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

Tension in the Tank

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

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

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

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

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

A Conservative Country 

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

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

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

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

The Path of Pluralism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are All Mystics 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Tolerance 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise of Tension 

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

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

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

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

Eudaimonia: Living a Good Life

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

So what is a good life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living a Good Life

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

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

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

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

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

Open Inquiry

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

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

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

Namaste!

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

Ubuntu

Ubuntu

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

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

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

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

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

Where are the Missionaries?

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

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

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

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

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

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

African Independent Church Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Ubuntu

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

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

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

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

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

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Being Fully Human, Compassion, Interfaith, Spiritual

We Dream of a World at Peace

An Haggadah of Liberation 

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

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

What are we so afraid of?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invitation for Reflection

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

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