mystic as one who does not see God as an object, but one who is immersed in God as an atmosphere.

Aldous Huxley describes three gates into mysticism: “We can begin at the bottom, with practice and morality; or at the top, with a consideration of metaphysical truths; or, finally, in the middle, at the focal point where mind and matter, action and thought have their meeting place in human psychology.”

The lower gate is preferred by teachers like Gautama Buddha and those who focus on practices that increase concentration, like yoga, breathing techniques and spiritual disciplines. The upper gate is sought by philosophers and theologians who prefer speculative thought. And the middle gate is the way of spiritual religion exemplified by the Sufi’s of Islam and Christian contemplatives, like Thomas Merton who said we become contemplatives when God discovers God’s self in us.

A spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths as equal and valid and challenges a society that favors only one path, particularly here in conservative America where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

Beyond Tolerance 

Fred Stella talks about the stages of interfaith relationships that begin with tolerance – which essentially means I will let you live. Even in places where ecumenical and interfaith dialogue are occurring, the encounters are often more like a first date. I’ll make my best impression and only show you the really good things about me while trying to decide if I like the little bit of you your willing to reveal. It’s all very pleasant and we feel good afterward, but we never get into places of depth or dare to tread where conflict might exist.

First date relationships are a start, but they will never change fear, hatred or violence. For that we need communication, connection and collaboration. Our communication needs to be on a much deeper and a much more vulnerable level. Our connections have to lead to genuine relationships in which people of other faiths have actual names and faces. Our collaboration has to move us out of our own comfort zone into a space we may have never entered before.

I attended a conference once where I heard a Hindu Christian speak. He suggested that the church’s approach to other traditions has been to embrace a “Theology of Hostility.” Many of you have experienced the consequences of this approach personally. And now those of us who are no longer part of mainstream Christianity have to be careful not to follow that example.

Genuine engagement with others means that instead of explaining ourselves in contrast to others, as superior, better or above others, we begin articulating who we are in a way that makes sense to the other and invites them in rather than shutting them out. We begin by approaching people of all traditions and beliefs with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught but what we have experienced to be true.

And we are wary of the shadow. Because heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own right thinking – declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking WE’RE right and everybody else is WRONG, we only perpetuate an ideology of hostility, pitting one set of human understandings against another.

The spiritual journey is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Nor is it the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. The spiritual journey is about opening ourselves up to truth we do not yet have the words to describe or the language to share. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of us vs them and the construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.

The Promise of Tension 

Today as Spiritual people, we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because Spirit does not call us into a place of relief. Spirit calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension. Which is why you are about your work at Spirit Space. You have heard that call and against all odds are pursuing that path into the heart of the Divine. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fast.

The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do; prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other, and to always be prepared for the Spirit to move us in an expected direction as our own heresies change and evolve. For as T.H. Huxley said: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and end as superstitions.”  

So my hope for you is that there will be more tension in your life and that you will think of me, although the image isn’t particularly flattering, as your visiting catfish! For it is the challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey that add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives.


Being Fully Human, Heresy, Heretic, Humility, Interfaith, Progressive Christianity, Relationship, Spiritual



Photo Credit: pave_m via Compfight cc


When they lose their sense of awe,
People turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
They begin to depend upon authority.
Therefore the Master steps back
So that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without a teaching,
So that people will have nothing to learn.
                                         – Tao Te Ching

Once upon a time there was a man named Jesus. He was a teacher and a healer and did many wonderful things. But many of the things he taught contradicted the teachings of the religious and political leaders of the day. He died the terrible death of a criminal at the hands of those who were in authority and those who were afraid to oppose it. But that was not the end of the story because this Jesus was raised into new life and is said to be living with us still even to this day.

In the aftermath of this story of death and resurrection, there were many different understandings and ways that people came to interpret Jesus’ teachings and the Christ event. Some believed Jesus was fully and only human. Some thought he fully and only divine. Some believed he was physically resurrected, others that he was resurrected in the lives of his followers. A vast array of Christ centered faiths emerged with radically different teachings – the likes of which make the differences between Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists pale by comparison.

And in the Greco Roman world that might not have been too much of a problem. All but the Jews were pretty much free to practice the religion and worship the gods of their choosing. But in the case of Christianity, the idea of faith got all mixed up with the idea of correct belief. As soon as Jesus’ followers began to believe that Jesus was somehow the only way to be right with God, Christians became by their very nature exclusivists. They were right in a way that everyone else had to be wrong. And since Christians required right belief, there had to be something concrete to believe in – not some kind of vague, abstract mystical faith, but faith with clear content and documented truth. As soon as it mattered what a person believed in, the debates began.

Lost Christianities

In his book The Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman traces all forms of Christianity today back to a single expression that emerged victorious from those debates in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This one form won the prize of declaring what was the “correct” Christian perspective, who could exercise authority over Christian belief and practice, what forms of Christianity would be marginalized and destroyed, and which books to accept as scripture.

This one form of Christianity gained the sense that it was and had always been “right”. It developed a Creed that affirms the right beliefs, and a theology that includes the view that Christ was both human and divine, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Sacraments, the hierarchy of church leaders and the canon we know as the Holy Bible. That which supports this on form of Christianity is considered orthodox or “right teaching”. Anything that contradicts it is heresy.

