Being Fully Human, cycle of violence, divine within, domestic violence, Easter, emotional abuse, Jesus, mary of magdala, partriarchy, resurrection, sexual abuse, shame, social isolation, women

A Call to Resurrection

Surviving Domestic ViolenceIn my book Sacred Sex I retell Will Willimon’s experience preaching in a croweded auditorum. He was given an introduction that far exceeded what he thought he would deliver and he remembered a teacher saying something like if you aren’t sure you have enough to say, say it louder. So he got up before the congregation and said, “And what is the most significant event our faith has to offer?” Then he bellowed out the answer, “The Erection!” Now that’s one Easter message I would have enjoyed hearing!

My message won’t be quite that provocative. I believe the Easter story and the Easter myth itself transcends the barrier of religion and that even if we don’t follow the Christian calendar, we can still find value in its premise. So I want to approach this story through the eyes of Mary of Magdala and dedicate this message to the women who have struggled throughout history into our modern times to find a place of genuine acceptance and inclusion as equals in society.

Mary at the Empty Tomb

What a poignant Easter text we find in John 20:10-18, so sad and so beautiful. Mary has come to the tomb of her beloved Jesus. You can imagine how she must have felt. Numbness fighting to still the shock still reverberating in her. Going through the motions of preparing the body, the one last way in which she can feel close to the teacher she followed and the man she most certainly loved. Feeling lost and alone and yet finding some comfort in these rites and rituals.

And then even that solace is taken from her. There is no body to touch or to cry over. There is no last time to speak her sorrow while gazing at the face she held so dear. Instead there is the certain knowledge that the joy has gone out of her life, that feeling of hollow emptiness and despair. The sense of being small and insignificant and utterly alone.

Indeed, 2000 years ago, women as a whole were considered small and insignificant. Women were nobodies. Women were property. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Public meals were for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a prostitute. Women lived on the margins of society.

Jesus’ Treatment of Women was Scandalous

And for a brief period of time, Jesus elevated Mary and the other women he interacted with to a glorious height of equality. His actions toward women were nothing short of scandalous. He defended them, spoke with them, healed them, ate with them, and even learned from them. Mary was part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. She knew personally the warmth of his unconditional love.

And now so profound is her despair that when Jesus speaks to her she doesn’t even recognize him… until he speaks her name. When she is named, when she is recognized for who she is at a time when she feels again as if she is nothing. When she is recognized for who she is at a time when she has lost everything. When she is recognized for who she is, she recognizes her Teacher. She is filled with new life. In a very real sense it is Mary who is now resurrected.

So why in this moment of mystical reunion would Jesus torment her further by telling her not to hold onto him? Shouldn’t he have swept her into his arms and held her as she wept? Shouldn’t he have offered her words of comfort and peace, assuring her of his presence, promising her this was real and that he was there, right there with her?

John wrote the most mystical of the four Gospels that were included in the official Canon. In it Jesus is always using common language to say something beyond the obvious. So when Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me.” Was his statement as obviously cruel as it sounds or could it be that this man who so often used common language to point to the spiritual is at it again? “No Mary, you don’t have to hold onto me. You don’t have to cling to me, because everything you saw in me is now in you. That same divine presence that you sensed in me, I now challenge you to see in yourself. This is what I came to teach and show you. See in yourself the Spirit you saw in me.”

Mary’s Call to be Fully Human

In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a Gospel that did not make it into the Canon, Jesus tells his followers that the son of Man dwells inside them. And Mary responds by saying that Jesus is calling them and us to be fully “human.”

Perhaps to be fully human is to recognize that what Jesus says is true. To understand that it is within our humanity that we are all resurrected. Perhaps it is only in fullness that we learn not to belittle ourselves and dismiss our gifts and abilities. Perhaps it is only in human fullness that we come to realize that we are also fully divine.

The Terror of s

I’d like to tell you now about another women. I was returning with a group from Extended Grace from a Renaissance Festival when we stopped at a gas station. One of the teenagers with us went into the restroom where she was approached by a young lady asking her for help. Her name was Tanika and she looked barely 16 years old. Tanika explained that her boyfriend had beaten her for the last time and that she had finally left him for good. But he had followed her and when she stopped at this station for gas he took over her car with her child in it. I called the police. I left Tanika with the police officers and my card and told her to call if she needed any help connecting with legal assistance or a shelter.

None of us expected to meet Tanika that day or to find ourselves face-to-face with the terror of living in abuse. More often we can ignore the problem. More often it stays behind closed doors. But as unusual as our encounter with Tanika proved to be, there is nothing unusual about domestic violence. In the United States, someone is beaten by their intimate partner every 9 seconds. For 12.4 million people, home is not a safe place. Today even many teenagers view violence as an unavoidable aspect of their relationships, and 1 in 3 will experience physical or sexual abuse or threats during the year.

The face of abuse is shared by all races, all ages and all socioeconomic classes. Domestic violence has severe physical and emotional consequences for its victims. And while 1 in 3 women will be victims of abuse sometime during their lifetime, studies also show that as many as 1 in 4 domestic abuse victims are men. The FBI reports that 2/3 of all marriages will include violence at some point. Domestic violence is just as real and just as prevalent in heterosexual and same sex relationships.

“People Like Her Just Like to Get Hit.”

I never heard from Tanika again. According to the frustrated police officer, her boyfriend was in a lot of trouble for a lot of things, but in the end Tanika never pressed charges. The officer was angry with her – and obviously ill-educated about abuse. I was dismayed when he said to me, “People like her just like to get hit.” I tried to explain. I tried to help him see. I hope I made some impact.

Why would anyone stay in a violent relationship? This is probably the most commonly asked question – and for good reason. It seems so logical and obvious that these victims should just get out of the house. But the reality is that there are a lot of barriers to freedom. The reality is that the most dangerous time for a person who is being battered is when they leave. A full 75 percent of women who are killed by their partners are murdered after the relationship is over or as it ends. But that’s only one of the barriers to freedom.

Another is that many women and men don’t think of themselves as being abused. Abuse is generational and those who have grown up in abusive homes are far more likely to become the victims of the perpetrators of violence when they have grown. Abuse at its core is about control. It’s one person scaring another person into doing something. And it’s not just physical abuse but sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse. Domestic violence may include insulting and name-calling, isolation, intimidation, and threats, which may be directed at children or other family members.

Cycle of Violence

Another important concept to understand is the Cycle of Violence. The relationship doesn’t start out being violent. In fact, the abuser most likely begins as a seducer, buying presents and showering praise and attention on their partner. Eventually, though, this calm gives way to a tension-building period. In this phase, minor incidents begin and communication breaks down. The victim feels the need to placate the abuser and “walk on eggshells.” Eventually, the tension is released in an incident, which may take the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

The next stage is a return to seduction as the abuser apologizes and may cry. A honeymoon stage ensues complete with gifts. And promises are made that it will never happen again. But at the same time, the victim is blamed for provoking the abuse, subtly planting the idea that it was their fault and that they can keep it from happening again. As time goes by, the abuser denies that the abuse ever took place — or at least that it was as bad as the victim claims.

In the calm that follows, the incident is forgotten. Some of the promises are kept and the victim is left with hope that the abuse is over. As the tension building stage begins again, the victim remembers that it is their responsibility to behave in a manner that will not bring about the abuse — which eventually recurs no matter what they do. The entire cycle may take more than a year to complete – or as little as a few hours.

Another barrier is religion. We all know that you cannot possibly use scripture from any religion to justify abuse. Nevertheless, we also know that scripture can be misused. Citing passages to “submit to your husbands” or to “turn the other cheek,” Christian men and women often feel compelled to stay in abusive relationships because of their marriage vow. For this reason, victims of abuse often feel doubly abandoned by God.

Beating Ourselves Up

When all is said and done, I find the best explanation for why people stay in abusive relationships was captured by Don Miguel Ruiz. He said that if you are with someone who is beating you up more than you beat yourself up, you will leave. But if you are with someone who is beating you up just a little bit less than you beat yourself up, you will stay forever. I also believe that people who beat up other people, never beat them up more than they beat themselves up emotionally.

