Subscribe RSS

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Follow Us!
Archives

Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

On Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR): Take 1

Monday, February 26th, 2018

Note: this is the first of three explorations into the gifts and challenges of being SBNR.  Wait for the others in the next few weeks.

According to the Pew Research Center, 27% of US adults claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” a jump of 8% in just five years. The term is now so popular that it claims its own abbreviation—SBNR. Compared to the murder and mayhem caused by extremists of many religious, SBNR has to be a positive development in human culture. Yet, some who identify as SBNR may occasionally long for the certitude of more traditional faiths, especially at this time of year. Additionally, some SBTR folks exhibit a self-righteous certitude that can be as dismissive as fundamentalist believers.

To which I say that theological tenets are like building codes, those local regulations that control the design, methods, and materials used in construction. Most local jurisdictions have such laws that are established to protect the health and safety of residents. Anyone building or retrofitting a house (and the contractor or architect) must comply with standards governing the frame, plumbing, electrical, and other features of the structure.

But there are building codes and then there are building codes – specifically prescriptive and performance codes. Prescriptive codes specify what is required – how many inches of what kind of insulation in the ceiling, how many in the walls, etc. They do the same for windows, walls, wiring, and wastewater systems.

Performance codes don’t prescribe requirements; rather, they give minimum benchmarks. They don’t care whether the builder uses fiberglass insulation, plastic bags, old socks, or solar energy – provided that the building meets acceptable standards of safety and efficiency.
So far so good. Unfortunately, some local governments formulate standards the same way many people formulate explanations for God. Builders and smaller jurisdictions usually favor prescriptive standards with detailed checklists. You don’t need a cadre of professional engineers to decide if something will work or not, you just check off each item to ensure compliance.

But architects and innovators typically prefer performance standards that allow greater creativity and flexibility. They can think “outside the box” and devise new solutions to old problems. To require a new state-of-the-art building to conform to prescriptive criteria equivalent to a traditional building could be wasteful, prohibitively expensive, and even impossible.

Isn’t this akin to our understanding of God’s ways? – Some people want the details spelled out and a checklist provided, while others want individual flexibility within a broad framework.

Prescriptive standards – whether they relate to places of the hearth or of the heart – are valued by those who want straightforward, right-and-wrong guidelines. There are times in our lives when we all want straight answers, especially during childhood and trauma. However, as we grow in faith and discernment, many of us find we have outgrown simplistic criteria for faithful living; we want to focus on the big picture of God’s love without falling into the quicksand of other people’s sense of right and wrong. It’s time to move from prescriptive to performance criteria.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. Local governments must develop and enforce building codes or houses fall down, neighbors get into shouting matches (or worse) over unsightly monstrosities two feet from their dream house, and the building profession is plagued with corruption and deceit. Doing nothing – living without a code of some kind – is not an acceptable response.

Another way of looking at is to think of prescriptive codes as religion and performance criteria as spirituality. There are times when we need strict prescriptions, but mostly we prefer the flexibility and growing edges of performance benchmarks.

And those of us who use performance standards to explain God must work harder than those who are satisfied with black-and-white criteria. Each of us is required to come up with a statement of faith that, while not being prescriptive, is nonetheless a clear and cogent explanation for how God works in our lives and how we translate that into daily action. Otherwise, SBNR is just a cute way of saying you believe in everything or nothing.

Share

Follow the Freedom Star

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Many Christians just celebrated Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas and the day the three wise visited the baby Jesus. It began the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas and also represents the true message of how God came to earth as a helpless infant. For me, it also suggests the power of the natural world to affirm our majesty and power and to open up new possibilities – if only we but follow the heavenly stars to our own new vision of freedom.

You may remember that, during the darkest days in the history of our country when people bought and sold other people whom they could then treat worst than the vilest of farm animals, there were a few courageous souls – God-fearing whites and daring blacks – who developed an elaborate system of secret hiding places to help runaways find their way north to freedom. The Underground Railroad relied on markers in trees, special lights hung out at certain hours, quilts of particular colors hung out to dry, and other such signals to set the path. Many of them had learned the popular folk tune, “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a-waitin’
For to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd.

The verses were elaborate codes devised by an itinerant white carpenter (the “old man”) who went from plantation to plantation, teaching the song to slaves from Alabama and Mississippi. It led them up along the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the northern states and, later, Canada. Hounded by dogs and slave owners, the runaways and their accomplices faced torture and certain death if they were caught. The “drinking gourd” is the constellation we know as the Big Dipper. If you look at the two sides of the cup that are opposite the handle and multiply the distance between the two stars by seven, you will see the North Star, also called Polaris.