Here’s a test I found on an online blog although I couldn’t find an author’s name anywhere. The question is this: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? Or in the words of our text, are there things you keep silent for fear of being put out of the synagogue?

If the answer is no, then it may be that your peers really rock or you may have finally achieved enlightenment and no longer are concerned with opinions or consequences in this earthly existence. But the other possibility is that you agree with everything you are supposed to agree with and disagree with everything you are supposed to disagree with. If so, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just believe it not because of your own experience and investigation but because you’ve been told to.

Now I could be wrong. You may have independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are considered right and appropriate now. Of course that means you are also making the same mistakes – and that usually doesn’t happen by accident. My son Alex and his friend both got the same answer wrong on a test a month ago. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, but they both gave the same bizarre answer. Did they really do their own work and come to the same exceptionally wrong conclusion? Not very likely.

The Necessity of Heresy

If on the other hand you do have opinions that you only share with certain people and in certain places, you probably are a bona fide heretic – and a genuine blessing to the Christian faith.

Because in every time and in every place there is something the orthodoxy has gotten wrong. Mistakes are made. Heretics are necessary for the sake of vision and correction. Our own Lutheran tradition is built upon the teachings of one of the most famous heretics of all time – Martin Luther – proof that today’s heresies are tomorrow’s orthodoxies. More recent heresies include the promotion of racial equality and the ordination of women. Currently the desire for full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church is its own form of heresy.

I for one am proud to be a heretic. Now I’m not going to stand up here with a list of my heresies, if you keep reading my blog you’ll discover then as you go. And I am aware that heresy does risk individualism run amuck with no consideration for the sensibilities of the community.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe that without heresy the church would become stagnant and dead. And I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses our faith becomes stagnant and dead. If we don’t question a single thing we’ve been taught can we authentically claim to believe it – or have we just learned to recite it?

If we are truly caught up in the mystery of God then we have to discover at some point that we have not been given the answers, for the answers are not there to be grasped. Truth can be pointed to, God can be suggested, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully comprehend the great mystery of our existence. And that means the church can’t do it either. Jesus himself spoke in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.

Shortly after I started my work in ministry I was invited to be part of a monthly gathering with people who called themselves “The Dick Rhem Society of Heretics and Believers.” It was the most amazing experience! People were actually saying out loud things that I had thought – and never dared articulate.  I have worked hard and will continue to work to make sure whereever I am engaged in ministry I am helping to create a place where people can bring and share their heresies – not in order to convince everybody that they are the sole holder of truth, but so that we can all admit that the questions are still open and that mystery still remains.

A Theology of Hostility

Dr. Paul Rajashekar, a Theology Professor from Philadelphia, was one of the main speakers at a conference I attended a few years ago. He used the term “Theology of Hostility” to describe the way Christians have traditionally approached other faiths. The term also aptly applies to the Christian approach to heretics.

Joan of Arc, for instance, was condemned as a heretic and a witch for reporting visions and voices she believed to be from God. She was burned at the stake, clutching a cross.

Martin Luther was excommunicated after failing to recant his teachings. He lived out his life in hiding to avoid imprisonment and death.

Galileo, the “father of modern physics” stood trial for promoting the idea the Earth revolves around the sun. Rome required him to recant, sentenced him to prison (later reduced to house arrest) and banned his publications.

Meister Eckhart, the great Christian mystic, died before his trial and remains an official heretic of the church.

And of course many names are lost to us of those who were tortured and killed – a practice of the Orthodox Church that effectively ended not only their lives but also the heresies they dared to express.

Dr. Paul contends that as we live in the midst of many religious traditions, a theology of hostility will no longer work as a means of preserving the church. Instead of explaining our faith in contrast to the faith of others, we must begin articulating our faith in a way that makes sense to the other. We must begin to approach people of other faiths with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught but what we have experienced to be true. And we must be willing to be changed by the witness they bring to us.

The same can be said about heresy. Of course, heretics can be much more frightening because they are so much more like us and so much more likely to challenge our traditionally held beliefs. Indeed, in today’s world every one of our beliefs and every theological claim is a contested claim. Some of those claims have been contested as long as there have been followers of Jesus. Others have become contested as our culture and context has changed. That should not surprise us – for we are the people of a living God and we should expect that faith that is alive is also faith open to change.

Transcending Dogma

All of us need to come to our own faith and that should include some heretical notions. Indeed, we need heresy in order to further evolve as a people of faith. Whatever we know now is NOT all there is to know. Our image of God now is NOT the true image of God. Heresy is a necessary catalyst to be about the reformation we are grounded in.

But heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own orthodoxy – declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking WE’RE right and everybody else is WRONG, we only perpetuate a theology of hostility, pitting one set of human beliefs against another.

Faith, in the end, is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Faith is also not the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. But to spend time in heartfelt meditation and prayer, opening ourselves up to receive truth that no human being can adequately explain but that will call us continually to a place of reformation and transformation. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of orthodoxy vs. heresy and our human construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.

Indeed our call is to be a society of heretics and believers, that we might finally embrace a God who is truly one with all and in all and of all and a Christ that transcends even our most carefully crafted doctrine.

Invitation for Reflection
1)      Why has the church responded so violently against heretics?
2)      When did you begin to question things you had been taught?
3)      What are your own heresies and where do you feel safe giving voice to them?