I know Ruiz named my experience. I used to believe in my own unworthiness. My life was so flawed. I was so flawed. There was all this crisis and trauma in my life. I had failed at so many times in my life. I wanted somehow to make a difference, but realized that I probably never would. Then I met Dr. Rudy Featherstone, a truly incredible man. He as a retired professor of theology. A proud black man with snow white hair who spoke glowingly of his wife, his children and his grandchildren. And most joyful person I think I have ever met.

Recognizing the Divine Within

Rudy really shook me up that day. I couldn’t argue with him. Whatever energy permeates our universe, I am part of that universe and that energy is necessarily part of me. When I am fully human, when I am fully me, then I have to admit that the package of body, thought and emotion that is Barbara Lee is not all I am. When I am fully human, I realize that I am also divine.

This is the Good News of the Easter story. It is the refreshingly good news that has been proclaimed throughout the history of all faith traditions. It is the life giving good news that we can never be separated from God because however we define God, we live in THAT and THAT lives in us.

Odds are you know someone who is being abused – even if you don’t know it yet. There’s a good chance that someone hasn’t glimpsed the divinity within themselves. As helpless as we often feel, there are things you can do to help. Let them know you understand domestic abuse. Tell them clearly that it is not their fault and that there is NOTHING they can do to prevent the violence. If they choose to open up, listen nonjudgmentally. Offer to help with childcare, transportation and storage of valuables. Encourage them to contact Every Women’s Place or the Center for Women in Transition or to call the domestic abuse hotline.

A Reason to Hope

Try not to get discouraged. And above all, try not to blame. Victims of domestic abuse are suffering already from a great deal of shame and a sense of hopelessness. Don’t blame yourself if they don’t make the decision you would choose for them. Your role is to offer friendship, hope and a space for the possibility of change. It isn’t your responsibility to fix someone else’s world. More than anything victims need you to model what a loving relationship really looks like. They need a reason to hope.

I am pretty public now about my own history of abuse because I have met too many people who only trusted me with their story after I shared my own – after they knew that I would not judge them for the circumstances they were in.  As a result of my experience, I ended up founding and chairing the Muskegon County Domestic Violence Healthcare Initiative. In that role, I gave a presentation on Domestic Violence at the Lion’s Club. After presenting all of my information, I opened it up for questions. A man sitting in the middle of the room who didn’t even bother to stand up said, “I know someone whose wife won’t let up on him until he hits her. Sometimes there’s just nothing else you can do.” And a number of others seemed to nod their heads and murmur their agreement.

There is NO excuse for violence. Not against women, not against men, not against children. There is NEVER an excuse for one person to use violence in any form against another.

Domestic violence alters the landscape of our lives and the lives of those we love. Violence by an intimate partner, rips deep valleys through the sense of self; builds mountains of shame and guilt and isolation; twists, bends, and distorts notions of love and relationship, and shatters into rough and jagged pieces the spirit of hope.

A Prophetic Voice

We need to be the prophetic voice. We need to be the voice of Jesus and Dr. Rudy Featherstone for Mary of Magdala and Tanika. We need to call all of those who suffer at the hands of abuse by name so that they may also be resurrected to new life.

Individually we can make a dramatic difference in the life of a friend or loved one. Together we can create a society in which we will no longer ignore or excuse acts of domestic violence. It begins with us, it begins here and it begins now.

Namaste

Spiritual Inquiry Discussion Question:

Is domestic violence caused by the patriarchal values of our culture, or is domestic violence caused by individual socioeconomic and/or psychological factors (e.g. substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment)?

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Easter, faith journey, Jesus, Lent, Progressive Christianity, social injustice, Spiritual

The Lenten Journey to Easter

the fate of impoverished people is the litmus test of our faithfulnessToday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week on the Christian calendar. One story that can transcend the barrier of religion is that of the Lenten journey to Easter. It is a journey in which we encounter the catfish of the Christ – one who bore witness to the need to stand up against social injustice, tyranny and violence – even at the risk of one’s own life.

This Jesus doesn’t call us into a life of ease and prosperity. He challenges us to bring the saving word of grace to the spiritually homeless, to care for our brothers and sisters in need, to have a faith that shows itself in action. His message is clear – the fate of impoverished people is the litmus test of faithfulness. This is what it means to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.

The call to do Spirit’s work is one that leads down narrow alleys and tumultuous terrain. It is not easy and it is not fast. But it is never too great a burden to bear. And it is infinitely rewarding. Just as our mandate to serve is clear, so is the promise of joy. Cast your bread on the water, Jesus tells us, and it will come back to you 100 fold. What your going to do with 100 loaves of wet bread is up to you!

So it is that seek the  strength to refrain from silence in our ministry, in our assessment of society, and in our witness. So do we seek the courage to bear the burden of the  proclamation that we are one family so that all experience the blessing of reunion.

W.E.B. Dubois once prayed, “Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease or the words of mouths or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us, the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty – all these and more – but they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death.”

With those words still echoing in our ears, let us speak boldly, pray unceasingly and act with purpose and direction as our faith calls us to respond to heal the hurts and fill the needs of this worldly life.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, buddhism, christian, god, gratitude, hardship, Jesus, Progressive Christianity, struggle, thanksgiving

Thanks Giving

Thanks GivingA friend of mine came to the house on Wednesday. She had returned home after being at an aunt’s funeral in Ohio. And she shared that she had never been to a funeral and left so joyful in her whole life. She was joyful because her daughter who left home without a word 11 years ago at 18 years of age and who my friend had not heard from once in all that time – showed up at the funeral and restarted a relationship with her mother. My friend learned that she is a grandmother. My friend has much to be thankful for this year.

Every year we set aside one day to be thankful. Every Thanksgiving my family sits around the dinner table and shares what we are thankful for at the moment. All the usual suspects appear – family, friends, and health. But there is more to thankfulness than that.

As Buddha once said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

And so I realize I have so much more to be thankful for – those things I take for granted like the miracles of sight and hearing, the turning of the seasons, the peace of a good night’s sleep. These things are not always on the top of my mind – but when I do give them ample thought or when someone reminds me of them – I am very thankful. In fact, all of the things that I think about being thankful for are pretty darn easy to be thankful for.

And that struck me as somewhat incongruous with what Jesus is usually calling me to. Because when I really get down with Jesus, I don’t hear him telling me to do what’s easy. I hear him challenging me and making me uncomfortable. I recall a passage from 1 Thessalonians. Plain as day: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Give thanks in all circumstances.  

So I started asking another question this year. Instead of asking what I am thankful for I started asking myself what I’m not thankful for. And you know, that was a pretty easy list to make too. Because quite frankly, some things about life really stink.

Things like illness and poverty, prejudice and violence, unemployment and homelessness, hunger and loneliness, hate and injustice. And broken relationships. There are people and situations that I don’t even want to even think about, let alone be thankful  But here it is, spelled out very clearly for me by Paul: Give thanks in all circumstances.

Wow. Now there’s a challenge. It seems to me that the key to thanks giving, then, is in seeing every thing as an opportunity to learn and grow. Then all persons and situations – including the most difficult ones – have the potential of becoming our teachers.

Now, I do have to say that I don’t believe God gives us bad things because God has decided we have to learn something. I don’t believe God tests us in this way. So every challenge, every resistance, every thorny problem has the potential of propelling us into higher levels of understanding, competence and maturity. But those same difficulties are not assigned from God – and we should not go on an agonizing search for answers trying to discover what it is we are supposed to be learning. Instead, difficulties are just a part of our living in a fallen world. Not all is sweetness and light. Every experience of suffering brings pain that we must endure  – and from which we might grow.