The black slaves and their supporters were not the first to follow a star to freedom. Two thousand years ago, three kings from the Orient followed a star to Bethlehem. Without knowing much about it, it seems like nice, romantic little tale, but that doesn’t do justice to the story. First, it was a time of terrible oppression. The period of Roman occupation in Palestine was different – but fully as gruesome – as the days of slavery before the Civil War. Taxes were upwards of 60-70%, and people lost their land to pay tribute to the Roman Empire and those Jewish authorities that supported Caesar. Some people sold themselves and their children into slavery, because it was that or starvation. Five percent of the people owned 95% of the wealth, and the rest suffered, cruelly and unmercifully.

Second, “kings” is a misnomer. The three men who came to Bethlehem were probably astrologers from Babylon or further east. Astrologers were the first astronomers, who were, in turn, the scholars and scientists of the ancient world. The term “magi” is the root of magician, and it designated someone of exceptional wisdom and knowledge. Think Gandolf, as in Lord of the Rings, and you get a pretty good idea of the caliber of these three people – men who could envision a world different from what they saw around them, namely a world of goodness, kindness, justice, and freedom. For them, Jesus symbolized a new way of living. In presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi were acknowledging Jesus’ kingship, his priesthood, and his humanity, that is, honoring the fact that the God who is king is also fully human and fully vulnerable – just like us. In recognizing the love of God embodied in this tiny child, these three wisest of all wise men could see a way out of the oppression and injustice of the Roman Empire. Think stars, think freedom.

Epiphany is a Greek word that means to “shine upon” or to “give light.” It means a dramatic uncovering or sudden awareness that changes one’s sense of reality. Suddenly you see what is happening and what is possible in a whole new light. It’s an “ah ha” moment, in which you blurt out, “Eureka – now I see it. Now I understand.” St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was an epiphany. The runaway slaves vision of freedom was an epiphany. The Magi’s recognition that a tiny infant could and would change the world was an epiphany.

I had a dramatic epiphany about 25 years ago, during the darkest period of my life. My husband had decided, rather suddenly, to end the marriage, leaving me with two kids, an expensive mortgage, and not much else. I felt alone, helpless, trapped – consumed with terror and anger. The rage was a poison within my body, like the cancer that had killed my mother years earlier. I knew that it only hurt the children and me and had little effect on my estranged husband, but I was powerless to rid myself of it. I began praying with fervor unlike any time previously.

One autumn weekend, I went camping in the mountains with friends. Around midnight, leaving my kids sleeping in the tent with our trusty dog, four of us went walking to view the stars. It was an extraordinary sight: never had I seen so many stars in the world. I thought back to all of the isolated places I had ever and I couldn’t remember seeing so many stars. My mind wandered to the ancient Phoenicians and Norsemen and others who traveled by the stars. And I wondered if the sky sparkled like this when the shepherds watched at the time of the Nativity.

About fifteen minutes into the walk, I saw the shooting star. It didn’t register much at first, sort of a subconscious thought, “Yup, there’s a shooting star,” as it streaked across an eighth of the night sky. But one of my friends had noticed it too, and asked excitedly whether I had seen it or not. I gave her a smile and probably said something pleasant and noncommittal. I really didn’t want to talk, for I was too enraptured just scanning the sky, and searching for the occasional meteor. I thought some about my current life, but spent more time pondering ancient history, my childhood, and the universe as a whole. I remembered that, in native American spirituality, the stars are our ancestors looked down from the heavens, and I felt wondrously peaceful and complete. I was so happy to be there at that time, at that place. The entire sky was sparkling, radiant, glowing.

And then I glanced at the ground, and it was luminous, as were the shrubs and trees. I looked at my friends, and they sparkled also. And so did I – rather like we had all been gently dabbed with Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. The heavens had opened and the stars had feathered their way down to earth. The delicate energy of God was present inside, outside, all around me… I experienced a unity that I had never known before, in which there were no boundaries of time or place. Past, present, and future were one; here and there were one. I was a child visiting her grandparents in the mountains of Massachusetts, I was an explorer on an ancient canoe, I was a shepherd in Bethlehem, I was a mother whose kids were sleeping contentedly in a modern nylon tent. All the stars were friends and relatives who cared for me. They were sparkling with happiness and cheering me on, saying, “You can do it, girl. We know you can.” I just kept repeating, “Thank you God,” to myself. It was involuntary: I had to thank God.