Socrates: A Good Life
Being Fully Human, Christian Mysticism, Interfaith, philosophy, Relationship, Respect, Spiritual

Eudaimonia: Living a Good Life

socrates compfight common creativeEudaimonia is a Greek word. Eu means “good” and daimon means “spirit.” It is commonly translated as happiness or welfare, but a more accurate definition is “human flourishing.” Eudaimonia is a central concept in Aristotelian ethics and philosophy. To experience eudaimonia was to live the good life.

So what is a good life?

Around 400 BC, the popular belief was that the good life and a life of ethical virtues were very different. A good life was one in which you experience happiness. And a life of virtue could really interfere with happiness.  For instance, if cheating someone would result in you having more money then it would make sense to cheat. This is essentially the argument for hedonism.

Then along came Socrates. He took a very different view of the good life. For him the good life was a life of questioning popular opinion and tradition. It meant cultivating the practice of critical thought and self- awareness. It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  The good life, he believed, was a life that questions and thinks about things. It is a life of contemplation, self-examination and open-minded wondering. The good life is an inner life – the life of open inquiry and an ever-expanding mind.

Socrates student Plato also believed in self-examination, but felt the goal was to enter into the realm of the divine. According to Plato, our psyche had three main parts: the intellectual or rational system, a spirited or emotive system, and a basic system of physical appetites. He felt the “highest” part of us is our reason and that this was a divine fragment of God. This is what he felt made us different from other animals. He believed we need to cultivate this divine part of us and use it to control our emotions and physical instincts. In doing so, he felt that we would accomplish eudaimonia or the state of human flourishing.

For Plato this meant examining our values, seeing if they make sense, and trying to ascend to better and better definitions of truth until we get closer to the perfect, absolute and eternal forms of the Good, the True, and the Just, and so on. Plato believed that, just as there exists a realm of pure math where two plus two always equals four, so there must exist an eternal realm of moral values, which philosophers can ascend to. When we have become masters in practical and theoretical philosophy, then we will finally become ‘masters of our selves’. And because he saw humans as vessels for the divine, he believed that ultimately we could reach a state in which our individual ego is lost in ecstatic union with God.

Sound familiar? This idea of the ‘ascent of the soul’ was very influential on the mystic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In fact, eudaimonia is a concept found in all mystic traditions. Buddhists call in “waking up.” Buddhism teaches that humans are endowed with reason; we can use this reason to condition ourselves to eliminate all conflicting and harming state of minds and cultivate positive ones. In a reading I recently heard Reverend Hung Su share, “as soon as you wake up unbiased a being becomes a Buddha.”

The Academy that Plato founded had one primary underlying premise: that man is a soul using a body as an instrument. Its goal was the conversion of the soul to Truth, and use of that knowledge in the service of humanity. The Academy attracted the best and the brightest from all over Greece and its early graduates included many important lawmakers and mathematicians.

One of the students at the Academy was Aristotle. Aristotle believed that the nature of man included both a rational and an irrational system in his psyche. (I recognize that I am using male pronouns but remember these enlightened men hadn’t figured out yet how much women had to teach them.) Aristotle believed that man has a natural drive for knowledge, happiness and God. The Good life, as he defined it, was a life that fulfills these natural drives, and directs them to their highest end. Philosophy was the bridge between human nature in its raw and undeveloped form and human nature at its highest form. This is what Aristotle called eudaimonia, or flourishing.

Socrates believed that virtue alone was all you needed to have a good and happy life. Aristotle thought you needed virtue for a good life, but you also needed a bit of luck.

Living a Good Life

When George C. Boldt emigrated to the US from Prussia in 1864 he was nearly penniless. He got a job as a dishwasher then went to Texas to find other work. He was unsuccessful and returned to New York with even less money to take another dishwashing job. But his attention to service paid off and he was promoted to cashier and then to manager.

On a day near the turn of the century, a couple was making their way to New York. They had traveled all day and they were tired and ready to sleep when they arrived at the hotel and asked for a room, but George, the manager, explained that they had a convention in town and there was no room available. George asked if they wanted him to check on other rooms. They were so tired and weary and they told him they would very much appreciate his checking. But the closest place George could find with an open room was 2 hours away. They thanked him for his efforts and then started walking disheartened and without a plan to the door. George, who was busy trying to think of a solution, called for them to wait. He told them that they could stay in his room and that he and his family would stay in the lobby. The older gentleman refused at first, but George insisted that it was no trouble at all and that they should stay. They agreed.

The next day after a very restful night, the old man told George that one day he would manage the best hotel in the country. Two years later, the old man returned to the hotel and told George that he never properly thanked him. He then took him to lunch in New York. Afterward, he told George that they had an appointment to make and they walked a couple of blocks to a hotel. He said your staff is waiting to meet their new manager. My name is William Waldorf Astor and this is my hotel.

Socrates would point to the George’s values as evidence of a good life. Aristotle would also celebrate his values, but would include his position as the manager of the Waldorf-Astoria in concluding the George was living the good life.

For Aristotle, a good life had it all – all the virtues of justice, courage, a good sense of humor and the ability to drink wine without getting too obnoxious (really!), but it also required all the good fortune of wealth and power and community status plus all the wisdom to appreciate it. The one virtue neither Plato nor Aristotle seemed to embrace was humility! Both held philosophers in the highest regard and apparently themselves as well. We would all do well to remember Socrates warning that, “Thinking one knows what one does not know is the most reprehensible form of ignorance.” For Socrates there was always the need for self-examination.