And indeed, the opportunity for growth is unique – because we are challenged in ways we would rather not be. Because spiritual growth demands that we overcome our character flaws. And to do that, we often need something or someone to shatter our incorrect beliefs, our frozen feelings and our self-delusion. We need outside assistance to help us break free of our current, limited understandings. Some way of uprooting the very things in life we are holding onto most tightly in an effort to keep them the same. Some way of experiencing enough pain that we are forced to make the necessary changes that we have resisted for so long.

OK, here’s an easy example. We are called to cultivate an attitude of grace at all times and for all people. I once worked in an office with a nice young lady who could really botch things up – and who regularly did. She was always apologetic and willing to fix her mistakes and I found it easy to be gracious toward her.

I also had a boss – who was a perpetual thorn in my side. When he messed up, I wasn’t nearly as gracious. I may have even told other people he messed up for no good reason at all. Which of these two people presented the greater opportunity for me to learn the golden rule – to treat others as I wish to be treated? Who are the difficult people in my life right now who present a perpetual training ground in which I can practice and learn this most valuable discipline? For them, this year I am grateful.

Seeing hard times as teachers means seeing them in an entirely new way. In Buddhist tradition, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who possess great powers. They are also very compassionate. Most are like angels, but there is also a special class of them called reverse bodhisattvas. They are equally compassionate, but have terrible appearances and their mission is to enlighten others through creating difficulties, challenges, and hardships. Such a viewpoint allows us to “flip” our perception of people and circumstances so that they become spiritual practices designed to help us reach new heights of spiritual growth.

Reality, then, is neither good nor bad – it is a matter of how we choose to perceive it. For someone who has mastered the art of seeing this way, the world is always perfect. Our external reality doesn’t have to change to make it so. The secret lies in changing our perception of it. Thanksgiving comes out of inner transformation.

Jesus was an expert “flipper.” Throughout the Gospels, he teaches the art of seeing and the need for internal transformation using the phrase “being born anew.” There are a lot of different connotations to these words nowadays – and not all of them are good. But to Jesus, being born anew wasn’t about accepting a religious belief but about experiencing a spiritual awakening.

The night before Jesus was betrayed, as the story goes, he ate with his disciples. He broke bread, gave thanks and gave it to them to eat saying – this is my body, which is going to be broken for you. Then he took wine and after giving thanks he gave it to them to drink saying this is my blood, which is going to be poured out for you. On the very night before he was betrayed, knowing in all certainty the horrible pain and suffering and death that awaited him, the first thing he did was thank God. Even in the midst of greater difficulty and hardship than I will ever know, my Jesus was thankful.

I don’t always follow that example. I’m not that strong. Often my thanks are given much later and from a safer distance. My friend whose daughter returned to her life last weekend is thankful now. She is able to look over the expanse of time and see the growth that occurred even in and through the pain. But 11 years ago? We humans don’t usually think in terms of forever, but in terms of the moment­ – a day, a week, a month at a time­ — complaining that there is never time enough. Gratitude means we are to make the momentary eternal by using what we have been given to the best of our abilities here, today, in service of love for others. There is no best and no worst hour. There is only now. We must choose how we will view the now and what we will do with it.

I am grateful this because I believe that Spirit is with us in the midst of the pain and the hardship and the struggle. I believe that we are never alone even in the darkest hours of our life. And I know that the Divine is strong enough to support and strengthen me when I can no longer support myself.

We can use Jesus’ way of seeing to foster our own inner peace – not as a device to intellectually solve life’s problem or to understand why bad things happen to good people – but to be amazed by the poignant beauty in the paradoxes of life itself.

  • What good things are you thankful for?
  • What hardship or difficult person are you thankful for?
  • Where did you feel Spirit most present in your life this past year?
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alternatives to war, beign fully human, change, Compassion, democrat, grace, Jesus, justice, politics, Progressive Christianity, republican, responsibility

The Politics of Values

Carl Sagan Quote
According to the Tao Te Ching:
Governing a large country
Is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.
Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.
Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

Ann Landers, the advice columnist, was at an embassy reception when a rather arrogant senator walked up to her and said, “So you’re the famous Ann Landers. Say something funny.” So she said, “Well, you’re a politician. Tell me a lie.”

Whether her response was funny or just sad, the reality is that lies are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. After coming through the last two presidential elections, I can’t help but agree with Will Rogers that, “The more you observe politics, the more you have to admit that each party is worse than the other.”

Before we know it the 2016 election will be upon us and before then we have mid terms to contend with. As we wrestle with our decisions, it seems appropriate to take some time to look at our responsibility as spiritual people in the political world of today.

One of the teachers I have learned from over the years is Jesus. There is a story in the Bible in which Jesus is placed in a political conundrum. He is asked about his view on taxes. If he agrees that taxes should be paid to Caesar he will disappoint the Jewish people, but if he states that no payment should be made to Rome, he could bring about his own arrest.

So he asks for a coin – you might notice at this point that Jesus doesn’t have a coin while the Pharisee does – and as it is tossed to him he catches it in the air. He looks at it and asks the crowd, “Whose head is on this; whose title?” “Caesar’s,” they answer. “Well, if it already belongs to the empire,” Jesus says, “give it back.” (At which point we might picture Jesus slipping the coin into his pocket.) But that’s not all he says. The second half is really the surprise ending: if we will give back to the empire what is the empire’s, then we are also to give to God what is God’s.

Looking for God’s Image

Caesar’s image was on the coin. That’s how we know to whom it belonged. So our first question is where do we find God’s image? According to the book of Genesis, we find God’s image in us. Humans were created in the image of God. So if we are to give God what belongs to God, we have to give God ourselves, our bodies and our souls, all that we are – including that part of us that is involved in the political process.

Here’s the truth that Jesus shares: We cannot separate our spiritual life from our political life. We cannot separate our faith from the problems in our society. Like two sides of the same coin, the two are held intricately together as we bring our faith with us into the political arena. The next question then is how do we apply that faith in the world of politics today.

Jesus said that we have a responsibility to love our neighbor – even when that neighbor is an enemy. And that love reveals itself not in a sentimental fuzzy feeling – but as concrete actions that demand justice – even at the risk of a personal cost. We have a duty and a privilege to participate in the public arena of politics because we have a duty to be the voice for the voiceless, to exercise our power for the sake of the powerless.

God Does Not Lead a Political Party

And we must also recognize the danger of politics subverting our religion for its own purposes. Sojourners recently ran a wonderful ad in an effort to remind us that God is not a Republican – or a Democrat. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when people use religious language in order to advance their own national or domestic policy. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when my faith is used to as a political weapon that seeks to justify injustice.

We hear a lot of talk about security these days. The Pharisees who ask Jesus about paying taxes are also rightfully concerned about security. They have chosen to compromise with Rome in exchange for some degree of religious and political freedom. They don’t necessarily like the situation, but it seems to be working. And Jesus’ refusal to “show deference” to anyone must seem like an extremely arrogant failure on his part to appreciate the complexity of their situation.

So they try to trap him. But their strategy backfires because Jesus refuses to accept the terms of their argument. Instead of getting into a debate over taxes, he pronounces God’s authority over everything. His answer provides no clear guideline for what aspects of national duty we are to accept and what we are to challenge.

Politics of Values 

But Jesus’ attitude should encourage and embolden us to refuse the terms of this nation’s debate when it presumes that military and financial security are unquestionable values. If we take Jesus seriously at all, we will question the very notion that military and financial security are our values at all! And we will do so even when, as Sojourner contributor Kari Jo Verhulst states, it means risking that we will be called a friend of terrorists and a national traitor.

The current social climate certainly yields an interesting mix of attitudes about politics from the pulpit. Some people feel very strongly that the church is no place to engage in political debate. Others expect their pastor to address the very real issues of our day and to place them in the context of faith. Martin Luther urged pastors to preach against economic injustice and public policies that work against the well-being of the poor. Well, you can’t get much more political than that.

Loving our neighbor demands that we engage in public affairs because they have such an enormous impact on people’s lives. Loving our neighbor means publicly denouncing oppression and exploitation wherever it is found.

What more important task could we have before us today? In the midst of terrorist attacks and questions of patriotism, we need to look beyond the debates, the media spin and the noise in order to ponder what is right, what is good, and what we believe our elected government should do.