I later learned that this was a classic religious experience, in which one recognizes God’s grace as a powerful and unmerited gift. In that moment, my cancerous rage disappeared forever, for I had felt God’s love as a warm and comforting hug on a cold and private night. I knew instantly that God loved me and that my children and I would, somehow, survive. I was liberated from the rage and the fear. The stars that came to earth and surrounded my friends and me was the most powerful gift I have ever received. It’s the reason I eventually went into ordained ministry, for it changed my understanding of God, the world, and myself. Think stars, think freedom.

And what about you? What is the sudden revelation that the stars might offer? Consider those attachments that keep you from being fully free. Consider those fears that keep you bound in fetters. Is it anger? Jealousy? Physical decline? Loneliness? Is it an addiction that you would like to liberate yourself from? Is it the sense of inadequacy – physical, psychological, financial, or other? – We are so attached to our emotions and to our material supports that they cloud our vision. We live in darkness, blind to the stars and to the holy in our midst.

So, in your mind’s eye, feel the magi’s gifts coming to you. There is myrrh to acknowledge your humanity, incense to affirm you as an agent of God’s love, and gold to honor your majesty. Feel also the stars that come and dance around you, kissing you with God’s comfort and affection. The gifts of the Magi and of the stars are God’s gift to you. They are gifts of courage, freedom, clear thinking, and clear seeing. They are the gifts of liberation from false attachments and false fears. Think stars, think freedom, follow the Drinking Gourd.

On Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, this is God’s most incredible gift to us.. It is nothing to do with belief; it has nothing to do with some supernatural entity directing what happens in the world. On the contrary, it has everything to do with mystery, connection, peace, and freedom. That is the message of the three kings: the freedom to see the world, others, and ourselves in a new way, in the way of Jesus and the runaway slaves, with liberation and love.

Blessings to you on this New Year and throughout 2018.

Share

Donald Trump: The Devil or the Holy Spirit?

Friday, July 1st, 2016

The United Kingdom voted last week to un-unite from the European Union, and the world is suddenly in free fall. Facebook posts from those under 40 are filled with fury while those from the older folks express fear and frustration. What are the implications for us in the still-United States? What are the implications for our world? For our faith?

It’s six weeks into my sabbatical in Britain and, until last week, most people would just raise their eyebrows if the subject of Donald Trump came up. When I either nodded sadly or cast my eyes to heaven, they would respond with silent tenderness. There are clear parallels between Trump’s popularity and the appeal of those who voted to leave the European Union, but even the most passionate Brexit conservatives are at a loss to understand the logic of those Americans who believe that Trump would be a worthy CEO for the most important nation on earth.

What is going on? First – and some would argue most persuasively – there’s the issue of hot air, literally and figuratively. In Britain, to “trump” is to break wind, i.e., fart. While I struggle to honor the gifts of my name (“felicity” means happiness), I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has any trouble living up to his.

The troublesome issue is not Mr. Trump but the people who see him as a solution for the mess we’re in. At another time, I may explain the victim-abuser seesaw and the danger of victim mentality, but right now I want to explore the possibility that Trump is the embodiment of the devil tempting us with simple solutions, prosperity, and peace. In what ways could he be a modern embodiment of the devil that tempted Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness?

As you reflect on this, remember the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1: 9-12)

What is going on? A supposedly loving God honors Jesus as the beloved and then immediately sends him into the wilderness, where he has to deal with the horrors of hunger, terror, and vulnerability. In this physical and spiritual desert, the devil tells Jesus to:

  • Make bread out of stones to relieve hunger
  • Jump from the highest mountain and rely on heavenly spirits to prevent injury or death
  • Worship the devil in exchange for worldly power

Certainly there is a connection between this devil and Trump who asks us to buy into his idea of (figurative) comfort food, financial security, and power over lesser mortals.

But again I return to the Biblical narratives and wonder how a loving God could drive Jesus into such a place and situation… Could it be that the devil was just the Holy Spirit in disguise?

However you explain that, I believe the answer is the same as it was for Jesus. Each of the three temptations forced Jesus to examine his understanding of himself, the world, and God. What follows fear? Is it fight, flight, or faith? As Jesus dismissed the devil’s taunts, he also discovered his power and his role as a beloved child of God. And so I argue that the challenge – and the gift – of the wilderness is that it pushes us to identify three things: our power, our passion, and our purpose in life.

The Jesus whom we honor shows us that the path to heaven (certainly in this world and perhaps in another) begins with a faith that (excuse the pun) trumps fear. But he only was able to do so because he had gone through the wilderness where he learned who he was, who God was, and what the world should be.