Open Inquiry

Which is, of course, what open inquiry is all about. It is not about critiquing and criticizing other points of view. It is about clarifying our own.

To be intentional about self-reflection and growing self-awareness is to listen to others who may not feel or think or believe exactly the way we do. As we ask questions about our identity, we seek a grounding center in which the distinctions we draw between our convictions and those of others become less and less something to divide and separate us and more and more something to raise up and celebrate!

All of us have some kind of history, a lineage of some sort. We are Christian, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Hindu and more. Embracing the good life means we don’t waste our time trying to figure out who the enemy is so we can bond together in a false sense of intimacy. It means that we use information from every source to try to understand more rationally the shadows and cultural pitfalls that all religion and all world views are subject to so that we have a more realistic view of our common work in always reclaiming and reevaluating our own good life and the good life of community.So my friends, welcome to the good life! A life where we will question ourselves more than others. A life where instead of needing others to think the way we do, we will work to see the lens through which we see our own version of the world. A life in which we will seek lessons from everyone we meet and find the answers inside of ourselves. A life in which we will drink wine and we will not be obnoxious!


Being Fully Human, Colonialization, Freedom, Interfaith, Progressive Christianity, Relationship, Respect, Spiritual



Elder of the Kithuri clan, 
the Meru of Kenya
May people be well,
 may they be well,
Male, female, male, female,
Goats, cattle, boys and girls;
May they multiply themselves.
Bad luck go away from us…Amen. 

 Picture this: You are an African in the 19th century. You’re life has not been easy since your homeland was invaded by Europeans greedy for land and control. Although colonization has taken a great toll on you and your family, you work hard to maintain your own cultural identity. You have a number of wives. This helps to ensure that you will have children who will live to adulthood. It also helps to ensure that all of the needs of a demanding life can be shared and met by a larger family. This is also the way of your elders whom you believe are the highest authority on such matters.

White missionaries arrive and tell you about Jesus who promises a new life where the oppressed are made free and peace and justice prevail. This message of liberation is exciting to you and you and your family are baptized. But then the missionaries tell you that God is unhappy with you. They say you can only have one wife or this God will desert you. But that doesn’t make any sense. You are amazed and confused by this strange requirement. Does this God really want you to destroy your family?

Then you hear from the Bible. Someone reads it to you or teaches you to read. This is strange. Why, look at all these people who had more than one wife! Look at this Abraham, this Solomon, this David. These are the heroes of the Bible? What can this mean?

The number of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million in 2000. In the 1990s the number of Christians leaving Christianity each year was 338,000 greater than those accepting Christianity.

Where are the Missionaries?

You would probably guess right that the United States sends more Christian missionaries into the world than any other country. You might be surprised to know that the United States is also the country in the world that receives the largest number of Christian missionaries from other country. Many of the missionaries sent her are coming from places like Africa.

How did this happen? Well not like you might expect. Here’s one example… In 1918 an African from the Congo (now known as Zaire) named Simon Kimbangu had a vision after being converted to Christianity and baptized by British Baptist missionaries. In this vision, he received a call from God to be a prophet and a healer. Like any good pastor, he initially ran away from his call and from his village. But in 1921 he returned and began to preach and to heal the sick. In just 6 months his following had grown to 10,000.

One day he stood on a hill near his village and prophesied that a large church would be built on it and that one day leaders from all over the world would come to worship there. But as his followers increased, the Belgian colonial government and the Roman Catholic Church felt increasingly threatened.

Because of Kimbangu’s and other movements, it became illegal for any minister or member of a religious movement “not under European control” to “address meetings or assemblies of natives.” Kimbangu was arrested, tried before a mock military tribunal, flogged and condemned to death. The Belgian king commuted his sentence to life imprisonment and he was deported to the other side of the country where he never saw his wife or children again and where he died in 1951.

But his work wasn’t done. His followers went underground and his wife continued in his place. When the government was finally overthrown, Kimbangu’s church emerged from hiding with millions of members. In 1969 the church applied for membership and was admitted to the Word Council of Churches. On the hill where he had once prophesied now stands a large church. In November 1981 church leaders from all over the world came to worship with the Kimbanguists, fulfilling the vision of 60 years before.

The Kimbanguist Church now numbers over five million members. It is the largest of what are called African Independent Churches, which have sprung up throughout the continent. These churches now claim a total of over twenty million followers and are probably growing faster than any other churches in Africa. The African Independent Church movement is one of the most remarkable phenomena of church growth in the twentieth and twenty first century.

African Independent Church Movement

So what exactly is an African Independent Church and where did they come from? These churches combine elements of Christianity with native religion in a way that celebrates the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ while embracing the rich spiritual heritage of people who understand a different worldview.

They were birthed out of a reaction to the racial paternalism and the European values (like monogamy) that early foreign missions attached to their message. Local people could embrace Christ, but they wanted to keep their own taboos and purification rites – not toss them out in favor of those dictated to them by Westerners.

The Christ of the African Independent Churches is not a European Christ with European values. It is a Christ who comes to them in their own tradition, speaking through their own culture, respected them and their history. And it is a Christ who calls them to transformation, allowing them to struggle with their own issues in their own time.