Global Citizens

Groucho Marx said, ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” The truth of the quote can be so discouraging. It tempts us to hide in despair behind illusions of our own powerlessness. But we are among the most powerful people in the world. And nothing has ever been changed without the action first of a single person.

If we will take our role as a citizen of this country seriously, we will look deeper than political rhetoric. We will look at the whole global situation:  the whole machinery of international power and global capitalism. And we will begin to seriously call into question the values that keep it all in place.

But as we continue to look deeper, we will also begin to see glimpses of God already subtly at work in this world. We will find hope anew that the reign of God is indeed here – being ushered in before us as we hurry to try to catch up. God reign comes even in the midst of our politics and in that reign God’s will for justice and peace is being made visible.

There is no simple application of our biblical text to the political options before us. Each option, each party represents some element of the truth and some element of human fallibility. And no option that I have heard so far takes seriously our role as oppressor in a world where we only continue to grow more wealthy and powerful on the backs of an increasing number of people living in untenable situations.

God’s Reign Equals Our Reign

The hard reality is that no matter who wins, they will not usher in the perfect realization of the promised reign of God. Any political ideology can only be a shadow of that truth. So our final question is how do we weigh the various issues at hand? If we are faithful, we must first consider what it means to love our neighbor. Self-interest is never a God-centered stance.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must seek to be what we want to become.” We must start acting now the way we want to be in the future. We are a transformational people. We know we can change – our habits, our practices, and our way of thinking. Our world too can change – for justice, for peace, for community. Grace makes it all possible.

And in that grace you and I are given the opportunity to decide how we will manifest God, how we will strive for justice and peace in this world that we create.

As people of faith, as people of conscience, and as citizens of this country, we can raise our voices to proclaim where we see God at work in this world. And we can raise the question, like Jesus, of how we, including with our political decisions and action, will give to God what belongs to God.

Invitation for Reflection

  • What is the most critical political issue facing us today?
  • How do you participate in the political process?
  • Is not voting casting a vote for change or abdicating one’s responsibility?
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ageism, aging, beign fully human, Being Fully Human, Buddha, change, Compassion, emotional, feeling, grief, Jesus, loss, moses, mourning, pain, physical, Spiritual, stillborn

The Worst Kind of Grief

griefI used to be a Lutheran. Then I changed and became a Christian Mystic Taoist. So my first question is how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? None. Lutherans don’t change. How many Taoists does it take to change a light bulb? You can’t change a light bulb. It can only be true to its own nature. How many politically correct clergy does it take to change a light bulb? We’ll never know. Politically correct clergy don’t tell light bulb jokes!

In a past life I was the Project Manager for the Primary Care Network at Mercy General Health Systems. That meant that my job was to know everything that could be known about a doctor’s office– and then to change it. So I spent time with staff, job shadowed doctors and interviewed patients all in attempt to be more efficient, more effective and more customer focused. Then I would present my wonderful ideas for change.

This is where my lack of human understanding would always rear its ugly head. See, I thought that if I explained what was happening and how it was going to happen and all of the reasons it would be so much better that everyone would be happy two go along. Wrong. You see everything I was doing made great sense intellectually, but I was completely disregarding the fact that change is an intensely emotional activity. I was simply disregarding everyone’s fear and pain and assuming everyone would now be happier and more content.

By the time I left Mercy General I had learned a lot about the process of change – the grief and loss that must be met with mourning, the fear that can propel or paralyze, the joy and anticipation that can lead to even more change.  Change is an opportunity for growth, an antidote against inertia and proof that we live in an ever evolving and creative cosmos.

Organizational change is a challenge, but there is other change that is far more difficult, more painful. In my last blog, I talked about the aging process. I challenged us all to embrace growing old gracefully as a sign of hope for those who follow us. I focused on what we gain as we age. Today in true Taoist fashion, it is only appropriate to acknowledge what we lose. Because loss is real. Aging with grace isn’t about denying that loss, it’s about acknowledging it, grieving it and then continuing to go on living.

Aging isn’t the only thing that brings about painful loss. There are accidents and injuries, divorces and layoffs, violent acts and natural disasters. There is death. And there are too many Detroit Lions football games.

Change can overwhelm us when there are too many of them too soon – and when they come not as something we choose and to some extent control, but as something that controls us. These changes are especially painful.

You know what I’m talking about. None of us totally escapes crisis in our life – those unexpected breaks in our equilibrium, those sudden changes that leave us overwhelmed and anxious. We move through shock and denial, bargaining and depression until we return to some sense of reorientation.

What is the Worst Kind of Grief?

And what is the worst kind of grief? Your own. The worst kind of grief is whatever grief you are experiencing. The worst pain you will ever experience is your own pain.

Life is hard. And life is hard because we hurt.  We hurt physically, we hurt emotionally and we hurt spiritually. Pain is present from the very beginning of our life until our last breath. First we are pushed and shoved out of the warmth and security of our mother’s womb into a cold and uncertain world.

And from that day on we will know pain as an unavoidable aspect of life – as we cut our teeth, as we learn about gravity, as we realize why we were told not to touch the stove or play with knives. (Side note, when I was two years old I actually tried to shave my tongue. Any idea how much a tongue bleeds? Hard to bandage, too.) We know pain as we stretch ourselves to learn new skills and in the process fall flat on our face. Pain accompanies our journey as we maneuver our way through the sicknesses and injuries of life and keeps us company as our bodies age, reminding us we are mortal after all.

Then there is the emotional and spiritual pain that can bring us to our knees faster than any physical injury. As we are emptied of everything else – hope, dreams, desires, belief – it is the pain that comes into the void and fills us to overflowing. It arises in times of crisis, trauma and loss and serves as a cruel reminder of our own powerlessness and lack of control. And it is universal. None of us can participate in this world and not know its sting.

We have few role models, however, for learning how to deal with the sting. Our society does not encourage emotional awareness, let alone emotional expression. Instead we are offered a continual array of ways in which we can avoid feeling our pain or feeling anything at all. When any glimmer of emotional turmoil threatens to come our way we can choose alcohol, drugs, sex or food instead. We can distract ourselves from our own emotion by yelling, blaming, or trying to appease somebody else. When sadness, fear, anxiety or loneliness threaten to descend we can run away, go shopping, or turn on the TV.

Feeling the Pain

The idea of actually FEELING our pain can seem strange and even frightening. But the only real way to get through it is to finally experience it. Fully. Unflinchingly. In all of its terribleness and terror. And the truth is, we can.  We can feel our pain without exploding, going crazy or dying. And when we do, we realize our pain is not endless.

Half of the battle with grief is just accepting the grief and letting ourselves grieve. We have to accept our grief because other people might not. Other people will mistakenly think that we should have “gotten over it” or that our personal loss shouldn’t be “such a big deal.” We may run into people who are so uncomfortable with grief themselves that they would rather not talk about it. Whatever the reason a lot of people will say or do things to discourage us from grieving. So we can’t depend on others to give us permission to grieve. We have to give that permission to ourselves.

And as we allow ourselves to grieve, we move beyond being a victim. It’s actually much easier to let the voice of the victim drown out the pain. The victim is the witness who carries our story and that is a very important role. As Michael talked about last week, there are times we need to tell our story. There are times people need to hear our story told. But our story is not all that we are. And when we choose to see ourselves as the victim in our own story, we choose powerlessness. We choose to remain stuck right where we are. We choose to do nothing to help ourselves or to help those around us.

Ultimately, we have to grapple with the pain itself in order to move through it. I can complain about my bad luck all day and all night, but until I’m willing to experience my pain, I will never know joy. For the same energy I use to avoid embracing my own damaged self with all of the hurt it carries, is the same energy that keeps me from embracing my own original joy and wonder.

For many of us who prefer to stay in our heads, this may not seem like good news. We cannot think our way into healing and health. We cannot think ourselves out of our grief. It takes great courage to listen to the damaged self, to stay with the painful emotion, explore it, and own it.