Our country, if not the entire world, is smack dab in the middle of the wilderness.  We miserable, we don’t know where we are, and we’re desperately looking for a guide to lead us into a modern Promised Land.  Who will it be?  Will Donald Trump a.k.a. the devil win? Will we succumb to his false temptations? Or is God using Trump to make us examine what it means to be the United States of America? Is the God of Love pushing us to discern what American power, passion, and purpose looks like for the 21st century?

That is the challenge. And so it is not Mr. Trump, but the American people who will decide whether he is channeling the devil or the Holy Spirit.

Share

Channeling

Friday, May 27th, 2016

The young man plopped his backpack on my sofa, scowled, and announced that he would not be driving back with my cousin, staying instead in my small timeshare studio apartment until I worked out a plan to … do what ???

So much for my quiet vacation to finish the book. So much for solitude. So much for … whatever ….

The cousin left abruptly, seemingly pleased with his sudden freedom, and the young man offered a sheepish thanks, apparently assuming that I would do something other than throw him out on the streets, penniless and without even a driver’s license since he had handed that over to my cousin and forgot to ask for it back.

It’s a long and complicated story that I don’t wish to revisit, except to note that my response was uncharacteristic. Specifically, I was kind, I was generous. I found the young friend a room, bought him an airplane ticket, and paid for a taxi to the airport. When he left three days later, I was $900 poorer and feeling blessed. It seemed that the nasty Mr. Hyde part of me had evaporated, leaving only lovable Dr. Jekyll. I liked the peace and pleasantness of the new me but wondered what caused the transformation.

In my gut, I knew. The generosity was not from me but from others: I was simply channeling the tenderness of those who founded The Park Church 170 years ago – people whose love of God translated into acts of uncommon courage and sacrifice on behalf of runaway slaves passing through Elmira. I was channeling the love of those in the church who continue its legacy on behalf of people who are differently abled or of different sexual persuasions, or undervalued and challenged for whatever reason.

I was channeling the generosity of so many friends who have helped me navigate the challenges of ministry throughout the years. I was channeling the kindness of Robin, my best friend from elementary school with whom I had recently reconnected, and her sister Randa. Hearing their stories of courage and sacrifice, my heart went out to this young man, so alone and scared by what was happening to him.

I was channeling the generosity of my grandparents, who made such contributions to a small Sardinian village 100 years ago that a young researcher reached out to my family in kindness. A month after I contacted him in hopes of meeting over coffee or lunch, he informed me that he had arranged for me to stay for a week at a friend’s flat just a block from Westminster Cathedral and two blocks from Big Ben.

It wasn’t me that was kind. I was merely channeling the kindness of ordinary heroes and heroines from my church, my family, and my past. I was channeling the kindness of new friends who extended hospitality in welcoming me to Britain for my sabbatical, finding me free lodging and use of a car during parts of my time there. The blessings from others overflowed such that that they had nowhere to go but onto this young man.

And isn’t this the Kin(g)dom of God?

I am not an especially kind or generous person but on this day I was caught in God’s web of eternal connection. The largesse of the peace more than compensated for the shrinking of the purse.

We give thanks.

Share

Pilgrimage as Embodied Faith

Friday, April 29th, 2016

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

— Rabbi Abraham Heschel

 Who are we and why are we the way we are?  I surmise that our identities are fashioned by those people and places that have combined to give us our values and thus our identity. Some of these were given us (family, country of origin) and some we acquired on our own (friends, college, job, travels, spouse).  It’s true of organizations as well.  The church I pastor is a progressive church because of our location (in Elmira, a central conduit of the Underground Railroad) and the people who filled its pews and pulpits in the past.  With different people in a different setting, The Park Church might not have emerged as a national landmark and leader in justice issues.

But too often we take these values as defaults without exploring, questioning, discarding, or celebrating them.  The result is that we live on autopilot without exercising much control over our destinies.  It was for this reason that God (or, if you prefer, the earliest wisdom teachers who collected their culture’s wisdom in the form of the great religious texts) developed the idea of Sabbath, the seventh day of the week during which God rested and instructed us to do the same.  This kind of holy rest is not vegging out at the beach or hanging out with friends; it is a deliberate time set aside to reconnect with the best of ourselves and reclaim our identity as beings made in the image of God.

In exploring our identity and values, we also need to consider the role of faith, which is too often confused with belief or contaminated by heaven-or-hell pronouncements of the institutional church.  This ignores the fact that doubt is to faith as dissent is to democracy – you can’t have the latter without the former or it’s sham.  We meet fundamentalist Christians – or Muslims or belligerent atheists or anyone else with simplistic truth-and-falsehood, good-and-bad, heaven-and-hell explanations of God – and they just don’t seem … real.  Rigidly held beliefs are so antithetical to the human experience that it’s hard to take them seriously; faith is not authentic if there isn’t some doubt at its core.