The African Independent Churches remind us that being Christian does not require one to be Western. In fact, African Christians often refer to Jesus as universal mudzimu. As Mudzimu Mukuru (the great ancestral spirit). He becomes incarnated within African culture and in that way people understand his role in all aspects of their life, and not just when they gather to worship or consider spiritual things.

This Christ is big enough to embrace all people – even when we as Western Christians are not. Want proof? How many of you knew anything at all about this movement of over 20 million people before you began reading this blog? Our fear continues to marginalize these Christians even after nearly 100 years.

You see, they are different. They don’t follow the pattern of the old European denominations. Doctrines and creeds are just not all that important to them. Many of them reject Western science. They just don’t believe it’s true. These are a people who don’t live their faith in their head, but in their bodies, in their hearts and in their souls. They present a rich blend of spirituality that many of us Westerners get really uncomfortable with. Rather than worrying about right thinking, they believe adamantly in the gifts of the Holy Spirit – and their gatherings are marked by dancing, healing, prophecy and the casting out of demons. The prophets and healers of the African Independent Church have taken the place of the old tribal witch doctors and medicine men. And still, Christ stands at their center.

Living Ubuntu

And through their witness they also point us toward Christ. The African ideal of Ubuntu means humanity and is captured in the statement that “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It is a theology that Archbishop Desmond Tutu embraced when the white Christian church was teaching in South Africa during apartheid. The church’s claim was that one’s skin color indicated their value as a human being. Tutu pointed to the person of Jesus and his claim that all people are valuable in God’s sight.

For Tutu, the practice of Ubuntu grows out of God’s relationship with us in Christ Jesus, who sets us free from sin, making it possible to know each other. Our true human identity, he says, comes only through absolute dependence on God and neighbor, even when that neighbor is an enemy or a stranger.

It promotes cooperation between individuals, cultures and nations. In other words, if your brother or sister is down pick them up. If they are hungry feed them. If they are strangers accommodate them. Ubuntu is about a transformed humanity that thinks of others before self and empowers people to reach their full potential in unity with all that surrounds them.

Ubuntu is caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation. And it is a prophetic glimpse of an evolving progressive identity we can claim as we answer the call to become part of a global religious community. It is the promise of the coming of the Cosmic Christ, who transcends all of our cultural barriers and claims us as one people with many different facets and dimensions. It is the call to begin to connect with each other at a deeper level – one that insists on including everyone as we gather at the table.

As elders, we have a responsibility to pass the Gospel on to the future generation. But this passing of the Gospel calls for our global awareness that God is creator and liberator of ALL.

Being Fully Human, Christian Mysticism, Compassion, Interfaith, Spiritual, Uncategorized

Tension in the Tank: Embracing Interfaith Mysticism Without Leaving the Church


Tension in the Tank Addresses Modern Spiritual Themes

Tension in the Tank meets readers wherever they are on their faith journey, recognizing that the path includes doubt and pain. Barbara Lee’s latest book speaks to the beauty and value of interfaith understanding and liberal social values while digging deep in to the heart of Christian mysticism. It insists that if we are living a spirituality that matters, it will affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we treat others. Blending her own personal stories and ministerial experiences with psychological insight, religious knowledge, Biblical study and proven self help material, Lee provides a roadmap for ongoing spiritual growth and evolution.

Tension in the Tank is unique in progressive Christian literature in that it claims no spiritual superiority nor does it oppose any belief system, including conservative Christianity. The goal of Christian mysticism is Christ—to become fully permeated with God as Christ was. Tension in the Tank invites readers to move from a religion about Jesus to the religion of Jesus. Jesus was the original Christian mystic. To know God directly means that mysticism is different from any passive or legalistic kind of Christianity. Tension in the Tank honors Scripture and respects the heritage, but addresses the hunger to know God directly, not just through Scripture, doctrines, and dogmatic teaching.

Ultimately, Tension in the Tank is about faith that is relevant, secure and ever-evolving. It is a guidebook for building meaningful relationships with Spirit, self and each other. Radically open to possibility and wonder, Tension in the Tankoffers the opportunity and challenge to live our faith in such a way that the walls between us come down and we become pursuers and enactors of universal justice.

Barbara Lee works in the nonprofit sector, where she is an advocate for diverse populations, especially the marginalized and voiceless. She is an Ordained Interfaith Minister who led the community of Extended Grace for nine years. She is the author of Sacred Sex: Replacing the Marriage Ethic with a Sexual Ethic (2013).


“Barbara Lee’s book is unremitting in its clarity, honesty, and good nature. As such, its successful journey into print borders on the miraculous. So many popular books on religion, faith, or personal change are either vapid rehearsals of what everyone assumes or ideas being ground to an overly sharp point in service of this notion or that. For me, Tension in the Tank redeems the genre. It is precisely what it seeks to convey, describing and championing the deliberate cultivation of everything that a jaded, fearful, and spiritually constricted world holds worthless. As such, it is an intellectual roadmap to unlikely places of joy, maturity, and wakefulness that will actually take you there. Good for her! And good for us all.”
Reed Schroer, retired ELCA pastor, Rhodes, MI

Being Fully Human, Compassion, Interfaith, Spiritual

We Dream of a World at Peace

An Haggadah of Liberation 

We dream of a world not threatened by destruction.
We dream of a world in which all people are free to be themselves.
We dream of a world at peace.
Clearly we live in violent times – and we search for reasons as to how this could have happened. Too often we look for an easy way out. But there are no easy answers. Instead we need to look at the dark places in our society, in the dark secrets of our culture, in the dark places of our own souls. 