The Process of Grief

Grief is a very individual process. There is no roadmap. We all have to go through the stages, but we will do so in different order. We may thing we’ve worked through a stage and then suddenly find ourselves in it again. That’s okay. It just means there is something else that needs to be worked through. We need to let ourselves do that work.

How long does grief last? As long as it takes. In one sense our grief will always be with us. Those things that we’ve lost – people, pets, jobs, abilities, youthfulness – they will never be replaced. In another sense, grief does end. Eventually pain subsides, memories bring more smiles than tears, and the future appears more hopeful than foreboding.  There is no one-size-fits-all timeframe for grief. There’s only your unique and personal timeframe. That’s the only one that should really matter to you.

A Personal Story

Every year on February 1st I take time to intentionally sit with my pain. It is the anniversary of the date my son Malachi Aaron was delivered stillborn. He was a perfect little boy with 10 fingers and 10 toes, my chin (poor kid) and his brother’s nose. And his umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his little neck, twice. It was horrible in every sense of the word, pain more intense than I had ever felt before. Physical pain. Emotional pain. And especially spiritual pain. I felt as if a part of my very soul and very being had been severed from me. This is the feeling I still know when I return to the cemetery every February 1. A deep and abiding ache that I surrender to once a year. A bleeding wound that I take time to expose, to kiss and to nurture and then to gently rewrap in bandages of remembering.

In fact, an important part of my healing was in creating a time to intentionally feel the wounds once more. In the midst of my grief there was a part of me that didn’t want to be okay again – that didn’t want to let go of the pain. I didn’t want to simply blink and then pretend that everything had returned to normal. And yet my normal routine was beckoning me and the time came that I had to return to life. And so I returned. But I returned not to the same old world I had known before, but to a world where I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I returned having survived something I didn’t know I could survive with strength I didn’t know I possessed.

Spiritual Pain

Today spiritual pain is recognized as a very real factor in our total well-being. Health care providers are taught to recognize signs and symptoms and to help bring healing. Even the Joint Commission on Healthcare Accreditation requires that routine spiritual assessments be part of every hospital patient’s care.

Spiritual pain is about feeling separation. It can include loss of meaning, loss of hope, and loss of one’s own identity. It can include anger, a sense of betrayal and abandonment, and a disruption to one’s core beliefs.

When we allow ourselves to move into our spiritual pain, to experience it fully, we can find new meaning and understanding in the midst of it. A community that welcomes individual questions and doubts can offer consolation and the promise of building relationships of care and of witness to one another, while assuring us of abiding grace and unconditional love.

This is what we seek to know and feel underneath all of our life long struggles. “Our problem,” according to David Richo, “is not that as children our needs were unmet, but that as adults they are still un-mourned. The hurt, betrayed, bereft child is still inside of us, wanting to cry for what he missed.” Because without that expression and the release it allows, we stay stuck. We don’t let go of the pain. We continue to feel stressful neediness. In fact, that neediness tells us nothing about how much we need from others. What it tells us is how much we still need to grieve a barren past that cannot be changed as it urges us to call upon our own inner sources of nurturance.

Pain comes out of nowhere, hitting us when we least expect it in the place that hurts us the most. When we do our grieving work, when we admit our powerlessness and express our mourning, when we whine and complain and yearn and yell and then take another step forward, we realize that we always have alternatives, no matter what our predicament might be. Knowing we always have choices keeps us from getting stuck in depression, apathy or the paralyzing stance of the victim. Instead we get on with our lives in powerful and productive ways.

When my oldest son Jackson turned 9 I remember his being overwhelmingly sad at bedtime one night. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I’m already 9 years old. I’ll probably be moving out of the house and going to college when I’m 18. I’ve already lived half of my life with you. It’s just all happening so fast.”

As we grow, there is much we leave behind. But as mature human beings, there is also much we can recapture. As we live our lives more fully and deeply, we can even move outside of ourselves in order to enter into the brokenness of life so that we might reach out to other people in their grief.

Entering Into a Broken World

It was the sight of pain that jolted the Buddha out of royal complacency and set him off on one of history’s greatest spiritual journeys. It was the sight of pain that made Moses give up his privileged status to lead a political and cultural revolution that is called the Exodus from Egypt. It was the sight of pain that stirred Jesus to follow the call of social activism in such a way that his teachings would influence history and get him killed.

There’s a story of two men in a hospital. One is able to sit up and the other can only lie flat on his back. Day after day the man who sits describes the picture outside the window – the trees, the sunshine, the children playing. His descriptions give the other man comfort and consolation as he struggles with his own failing health. One day the man at the window dies and is moved from the room. The other man asks to be moved to the other side of the room. He is very excited to finally see for himself the wonderful activity taking place outdoors. But when he is moved there is only a wall. The nurse explains that the man who had died was blind.

Indeed, one of the most significant changes for grieving people happens on the inside. Nearly every grieving person becomes more caring and compassionate with others who experience loss. They know what it’s like to lose something or someone precious and are much more sensitive to other people’s needs. Look to your own heart for your motivation. When you are ready and when you feel it deep inside, reach out to help someone else who may need it. When people give of themselves, they also receive.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, Buddha, Jesus, self help, Spiritual, worthiness

An Epidemic of Unworthiness

mimes When I was a freshman in High School I went to the Luther League National Convention. This was a gathering of young people in the American Lutheran Church as it was known at the time. 40,000 young people strong, we gathered in Kansas City, Missouri for fellowship and fun. I remember the mimes and the toga party most of all. Oh yeah. And the keynote speaker. He was fantastic. And he spoke directly to my 14 year old heart and soul.

This was way back in 1979 and Jesse Jackson was our keynote speaker. For those of who wonder what it was like to be alive way back then, it was a hopeful time. Jesse Jackson was a young black activist and his message was I am somebody. He yelled and we chanted back and it was inspiring and oh so hopeful.

I am – somebody!
I am – somebody!
I am poor – but I am – somebody!
I am young – but I am – somebody!
I make mistakes – but I am – somebody!
My clothes are different
My face is different
My hair is different
My skin is different
And I am – somebody!
I am – Somebody!

I am somebody.

I went to the pastor’s prayer gathering in July. Tri City Clergy are invited to gather once a month at somebody’s place of worship for prayer, lunch and a program. In July they were meeting at St. John’s Episcopal Church and I was looking forward to meeting Jared Cramer who leads that community since Henry Idema retired so I attended.

We started by gathering in the alter area where one of the pastors asked what we needed by way of prayer. Numerous requests were made and then we got on with the short order of service for noonday. When we got to the prayers, I felt myself in a perpetual cringe as one after another the pastors declared themselves and all of us to be unworthy of love or mercy or grace. Then our liturgy continued with this, “have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask.”

Oh we are unworthy. We are sinful. We are a hopeless lot people.

And I have to wonder, don’t these people of the cloth know that they are ministering to broken people? Do they really think that we don’t spend enough time beating ourselves up and we really need to go looking for others to beat us up to? Flagellation and hair shirts for everyone!

A Collective Meme

As we talk about diversity, I’ll be honest with you. I think one of the smallest minority groups in the United States today are people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the teachings and the ways of Jesus. The people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the ways of the Buddha. The people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the tenets of humanism. Because Jesus, Buddha and humanism all teach us that we are inherently precious and altogether worthy.

Now it’s easy to go all judgmental on the church and religion, but this is not a church issue. It’s a cultural phenomenon in which we have collectively swallowed the poison meme of unworthiness. It’s an epidemic.

And let me be clear here. The issue I’m addressing right now isn’t the need to accept people who are different from us. It’s the need to accept ourselves. WE are the ones who must come to terms with the fact that WE belong, that WE are somebody, that WE are worthy.