A wise elder shared an important insight about twenty years ago when I was tormented by whether or not to go into ministry.  My head said this religious stuff was just phooey, but my heart was telling me that the call and the joy, however inexplicable, were real.  On a spiritual retreat, I met with the resident priest, explaining that I was spiritually bipolar; my head and heart were in constant tension.  After listening to my plight, he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “It’s not your head and your heart at war; it’s that you – like everyone else in the world – is on the seesaw between mystic and cynic.  Mysticism, however tenuous and inexplicable, brings joy, whereas cynicism is deadening.  You’re a mystic trying to follow the rationalist explanations of the modern world, and you’ll never find peace until you honor the validity of the experienced God as the source of peace since the beginning of time.  Remember, that’s why we call it ‘the peace that passes all understanding.’”

In short, faith can never be understood or explained scientifically.  But there is the very real experience of connection with something outside of us that brings joy, peace, and energy.  It is not rational or irrational; it is extra-rational.  It is of the heart, not the head.

Events that take us to a new understanding of God and ourselves are not reserved for holy nutcases.  On the contrary, several recent studies have reported that fully half of all Americans have had a life-changing religious experience at least once in their lives.  In other countries, the percentage is even higher.  As a rule, mystical experiences seem to be like grace, an unbidden gift from above.  But there are definitely things we can do to connect with the divine.

One of these is a pilgrimage. The ancient Jews were expected to go to Jerusalem three times a year – for Passover, Shavuot (or Pentecost), and Sukkot.   To this day, Muslims are required to travel to Mecca at least once in their lives. In our Christian history, those of us of European ancestry will think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Pilgrimage has been a major component of all the major faiths since the beginning of time – either mandated by the religious texts or encouraged by the culture.

Dear readers, have any of you ever gone on a pilgrimage?  If so, what prompted you and what did you get out of it?  Friends of mine who have undertaken a formal pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca or along the Camino de Santiago or to the places of their ancestors typically return with a clearer understanding of their own identity and purpose in life.  They return with a sense of the peace that passes all understanding.

As I begin my sabbatical with pilgrimages to Iona, Lindisfarne, and a collection of ancestral sites, I welcome your insights and prayers, for truly a pilgrimage is embodied faith: the work of the heart and the journey to discern our identity as children of a loving God.

Blessings on the journey!

Rev. Felicity

 

Share

Noah Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Their Message for Spirituality and Religion

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Garrison Keillor, in today’s Writer’s Almanac, reminds us that it was on April 14, 1828 that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. We at The Park Church celebrate Webster for his literary and genetic gifts: we love (or should love) his dictionary, and we love (or should love) his granddaughter, the magnificent Julia Jones Beecher, celebrated wife of Thomas K. Beecher, dear friend of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) and treasure of Elmira. (You can do a Google search or just wait for me to get around to writing about this extraordinary gift to the human condition.)

Keillor’s reflection reminded me of the connection between religion, spirituality, and the history of dictionaries. We yearn for a belief system or set of life principles that will guarantee either eternal salvation or earthly glory or both. We disagree, however, on how to read the road map or which of several different roads to take. Some of us prefer the fast route; others want the scenic one. Some of us prefer well-worn boulevards; others want to forge new walkways.

The various religions only add to our confusion. They all promise that if we follow their tenets, then we are likely to live with joy and die in peace. Some suggest it will happen in the here-and-now; others promise rewards in the afterlife. Some have rigorous life-style specifications, including what we can eat (and when), whom we can marry, how we must worship. Others emphasize self-control, charity and justice in more general terms. What are we supposed to do? What decisions must we make, what religious path should we follow, in order to live with joy and die in peace?

I believe that divining a personal theology is like creating a dictionary. Seventy-three years before Webster and a century before Oxford University began work on its great dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the most successful attempt to codify the English language. The six-year effort by the second most-quoted author after William Shakespeare is impressive not only for its breadth (43,500 words defined using 118,000 illustrative quotes) but also for its underlying philosophy. Unlike the “Forty Immortals” that have met since 1635 to create and maintain a national standard for French language and usage, Johnson believed that language, if it were to be an effective way of communicating, could be no more fixed than the changes of the season. Ideas change, needs change, knowledge changes – and so must language.

Arguing for an immutable dictionary akin to the Forty Immortals was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who wanted to define correct pronunciations, correct spellings, correct usage, and decide which words were or were not proper. Swift wanted a yardstick against which to codify correctness; Johnson wanted a process by which to measure common usage.