In the movie Bowling for Columbine Roger Moore sets out to discover the root causes of violence in America. He points at all the usual suspects as causes for this violence – poverty and unemployment, easy access to guns, the violent history of our nation, and our children’s exposure to violent videogames, music and movies. But in the end, the movie seems to stumble upon a darker ethos in the collective mindset of America – one of fear. 

What are we so afraid of?  

How many times do I think that taking some precaution seems like overkill but I do it anyway because the haunting refrain of “What if…” echoes in my mind? No misfortune, it would seem, is out of the realm of possibility. Even as I lock my doors at night (and incidentally I have no reason to lock my doors other than the fact that I am told it is the “responsible” thing to do”) I feel a vague feeling of fear creep into me as I became aware of being a woman alone in the night.   

Now I’m not saying violence isn’t real. Clearly it is. But how do we make sense out of Barry Glassner’s findings in his book “Fear” that as crime rates plunged throughout the 1990s, two-thirds of Americans believed they were soaring? Or that global violence is at its lowest level since the 1950s?  

And what does my faith have to say about it? One of my favorite phrases for meditation is “Be Still and Know that I am God.” I was raised to greet others with “Peace Be With You.” Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” And over and over again the scriptures remind me that if God is with me, whom shall I fear? In fact there is only one time that fear is actually the recommended emotion in the scriptures and that is in the command to “have the fear of God.” There is an important distinction to be made here.  

To be afraid is to be in an apprehensive state, to fear someone or something. This is the fear that leads to terror that moves us to panic. This is also the fear we are told we can lay aside, give up, and be freed from. But to have fear is to have a profound measure of respect and reverence for the divine.  

Too often the Christian community seems to get these mixed up. We give reverence, respect and awe to people and things, to money and sports teams and celebrities and to the good ole’ US of A, and we are afraid of God. 

Too often we preach grace but refuse to give up our own sense of shame and guilt until we are filled with fear that somehow we alone may be beyond God’s saving grace. We fear that the bad things that happen to us are God’s little acts of vengeance for our sins. And I can’t tell you how tired I am of getting emails telling me that we shouldn’t be surprised that God won’t protect us anymore because we don’t pray in schools. God is pissed off and we better start being afraid or things are going to get a whole lot worse!    

And if we have to be afraid, than doggone it, we want everybody else to be afraid, too. So we are sure to tell Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Atheists that if they don’t believe in God the way we do they are in big trouble. Jesus said to go spread the Good News, and throughout the centuries human beings have perverted a message of peace and love and the reality that we need no longer be afraid into “evangelism by terrorism.” Somehow we managed to turn something as wonderful as a gracious and merciful God into a holy scare tactic: Here’s the good news and if you don’t believe it, then you better be afraid because if we don’t getcha, God will. 

And if we’re afraid of God how can we possibly live a life free of fear? To be afraid is to live with the kind of anxiety that makes us fearful of talking to a neighbor, offering help to a stranger, listening to the point of view of our enemy. The Greek word for fear is phobos and if you change just one letter you have phonos, which means murder. Incidents of violence stir up anger and fear. Fear festers an attitude of “we’re not going to take it anymore.” Violence breeds fear and fear breeds more violence and the cycle keeps spinning further and further out of control.

How can I possibly come to know the peaceful realm of the kingdom of God if I am living in such suspicion and anxiety? How can I hear the words of any messiah who would seek to set me free of such fear?  

Tony Campollo was quoted in Christian Week magazine as saying, “I find it strange that the last place I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful’ and ‘love your enemies.'” 

It’s a hard message to carry – this teaching of Jesus Christ. It involves stepping out of the light of the lamppost, shaking off our fear and embracing with awe and reverence the true light that will lead us into the dark places where true answers lie.

The Holy Spirit is working among us to wrench us from fear and violence, and to transform us into people who can trust God and live in community with one another. More than ever, we need each other. Together we can learn to confront our fears. Together we can find new ways of cultivating peace and nonviolent resistance to the injustices that surround us. Together we can be strengthened and equipped to go out into that world with the least welcomed message of all – the message of peace.

Invitation for Reflection

1)      What war are you fighting in your own head and/or heart?
2)      What is your vision for bringing peace to this internal war?


Being Fully Human, Christian Mysticism, Interfaith, Spiritual

Interfaith Community

Barbara_Lee FMCCwritten as a guest blogger for Project Interfaith

As a Christian Mystic Taoist, I seek to create and nurture interfaith Community, proclaiming what Jesus proclaimed, teaching what Jesus taught, doing our best to walk in ways Jesus walked and recognizing with deep gratitude and humility the ways in which these same proclamations and teachings and journeys are found in diverse faiths! We explore our relationship with Christ while embracing the promise that this Christ also lives within us and opens us up to see the ways in which God has revealed God’s self to diverse cultures at diverse times in diverse ways over the course of human history.

The grounding center of this community is Christian Mysticism, for it is through our own lineage of faith that we move to a place close enough to God that the distinctions we draw between our religion and others become less and less important. The mystic Christian journey leads to the direct experience of God.