Most of us have been alive to see some pretty significant shifts in our world. We have addressed, continue to address and are just beginning to address really big ideals: Civil rights. Women’s rights. Gay rights. Prisoner rights. Elderly rights. Rights for the disabled. Rights for practitioners of different religions. Rights for the mentally ill – and in this moment I want to call attention to the sad loss this week of Robin Williams in recognition that mental illness is still largely stigmatized and misunderstood but that this is also an area where we are making great gains in recognizing that we are diverse people and that we do need to honor and respect each other. 

Exposing the Lie

What I’m not so sure we are clear on, and I’m including myself here, is our own worth and value and dignity as human being in this world that would just as soon tear us apart. Everything – EVERYTHING – in our culture tells us we aren’t good enough. We aren’t pretty enough, we aren’t wealthy enough, we aren’t smart enough, we aren’t sexy enough. We aren’t enough. We are nobody.

Well, it’s a lie. It’s a big fat industrial sized Madison Avenue lie. We have been infected with a toxic germ. It has become an epidemic. We are having an outbreak of self-unworthiness.  

This illness takes hold and then we take hold of it. We busy ourselves with blame or by trying to ascend to higher spiritual or philosophical levels of awareness or perfection and further integrate the idea that we aren’t quite good enough – yet. When all we really have to do is stop, relax and pay attention. See the lie of a culture of shame and unworthiness and explore how it has infected us. This awareness alone is the key to awakening, rebirth, salvation.

The Buddha realized his natural wisdom and compassion through a night-long encounter with the forces of greed, hatred and delusion. Jesus confronted his demons through a 40 day retreat in the desert. We face our shadow when we start paying attention to the feelings that arise in us that we would just as soon dismiss — feelings of judgment, depression, anxiety, and anger. Now fear and shame are not fully conscious but they are often underlying emotions. When we focus on our feelings and discover there is fear or shame at the core, then we have a unique opportunity to “think” about our “feelings.”

In the midst fear or shame, we can ask ourselves, “What am I thinking?” “What do I believe?” We usually discover an assumption that we are falling short or about to fail in some way. We contract in fear and shame when we expect to be rejected. Ultimately, our sense of unworthiness comes from our sense of being separate and alone, from forgetting that we are connected to each other and that we play an important part in the operations of the whole. When we follow our emotions and our thoughts to the end, we can recognize that we are simply accepting a mental story, and the illusion of our unworthiness begins to disappear.  

The Myth of Separation 

Every one of us is unique, our own little bundle of human diversity. Just look at your own life! Look at the ways in which you have stood out and stood up! What you have accomplished and what you have overcome. We are more than the sum of your past experiences. We human beings are hardwired for resiliency. Life just sucks sometimes. And yet here we are in all our individual beauty and worthiness!

The Buddha said that our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth of our connectedness.

Any path that reminds us that we belong, to each other, to this world, eases the artificial belief in separation and unworthiness. We are not walking this path alone, working slowly toward becoming more perfect. Instead, we are discovering that we are interrelated, our bodies to our emotions, ourselves to each other, and to the whole world. In dissolving the illusion, we no longer feel compelled to blame or to hide in fear and shame. Instead we are filled with love and the unshakable realization that we are worthy.

We are – Somebody! 
We are – Somebody! 
We are – Somebody!

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, Buddha, Children, Compassion, Forgiveness, Jesus, Mistakes, Progressive Christianity, Relationship, Respect, Spiritual

“Oops!”

MistakesFor those of you who don’t know it yet, I have a unique family. Leif is my life partner. He works as a supervisor for Ottawa County Parks and is on beach patrol every weekend during the summer. Yeah, hard assignment, right? I also have a significant daughter Brigid. Brigid is Leif’s niece but he is really her surrogate dad. Her own father took off after she was born and Leif stepped in and took over a lot of her care. Leif and I have Brigid every night. So the three of us are a pretty unconventional family. And when I’m lucky one of my boys will join us. Alex is 19 and Jackson is 22 and they also live here in Grand Haven.

So last year Brigid got two miniature frogs for her birthday from our neighbor Marylou. They were living in an enclosed Plexiglas container into which you drop four pellets of food twice a week. Well, unlike this summer, last summer had days that were actually hot. On one of those days Leif was worried that the frogs would get to hot and start to cook, so he put them in the refrigerator.

Really. The next day – when he remembered that he had put the frogs in the refrigerator – he discovered that they weren’t moving. He felt pretty bad about this but it was clearly too late to do anything differently so he dumped the frogs into the toilet. He hit the flusher and just as the water started to swirl, the frogs started trying to swim – and continued to try as they were swept cleanly away. Leif made a mistake.

What about an example a little more close to home? I used to work at Fruitport Dry Cleaners while I was going to college. It was a great job because there was very little activity. I would bring in my homework and then have to deal with the occasional annoyance of customers. One Saturday when noon came around, I closed the shop and went home. A few hours later the owner called me up wondering what in the world the problem was – since the shop was supposed to be open until 6pm. To this day I don’t remember what made me believe it was time to go home. But I do remember how mortified I felt. I was embarrassed and humiliated and certain I would never be forgiven by my employer. I wanted nothing more than to die right then and there and never have to face anyone again for the rest of my life. To my young, hyper-responsible self, this was as close to the end of the world as I had ever experienced. I made a mistake.

Sadly, mistakes are hereditary. Have any of you have ever put liquid dish soap in the dishwasher? Exactly ten years ago, my son Jackson called me from the house where he was babysitting to say, “I have a problem. I wanted to do a really good job and clean the dishes…” I knew what was coming next. To make matters worse the only thing he could find in the house to clean up was a swifter – what ever happened to the good old fashioned mop?

So I brought him a mop – and a wet vac – and listened to him ask over and over again, “How was I supposed to know?” Well, he wasn’t supposed to know. He did what he thought he was supposed to do. He did not get the results he expected. He will do it differently next time – and he’s got a great story he can laugh about for the rest of his life. He made a mistake.

Common Humanity
If there’s one thing that unites us in common humanity, it has to be the fact that we all make mistakes. No one is immune.  Even the historical Buddha had a period when he made the mistake of over-compensating for his luxurious upbringing by becoming an ascetic and starving himself. He literally tortured himself in the name of spirituality. That’s a pretty big mistake. But it was only because he made this mistake that he was able to find the middle way between the extremes of luxury and austerity. Mistakes are not a bad thing; they are the food for our spiritual journey.

We all make mistakes. Big ones, small ones. In fact mistakes make the best stories don’t they? And they make for the best learning experiences. Mistakes are part of being human. Al Franken said, “Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it’s a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from.” So not only are mistakes not something to be ashamed of, they are something to be embraced!

When was the last time you sat and reflected with joy upon the mistakes you have made in your life?  The run of the mill mistakes and the great big whoppers? Were they exciting? Were they fun? Did you laugh at yourself? Or did you hang your head in shame? How do you view your mistakes? Are they learning opportunities …or proof of your imperfection? Do you recognize the value of mistakes… or feel instead the need to blame somebody – yourself or someone else – when they happen?

If you’re still playing the blame game, then maybe you haven’t quite figured out yet what a mistake is. You see, you can’t help making mistakes – if you’re doing anything at all. We don’t do mistakes on purpose – that’s the whole point. They’re only mistakes in retrospect.

Each of us faces countless times during the day when decisions that require some kind of assessment and response have to be made. Big decisions, little decisions. We make them based on what we think will result. If the thing happened that we expected to happen, we don’t give it another thought. But if something else happens, then we realize – oops! I made a mistake.

And the good news is that’s perfectly okay! Here’s the thing. We always need to be aware that we MAKE mistakes – we are not mistakes ourselves.

We are NOT Mistakes
I was a spunky kid! I hated my kindergarten teacher Miss Peters. But my first grade teacher Mrs. McKenzie was like Mrs. Butterworth and Captain Kangaroo all rolled up in one. She loved me and I would have done anything to try to impress her. One day we were joining the kindergarten class to watch a movie. I must have been feeling pretty full of myself because I decided to have a comic moment. When Miss Peters asked if we were ready, I jovially said, “No.”