Is it not that different from comparing the Ten Commandments (that spell out the do’s and don’ts of acceptable living) with Jesus’ broader commandments to “love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Detailed rules or general guidelines: why is it that some people need well-defined creeds to codify their philosophy, while others are comfortable with more general belief statements? Is there value in creating two theological lexicons – one for the Johnsons and Websters and another for the Forty Immortals and the Swifts?

— Or can we just focus on the basics (love, peace, and justice) and ignore the details and the judgment?

Share

Circling Excerpt 1: The Introduction

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

With encouragement from friends and fellow writers, I am revising the book that was previously titled In God We Tryst: A Pilgrimage.  It will now be called Circling.  I’m not sure whether or not to add a subtitle, A Spiritual Odyssey.  (I welcome your thoughts.)  Also, I will be posting parts of it on this blog and hope that I’ll get lots of suggestions from you, my dear readers.

So here is the Introduction.  Enjoy — and respond with what works and doesn’t work for you.  Thanks so much!

 

Goober

Introduction

 

I live my life in ever-widening circles

That stretch out over the things of the world.

I may never reach the outermost orbit,

But that is what I strive for.

 

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,

And I’ve been circling for a thousand years

But I do not know yet: if I am a falcon,

A storm . . . or a great song.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke, A Book for the Hours of Prayer

 

To this day, I live all three: the falcon, the storm, and the song. There have been times when the storm raged so harshly that the falcon cowered and the song was stilled, but these, albeit violent, were infrequent. Mostly, the falcon flies high and the song is a love song.

But it’s hard work: circling God is not easy. There is no assurance that “things will be all right in the end,” either in this life or the next. Living a God-centered life is counter-cultural, and it becomes harder as the children grow and our bodies deteriorate. Often our hearts want to say “Yes” to God, while our heads protest “No way!” Many people question the legitimacy of God, craving certainty when none is possible. Others profess intimacy with the inner workings of the divine mind, alienating those with a humbler faith.

As a teenager, I careened between self-righteous certitude and hardened skepticism until an unlikely Trinity of cheap wine, dirty feet, and a fire-breathing Baptist preacher set me on a spiritual odyssey to find a loving God. Ashamed by a circuitous odyssey with too few signposts, I despaired of going public with the love story that supposedly happens when one finds God.

Earlier drafts were titled Searching for God: An Idiopathic Odyssey because I began it after the death of my infant daughter Caitlin, thirty-five years ago. One thing after another went wrong in her three-month lifetime and it was as perplexing to the doctors as it was to us. When the chief cardiovascular surgeon came to tell us of another bizarre twist in Caitlin’s medical plight, I probed to understand its cause. He shrugged his shoulders, raised his eyebrows, curled his lip, and said it was idiopathic.

When I asked what “idiopathic” meant, he sheepishly explained that it meant there was no clear medical cause. I laughed outright, “Oh, ‘idiopathic’ is the same as ‘I haven’t a clue!’”

When he acknowledged the truth of my equation,  the word evolved into a description of my spiritual journey quite as much as it did Caitlin’s medical trials. It’s an elegant term that experts – doctors, lawyers, or even theologians – can use when bereft of better explanations for why things happen the way they do. There is a respectful holiness about idiopathic confusion.

In time, I recognized that my yearning to understand God’s truth in the face of innocent suffering might some day result in a book. But being an optimist by nature, I thought the book could not be completed until there was a happy ending. There has to be a purpose in life, I thought, just as there has to be goodness in God – or why else are we born and why do we persist in believing in a loving deity?

So I waited for the happy ending. And waited. And waited. Some delightful blessings came my way, including a pair of magnificent children, delightful friends, and satisfying professional work…but the fairy-tale ending remained elusive. Every time I thought life was leveling out to a gentle and comfortable playing field, another gut-wrenching loss would find its way to my soul.

The clarity of my youth became the curse of my adulthood. Raised on the importance of rational thinking and hard work, I managed the first half of my life with a healthy combination of messiness and good fortune, emerging at thirty with a fine husband, excellent job, and upbeat attitude. Then things soured: our first child died at three hours, and Caitlin at three months. Of the two living children, one was born without an ear and another with a neurological birth injury. Twelve years later, the marriage was over and my foray into new life as an ordained minister boomeranged, hitting me broadside and leaving brutal scars.

Finally – finally! – I wised up. I heard God clearly for the first time, and what I heard made me realize that I’d been going about things all wrong. I had wanted my head to justify the yearnings of my heart. Sure, I was on the right path and walking in the right direction, but it was as though I had been walking backwards all the way.