Mystics have very rarely separated themselves from their historical religions. Without changing a single letter, they come to understand the meaning of these religions more deeply. The goal of Christian mysticism is to become fully permeated with God as Christ was. It is about moving from a religion about Jesus to the religion of Jesus, Jesus being the original Christian mystic.

In community we identify the 3-2-1 of God, to perceive of God in the third person, the second person and the first person. The third person perspective sees God as an other, an object. All world religions have an understanding of God in these terms. In Christianity we speak of the Creator as opposed to the Created. We talk about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity. Some of us speak in terms like Ruach or Mystery. I think a genuine gift that Christianity brings to any interfaith experience or dialogue is the understanding of God in the second person, as relational and personal. We speak of a Personal Savior, our Beloved Bridegroom, the Friend we have in Jesus, the God who meets us when we are in the depths of despair. This is a profound message to a hurting and alienated world – all the more so for its boldness in offering God’s word of mercy and grace.

While both views of God are critical to our Christian understanding, I believe that the common Christian declaration of God often stops there without embracing the first person of God, even though that understanding is part of our own tradition as exemplified in the proclamation of the Kingdom Within, Christ Consciousness, God’s indwelling and various Saints’ spiritual and mystical writings.

A few years ago I attended a local Buddhist-Christian Conversation. One group of Christians made statements that began, “As a Christian, I believe…” followed by reflections of narrow fundamentalism. Another group expressed their desire to recognize truths exist in other faiths, combined with the certainty that to express such a belief would be to make one’s self an outcast and an outsider in any Christian church. Too often they sadly concluded that they would have to abandon Christianity in order to live out their new understanding of God in the world, even as it was Christ who opened them up to see those truths.

Today’s mystics grasp the reality behind religious symbols and are drawn to acknowledging the symbols of other systems. Universal justice is sought beyond one’s own system. And in the “big picture” the walls between culture/tradition and people come down. Ideally suited for mysticism, this is an overwhelming, ecstatic experience in which one is radically opened to possibility and wonder.

Being Fully Human, Compassion, Interfaith, Spiritual

Yin and Yang Compassion


White Tara: Goddess of Compassion

A few years ago I was visiting with a friend who had just completed her training as an LPN. She had spent the day giving immunizations to little kids. Little kids who screamed and who confronted my friend with tears streaming down their round little cheeks. But despite the pain she was inflicting, she kept stabbing needles into youthful flesh. Not only needles, but needles that contained a strain of virus that would produce pain and swelling where it had pierced precious skin.

And standing next to each child was another adult. A mother, father, grandparent, guardian who would hold this little child as they screamed and wipe their tears and kiss the owie. Someone to offer comfort, warmth and reassurance in this world that can suddenly be so unkind.

Which of the adults in this situation was being compassionate?

As we continue our exploration of Compassionate Action, today I want to attempt to hold together love that knows pain is necessary and love that wishes it were not so. This is the yin and the yang, the feminine and masculine aspects of compassion.

According to Buddhist tradition, the savior-goddess Tara was born out of the tears of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the first Buddha and the one reincarnated as the Dalai Lama. It is said that he wept as he looked upon the world of suffering beings, and his tears formed a lake in which a lotus sprung up. When the lotus opened, the goddess Tara was revealed. Tara is the goddess of universal compassion. Born of a tear, it is said that her compassion for living beings is stronger than a mother’s love for her children.

There are two major forms of Tara. One is the white Tara. This is the image that I brought back with me from Tibet. She has seven eyes because she sees all suffering and cries for help for all human beings. There is also a Green Tara. She is fiercer, more wrathful and always ready to spring to virtuous and enlightened action for the sake of compassion.

Together they are Tara and they symbolize the birth of compassion – a birth that takes place when the mind and the heart meet in wisdom.

The story of Tara reminds me of someone from the Christian tradition. His name was Jesus. A man in whom the heart and the mind met in wisdom – a man whose very life was the embodiment of compassion.

Jesus, as the legend of Tara before him, is a manifestation of divine compassion. And that compassion always holds two natures – feminine and masculine, yin and yang.

Yin compassion is probably the one you think of first – the one that feels warm and fuzzy. Feminine compassion feels the pain and seeks to nurture, hold, cradle and comfort.

Yang or Masculine compassion on the other hand, knows that pain and death are sometimes necessary – and it is willing to kick butt when it needs to.

In the Christian scripture there is a reading in Matthew 23 quoting Jesus. Yin compassion cries because the children of Jerusalem refuse to gather under the wings of a hen, a loving protective God who longs for their suffering to end and for their joy to be complete. Yang compassion cries out against the acts of vipers and hypocrites and dares to will their undoing.

Feminine and Masculine

Yin compassion is gentle, caring, soothing, and serene. It is compassion that flows and loves like a mother, holding the entire universe in its womb with uncritically embracing, unconditional love.

Yang compassion is action oriented. It is direct and aggressive. And in the face of ignorance, delusion and injustice, Yang compassion is capable of ruthlessness. It is tough love. The kind of compassion that knows boundaries are necessary for the self and for others. It is the compassion that seeks to wake us and shake us up when we are lazy and slothful, untrue to our calling and unfaithful to our spiritual path.