But Miss Peters didn’t think I was funny at all. She scanned the room with her dark heart and her evil eyes and asked who said it. And my classmates – ratted me out! Then she sent me to my room to wait, horrified, for Mrs. McKenzie to come in and discover what mayhem I had almost wrought upon the entire class. The problem was that I didn’t have my grown up perspective and I didn’t know it wasn’t a big deal. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t feel like I had made a mistake – I felt like I WAS a mistake.

It took me a long time to accept my own imperfection and to come to terms with my faults and my flaws. I used to carry around a lot of shame that made me believe I was a mistake. I ended up in abusive relationships that reinforced the idea that I was a mistake. The mistakes I made that led me into those relationships were just further evidence that I was a mistake. There is nothing more debilitating and unproductive in the whole world than believing you are a mistake.

Because if you are a mistake, you can’t do anything to make things better. If, on the other hand, we make mistakes, we can always take the next step in creating a better outcome. When we realize that we only made a mistake, we become empowered to change our life for the better. And if we can change our own life, we can change the world.

I made a mistake thinking I was a mistake. It turns out I am more precious than even I can comprehend. And so are you. So here’s mantra I want you to learn and use: I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them. I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them. I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them.

Now can you learn to relax in that knowledge and receive the grace that is yours to give yourself? Because when it comes to recognizing our common humanity, to recognizing the inherent dignity of every human being, we absolutely have to start with our self. Self-compassion comes from the recognition that we are all human and we all make mistakes. When we are aware of our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal. When we can claim our own worth, we can deeply value and appreciate others, recognizing that pain and disappointment are part of the shared human experience. Compassion toward our own mistakes leads us to extending compassion to others who also make mistakes.

Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds
Jesus told a parable about the Farmer who planted a field and was standing in it when he noticed weeds. The workers wanted to pull up the weeds but the Farmer made the absolutely crazy decision not to, adding that the weeds would be burned at harvest time. In this story, Jesus points us to a truth found in all wisdom traditions – that we have the seeds of both wheat and weeds within us.

I have learned, rather painfully, that I can do good and I can do bad – and what’s more – I can’t always tell the difference. Sometimes I have the best of intents, and I still manage to hurt someone I love. Sometimes I go out of my way to do a good deed, and only end up causing more of a mess than there was before I got involved. But then again, things that didn’t go the way I thought they would way back when have led in strange and amazing ways to many of the wonderful outcomes I’m experiencing today.

Like the mistakes we wish we had never made, each of us carries within us parts of our self that we view as weeds. We wish we could just yank out that part of our being and throw it into the furnace. But the parable cautions us not to. It says we have to learn to be patient with our self, to see our self as a field in which all of our life is in balance and to remove even a part of us that is ill is to pull with it a part that is healthy.

Each one of us does the best we can at any particular moment not knowing what the outcome will be.

A mistake is only declared when I stand in judgment over some past action. And I am not equipped to make such a judgment – not about the actions you have taken and not about the actions I have taken. My time frame is too short, my perspective too limited, my disposition too impatient to see the fullness in the growth of the field. To appreciate the harvest yet to come.

You see, you can’t set out to make a mistake. A mistake is only a mistake in retrospect – through a lens different than the one you use right now. And that lens will change over time. So who are you and who am I to say anything is a mistake or not? Well, putting dish soap in a dishwasher does seem to be a bona fide mistake, but you get my drift.

Now, a precautionary word. Embracing our mistakes does not give us license to do anything we please. Sometimes we make a conscious choice to act out of anger or envy or greed, knowing even as we choose our action that someone will be hurt. Now we might want to claim later that we made a mistake – but that kind of action is not a mistake at all. Mistakes require a good intent – a desire to do what is right. And so we are invited to act with courage the best we can today – knowing that even with the best of intentions we will make mistakes.

So what do we do? If we are to be whole we must live with the knowledge that we are both good and bad. And then we do our best. We decide intentionally that we will not live in judgment of others or our self. Instead, we choose to live. And if we are going to live, we will inevitably make mistakes. Jim Carrey delivered the graduation speech at the Maharishi University of Management this year. He said that he learned many great lessons from his father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.

The trouble is that we tend to amplify the mistakes and forget the successes, which creates such a heavy burden of guilt for so many of us. And just when we thought we let go of that last mistake and forgave our self, something happens that triggers those old scripts and we find we’re beating ourselves up all over again. So instead of replaying our mistakes in our heads over and over again, I suggest we all make a list of our successes – and start playing them over and over in our head – when things are going well and especially when they’re not.

Kamma
So instead of always having a list of mistakes we can turn to in blame, we have an automatic treasure trove of reminders of all the good things we have done in our life. Redirecting our thoughts to what is positive and life giving is a very Buddhist practice. When we claim our true Self or the Buddha nature within us, it grows. If we focus on the mistakes and the errors, our sense of failure and incompetence grows. If we dwell on any thought, that thought grows and grows. So we can consciously turn our hearts around and dwell upon the positive in ourselves, the purity, the goodness, the source of that unconditional love that seeks to serve others. And when we can forgive our own faults and focus on our own goodness and kindness, we can do the same with other people. We can dwell upon their goodness and watch it grow.

This is what Buddhists call kamma – an intentional action. The way we think about life, the way we speak about life, what we do with life. And it really is up to us what we do with our life. It is not up to some supernatural being somewhere who says whether we will be happy or not. Our happiness is completely in our hands, in our power. This is what Buddhists mean by kamma.

So what if we decided to live in happiness instead of fear? How different would our lives be if we celebrated the fact that we all make mistakes and stopped playing it safe? The willingness to risk making a mistake comes when we finally let go of fear and embrace the possible. Mistakes prove that we are creative enough to do something besides what we have always done before. They mean that we are living a life rich in creativity and courage that we have the audacity to believe in ourselves and in the people around us.

In the book Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers there is this pertinent quote: “If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t doing anything worth a damn.”

Namaste!

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Progressive Christianity, Spiritual, Uncategorized

Women in the Early Church

Women in the Early ChurchAnd Help Him Comfort by Mira
God has
a special interest in women
for they can lift this world to their breast
and help God
comfort.

Once upon a time you might have told your children the story of Thecla as you tucked them into bed at night. Once upon a time Thecla was considered by many to be the most important being outside of the Trinity – more important even than Mary the mother of Jesus. But that was once upon a time. Chances are few of you even recognize the name. So I am going to tell you a bedtime story – the Story of Thecla as recorded in the second century in The Acts of Thecla.

Thecla was a virgin engaged to be married. One day as she sat in her window, she heard the Apostle Paul preach. So enraptured of his message was she that she remained in the window listening to him for three days and three nights. Her mother became distressed and called for her fiancé but neither of them could change her mind. She decided to follow Paul.

The fiancé and the mother were upset and both Paul and Thecla were arrested. Because Paul was an outsider, he was flogged and exiled from the city. But because Thecla was a resident, she needed more drastic punishment. Her mother pled with the governor to execute her and he ordered her to be burned at the stake. She was tied up and the fire was lit.

Miracles Abound
But then a miracle occured. A thunderstorm began and doused the fire, allowing Thecla to escape. She found Paul and begged him to let her follow him. He allowed her to come with him but wouldn’t baptize her in case she changed her mind and proved to be unworthy.

While they are in Antioch a wealthy man named Alexander is immediately inflamed with passion for Thecla and offers to bribe Paul for her. But Paul denies even knowing who she is. Alexander tries to force himself on her, but Thecla publicly humiliates him, tears his cloak and pulls off his crown. He has her arrested and she is condemned to be thrown to the wild beasts.

When she is brought to the arena, however, she is repeatedly protected from harm. A lioness instead of killing her, licks her feet and the day ends with Thecla still alive and well. The next day she is again put in the arena where another lioness kills a bear in her defense but is then killed by a lion. More beasts are sent in. Thecla notices a vat of human eating seals (really!) and decides this may be her last chance for redemption.

She throws herself in the vat shouting, “In the name of Jesus Christ, on this final day I am baptized!” A bolt of lightening hits the vat, killing the seals and allowing Thecla to escape once more. More miracles occur until finally the governor gives up and lets her go.