When I turned myself around so that I was walking head- (or was it heart-?) first, I still tripped over the rocks and slipped in the mud, but discovered newfound pleasures in the trek. I realized that I had been looking for the wrong type of happy ending. I needed to focus on the journey not the destination – to enjoy the walk with all the pathos and bathos, the sublime and the ridiculous, that comes our way. I learned that there are times when we need to scout aggressively for blessings as a way of tempering the trials. Prayer and gratitude help in making the valleys less deep than they might be otherwise.

My quest took me from the East to the West and back to the East coast, from motherhood to ministry, and from skepticism to faith. After years of spiraling through a spiritual wilderness where the only choice was to dismiss or disdain God, I emerged shaken but open to new possibilities. The children are well, my health is good, my attitude is positive, and my awareness of the blessings of life is enhanced by the challenges of getting to this point.

But while I preach and believe the good news as written in the Bible, I am nonetheless beleaguered with questions; it is heady work to explain the value of being faithful without also being certain. And so I write this book for those of us who are “seekers”: those of us who want to believe in God but find it tough going. We can’t understand why religious faith comes more readily to other people: have they had an easier life, or are they smarter than we are, or are they dumber than we are? Somehow, our weary minds can’t quite muster the necessary energy to take the exhilarating bounce of faith that graces other lives. Instead, we torment ourselves with the big “why” questions that differentiate us from other species – the “why this?” and “why not that?” and – worst of all – the “why me?” questions that suggest we may be created in the image of God but are a long way from home.

I trust that readers will enjoy the roller-coaster stories of my adventure while also exploring the workings of God in their lives. I hope that these nourishing, if perhaps bittersweet, appetizers might open readers to a divine banquet where, I believe, all are welcome.

We each experience the divine in personalized ways based on our culture and upbringing. In this light, some readers may object that my occasional use of colorful language is sacrilegious, or that it trivializes what is a genuinely profound and perplexing struggle to explain Holy Mystery. To such complaints, I have two responses.

First, as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam,” and perhaps class just ain’t my strong suit. I sometimes use graphic language, and so the book just wrote itself that way. Second, I believe that God yearns to connect with all of us – old and young, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor – and will happily use any and all methods of discourse to open our ears, our hearts, and our minds. In my case, it sometimes takes gutter speak to get through the earwax.

Finally, I end this introduction by explaining that the God I now love has different faces and voices and appears through a robust tapestry of images, terms, and languages. God is beyond being male, female, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and everything else we can imagine. I believe that, just as God created so many varieties of flowers to bring beauty into our lives and just as there are varieties of birds to give us music, so also are there many different religions so that all people can find a way to Her. Too often we argue over the pros and cons of the different lamps, forgetting to honor the universal light that is God.

Because of my cultural and personal heritage, God speaks to me through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, but I hope that non-Christians will be able to relate to the substance of this faith journey, if not the specific images and terms. Most importantly, I hope this “travelogue” will encourage readers to honor their own search for God. It may be that the roller-coaster of disordered chaos is actually a God-centered Ferris wheel: we still go up, down, and around, and some of us may get horribly nauseous.

But the view at the top is celestial.

 

If only for a second. Then the circle begins anew: our lives are an interwoven trinity of falcon, storm, and song swirling up, down, and around that ancient tower that we call God.

 

 

Share

Happy Mothers’ Day…and celebrating what’s in the Bible!

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

ZeusStatueWe too often think of God as if HE, like Zeus reigning havoc from Mount Olympus, were an outrageously virile, sometimes malicious misogynist.  Woe on us ladies, who are hapless helpmates if not also victims…

Well, there’s lots of history and literature behind such an misconception, but it’s not in the Bible!   Okay, okay, let’s be honest — some of it is…. BUT there’s much to commend a more gentle and feminine image of God.  I’m preparing for tomorrow’s message for Mother’s Day, and I’ve gleaned the following from several sources:

In the Hebrew Bible, El Shaddai is one of the words for God, along with Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim, and others. Although usually translated “Almighty God,” it might better be translated as the “Many-breasted One” from the plural of the Hebrew word shad, meaning breast, rather than the ancient Semitic word shadu meaning mountain.