Masculine compassion requires the capacity for concern that I talked about in last week’s blog. It demands space inside of us to hold conflicting feelings of love and hate. The opposite of masculine compassion is not feminine compassion – it’s idiot compassion.

When we don’t allow people to experience their own life or the consequences of their actions because it causes us pain to see them suffer, then we are exercising idiot compassion. When we jump to rescue people by giving them what they want or what we think they need, we are exercising idiot compassion.

Allowing loved ones to experience their own pain and suffering is yang compassion. Being with them while they suffer is yin compassion.

Integrated Compassion, the kind of compassion we see in the myth of Tara and the life of Jesus offers tough love and kindheartedness at the same time.

Compassion at the Methadone Clinic

I came face to face with the balance of yin and yang compassion when I worked at a Methadone Clinic in Grand Rapids. Methadone is the treatment for heroine, opiate and opioid addiction and when you start Methadone you have to take your dose every day. You come into the clinic to get that dose. If you arrive after hours, you don’t get your dose for the day.

I worked every other Saturday as the only office staff together with one nurse. The very first Saturday I worked a young man we’ll call Tony arrived 3 minutes too late to get his dose. The nurse was adamant that she would not give him his medicine. I was dumbfounded. He was only 3 minutes late! And Tony didn’t take it well. This 25-year-old man was reduced to tears and then the nurse came out of her enclosure and walked him out.

It took a while but I finally “got” it. Most of the people at the Methadone clinic are at a place in their lives where they need black and white realities and rigid structure. They need this the same way our kids need us to set boundaries for them, knowing they will push against them and that WE will be the correcting force that will be sure they stay safe and protected. By the way, this is why traditional churches are still necessary in our society. There are some people who need that structure, who need to be able to sort out their own lives in terms of good and bad, and who need to believe they are standing on solid ground.

Nobody dies from missing a Methadone dose. It is awful. Withdrawal always is. As Laura walked Tony out of the building she was explaining that he should take Tylenol for the headache he would get and Imodium for the diarrhea and if he really needed to, if things got bad enough, he should go to the ER.

Methadone is a controversial treatment because many people will never be able to wean off of it. In that sense, it is substitute drug for their addiction. It is a harm reduction effort because it keeps people from dying and from getting diseases from dirty needles. At it’s best, it is a bridge to healing and to a life free of substances. Few people accomplish this. During the two years I was at the Methadone clinic I only saw it happen a handful of times. Tony was one of those times.

Laura embodied yang compassion when she wouldn’t break the rules and dose someone who showed up after hours. She embodied yin compassion when she shared in their misery and invited them to call the after hours number if they needed to talk to her.

Masculine compassion doesn’t accept excuses or half-hearted attempts. It’s the kind of compassion you get when a teacher scolds you, a police officer arrests you, or a friend reprimands you because they know you are capable of more. It is the compassion you give when you allow your child to grow up and experience the consequences of not so wise choices. It is the side of love that won’t tolerate destructive behavior in our own lives or in the life of our community.

Feminine compassion is the side of love that seeks to protect and to nurture. It’s the immediate impulse to run to a fallen child to see if they are hurt, it is the fervent prayer we raise when we hear of a person in need, it is the hope we send to the universe for healing and restoration and peace. It is the compassion that accepts and encourages and welcomes indiscriminately. And it very often cries.

Mystical Resistance

As we cry. Our ego will not have the satisfaction of “fixing” the injustices we see or the problems we try to solve. So we cry. We lament. And when our lament is followed by action, we have embraced mystical resistance. Mystical resistance declares that no political, economic or cultural trend that contradicts God’s saving purpose is inevitable even it if seems to be so. The center of this approach to spirituality is not the guilty feelings that afflict sensitive people in a rich, industrial society. Instead, it is the mysticism of becoming empty of ego, possession and violence in order to serve.

We will glimpse the heart of the universe only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be present in profound solidarity and compassion where people and creation suffer the most. Such love is manifest when we seek to accompany and comfort those who suffer. And when we recognize social systems of injustice, such love is manifest when we refuse to be silent about it, refrain from participating in it, and seek more just and compassionate alternatives.

Every day Beverly would walk to work. She lived in downtown Seattle and her walk would bring her through some of the most despairing sites of the city. Every single day she would walk by faces, hungry faces with searching eyes and fading hopefulness. It was overwhelming. One person could do nothing, except perhaps avert their eyes. Then one day it occurred to Beverly that there was something she could do. She could share her lunch. And so she stopped and gave half of her lunch to one of those starving faces. The next day she left her house with two lunches so that she had one to give away. After a while she left her house with a couple of lunches, eventually she brought 30 lunches with her on the way to work. Today Beverly is the Founder of Operation Lunch Sack, which over the past 16 years has provided 1.3 million meals to the homeless living in Seattle.

When our heart and our mind meet in wisdom, we no longer have the option of doing nothing. We can’t ignore, excuse or belittle the reality of the suffering before us and around the world. When our heart and our mind meet in wisdom we no longer have the option of responding with idiot compassion. We can no longer make ourselves the focus so that we act out of our own inability to be with other people’s pain.

When our heart and our mind meet in wisdom, we find ourselves holding a tissue in one hand and a sword in the other so that we might respond with whatever tool is called for in the situation at hand. When our heart and our mind meet in wisdom, compassion is born – and we give vaccines even though we know they make little kids cry.