She dresses like a man and heads out to find Paul once more. She tells him what has happened and not only does he let her travel with him, he commissions her, “Go and teach the word of God.” And Thecla lived happily ever after.

A Female Hero

Obviously this book was not written in order to promote conformity with the traditional social order. This tale of a female hero of the faith is about disruption, escape from worldly trappings, and spiritual union with the divine. Thecla’s values are a very different set of values from the world at large. And this book written presumably to entertain does much more – for it instructs, encourages and even advocates for the leadership of women in the church.

Many women appear in Scripture and other literature: widows, workers, financial backers, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, the Corinthian women, Philip’s daughters, Ammia of Philadelphia, Philumene, the martyr Perpetua, Prisca, Maximilla, prophets, healers and counselors. Many whose names have been lost to us.

Some early Christian communities ordained women, allowing them to celebrate the Eucharist and to baptize. Some allowed women to serve as deacons and priests. And many testified to their faith as virgins or by suffering the torture of martyrs.

Although they are a diverse group, today we can look at documents written by and about these women and discover some of their common beliefs. Karen King offers this list:

  • Jesus was understood primarily as a teacher and mediator of wisdom rather than as ruler and judge.
  • Reflection centered on the experience of the risen Christ more than the crucified savior.
  • Direct access to God was possible for all through receiving the Spirit.
  • In Christian community, the unity, power, and perfection of the Spirit was present in the now, not just in some future time.
  • Those who were more spiritually advanced gave what they had freely to all without following any hierarchical order of power.
  • An ethics of freedom and spiritual development was emphasized over an ethics of order and control.
  • A woman’s identity and spirituality could be developed apart from her roles as wife and mother (or slave). Women (and men) could exercise leadership on the basis of spiritual achievement apart from gender and without conformity to gender roles.
  • Overcoming social injustice and human suffering were seen as integral to spiritual life.

We also read in these texts an unexpected wealth of Christian imagination of the divine as feminine. For example, Wisdom, a feminine figure of God, enters into the lower world and the body in order to awaken the innermost spiritual being of the soul to the truth of its power and freedom.

Mary of Magdala

Another woman who plays a prominent role in the Bible is Mary Magdalene. We don’t know all that much about Mary of Magdala, but what we do know is significant. She was probably named Miriam and she was from the fishing village of Magdala. She was a follower of Christ and probably a financial backer of his ministry. She was a demonic – from whom Christ drove out 7 demons. But she was not a reformed prostitute.

This distorted picture of Mary Magdalene emerged in the year 591 when Pope Gregory the Great delivered a sermon in which he combined several Biblical women into one. It took a while, but I’m happy to report that the Vatican officially overruled Gregory on this matter in the year 1969. Nevertheless, the image of the prostitute continues to stick – we see it in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar and we see it in Mel Gibson’s movieThe Passion of the Christ.

Mary is, however, mentioned by name in all four Gospels. This woman waits at the foot of the cross during Christ’s crucifixion after his male disciples have fled. This woman helps prepare Jesus’ body for burial. This woman finds an empty tomb. And this woman is the first to see Jesus Christ resurrected. This woman is sent to tell the others – an Apostle to the Apostles. This woman, Mary Magdalene, provides the thread of continuity that is central to the story of Christian history. It’s amazing, really, that there are any women at all mentioned in these ancient texts. And for Mary to play such an integral role is nothing short of astonishing! Once again we find that it is the marginalized who prevail and who are entrusted to deliver the Word of God.

It may be that Mary’s reputation was tarnished on purpose because she posed a threat to male control of the church. Some of the Gnostic gospels indicate that she and Peter were rivals for leadership of the early church and that Mary had a superior understanding of Jesus’ teaching. King believes that by making Mary into a reformed whore, the church effectively killed the argument for women’s leadership and for recognizing women as fit recipients for divine revelation.

How interesting that such maneuverings would contradict the testimony of the Scripture itself! Because here the portrait we are given of Mary is stunning! Mary’s role in the story of Jesus the Christ is nothing short of extraordinary!

The Subjugation of Women

Let’s back up for a minute. If we’re going to be honest, we really can’t blame the early Church for single handedly subjugating the role of women in society. That had been going on a long time before Gregory the Great climbed into the pulpit.

Even in Paul’s writings we are privy to the arguments in the church over whether women should pray and prophesy in church. Already patriarchal patterns are replacing the discipleship of equals that Jesus had instituted. Church authority became modeled after imperial Roman rule, with its well-defined hierarchy and subordination of women as norm. Churches had a choice to make and they chose to conform to the status quo, even as church fathers such as Tertullian argued vehemently against allowing women, inferior in his belief to men, to baptize or to teach.

Every single variety of ancient Christianity that advocated women’s leadership was eventually declared heretical, and evidence of women’s early leadership roles was erased or suppressed.

This erasure has taken many forms. Collections of prophetic oracles were destroyed. Texts were changed. In Romans, Paul sends greetings to a woman named Junia. But deciding that women can’t be apostles, translators transformed Junia to Junias – the name of a man.  Even the word church is an interesting choice for this new institution, for it comes from a Greek word meaning “belonging to the lord, the patriarch, the master.” Whereas the term used in the Bible – ekklesia – means assembly, something closer to a discipleship of equals.

Integral Philosophyer Ken Wilber has interesting observations about the role of males and females. Hetraces these roles throughout known societies as they have gone through evolutionary stages. He notes that in the foraging and horticulture stages, there is no difference between the kinds of work a man and a pregnant woman can do. In these stages, some societies have male deity, some have female deity and some have both male and female gods. But when societies develop to the point where they become agrarian, when they start using heavy tools, things change. A pregnant woman cannot so easily handle a horse drawn plow. The role of women becomes inferior to men and the idea of female deity disappears.

It is only after the society passes through the Industrial stage and enters into the Informational stage that men and women can again perform necessary, society enhancing tasks with equal ability. So isn’t it fascinating that in our information age culture there is now a renewed interest in the notion of female deity and the sacred feminine?

Suppression of the Sacred Feminine

So it was that in Jesus’ world some 2000 years ago, women were considered inferior beings. Both official and folk Judaism were deeply male centered and patriarchal. Women were nobodies. Women were property. Women were impure. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Any public meal was for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a harlot. Women lived on the margins of society.

In this setting, Jesus’ attitude and actions toward women is striking. He defends them, speaks with them, heals then, eats with them, and even learns from them. Women were part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. They were among his most devoted followers, as well as financial supporters. And in the post-Easter Jesus movement, women took on leadership roles.

Jesus brought forth a radically different social reality, a major cultural revolution that would lead Paul to declare, “In Christ there is neither male nor female.”

But so disturbing was this change in the social order that many tried, and eventually succeeded, in suppressing it.

Two years ago I preached at a church outside Grand Rapids. I was invited because it was “Women’s Sunday” and because I was working as a leader in the church hierarchy. Between the two Sunday services was an adult discussion time. I was there to answer questions and hear concerns. I was not prepared for the hostility that met me; or the man who declared, “The church has been going downhill ever since they decided to ordain women!”

Such is the legacy of suppression that today female ordination continues to be denied in many religious environments and questioned by pastors.

Fortunately, not everyone shares these views or these values. Remarkably, the formal elimination of women from official roles of leadership did not eliminate women’s actual presence and importance to the Christian tradition. What is remarkable is how much evidence has survived in spite of systematic attempts to erase women and their models of leadership from history.

Evidence that we can continue to build upon as we are reclaimed and reshaped by the living spirit of God. For this is not a woman’s issue, but a call for the church and for all God’s people to understand the ways in which men and women can be who they are and be in community with each other. For justice is the work of the whole community, male and female together.

Invitation for Reflection:  Please add your comments below…

1)      Why was the early church so threatened by female leadership?
2)      Are men and women significantly different? How? Why?
3)      Where are men and women still not treated as equals today?

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

Heresy

Nonconformist

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?

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