A. Examples of God referred to as a mother:

  • a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14) whose forceful breath is an image of divine power
  • a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12)
  • a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15)
  • a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13)
  • a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4). In contrast to idol worshippers who carry their gods on cattle, God carries Israel in the womb. The message to the people is two-fold: it demonstrates God’s superiority over other gods, and reiterates the divine promise to support and redeem. In short, God’s maternal bond of compassion and maternal power to protect guarantee Israel’s salvation.
  • a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18)
  • a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4) 2. Other maternal references: Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

B: Examples of God doing womanly activities:

  • God as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21)
  • God as a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9)
  • God as a woman working leaven into bread (Luke 13:18-21)
  • God as a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)

C: The Holy Spirit is often understood to be feminine:

  • “Ruach” in Hebrew is a feminine noun; “pneuma” in Greek is neuter
  • The Holy Spirit is often associated with women’s functions: the birthing process (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7b, 5:1, 4, 18), consoling, comforting, emotional warmth, and inspiration.
  • Some ancient church traditions refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms (the Syriac church used the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit until ca. 400 C.E.; a 14th c. fresco depicting the Trinity at a church near Munich, Germany images the Holy Spirit as feminine).
  • Sophia is honored as a goddess of wisdom. In Orthodox Christianity, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), is an expression of understanding for the second person of the Holy Trinity, (as in the dedication of the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) as well as in the Old Testament, e.g., Proverbs 9:1.

So tomorrow, with the children, we will pray:  “Our Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

And I do believe that the Father-Mother God will rejoice!

Share

Gratitude

Friday, April 5th, 2013

I’ve been asked to write about gratitude, but I’m not feeling mellow or happy or grateful. And it is because I CANNOT ABIDE TIME-WARNER CABLE. I just got home and went to turn on the BBC and PBS News Hour, but my TV is responding with a screen telling me that my cable box is not authorized (a new message that doesn’t make sense since it was working yesterday) Sadly, Times-Warner has the monopoly here for TV/Internet access, so I’m helpless.

I call the number on the screen and get a message said that the wait for customer support will be “slightly more than 10 minutes.”

I can manage that, I think, putting the phone on speaker. Feeding the new puppy and making dinner for myself, I listen to ads promoting various Time-Warner services punctuated with the constant (if insincere) refrain: “Thank you for your patience: an operator will be with you shortly.”

But now it’s been 47 minutes and 17 seconds and still no operator. And I’m supposed to be thinking about gratitude? The fact is that I’m thoroughly p*ssed! I’d hang up except then I would have to wait even longer.

In my frustration and impatience, I remember to breathe deeply and consider: what am I grateful for? I realize that my anger is heightened because of my sense of entitlement. Assumptions of instant TV, a free press, and local and international news come with privilege. For me, they come with a free (and good) public education, from being born into a white, middle/upper-class family, and from living in the greatest democracy in the history of the world.

Reflecting on my nephew who had served in Afghanistan (and the Afghan people that we are trying to help), I am reminded of the poverty and injustice common to the American natives in Utah and Alaska with whom I had worked many years ago. I am reminded of friends and colleagues living in squalid townships in South Africa and barrios in Mexico. I am reminded of friends living in the hollers of Kentucky. I am reminded of friends and family struggling with life-threatening diseases.

Gabriel, my now-well-fed puppy, charges around the house. Celebrating life and freedom with wild abandon, he interrupts my self-indulgent reflections, calling me back to thoughts of life and joy and connection.

In the process, he puts my life in perspective and I realize that I am grateful that:

  • I have a telephone to call (and wait) from.
  • I live in a country that honors a free press; I can get PBS, BBC, local news, and numerous other TV stations most of the time.
  • I have friends and family who are working to make this a better world and trying to improve the lot of those who have less.
  • My puppy reminds me that life is joy.
  • My friend thinks well enough of me to ask me to write about gratitude.

Hallelujah.

 

IMG_1252

 

Share

Melody, Harmony, and Instrumentation: The Lessons of Bach (and of Jesus)

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

I’ve been pushing the envelope at my church — just a wee bit, i.e., enough to delight some and trouble others. After all, there’s the right way of doing things (that is, the way we’ve always done it) and the Wright way of doing things. There is confluence but not symmetry — or not as some might wish.  We have a worship planning group, and they’re excited by new ideas and approaches, but sometimes they are more adventurous than traditional (which may be why we enjoy working together).

For several weeks, I’ve pondered how to explain my philosophy of worship in a way that “traditionalists” might understand, if not agree with. And then — as if by grace — Time Warner Cable (not a standard agent of divine inspiration) created a new ad often aired on CNN. I was unmoved by the message of Ricky Gervais, but something unspoken kept me from hitting the mute button.

I soon recognized the background tune as Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major. It wasn’t long before the voice of Bach or God or something offered divine inspiration to me and (hopefully) my congregation! A few hours after consulting with Google (the modern “god” of facts if not the eternal God of love and wisdom), I was reminded of two key qualities of Bach:

  1. He wrote “S.D.G.” (soli deo gloria — “to God alone be the glory”) on each of the 10,000+ pages of music he created;
  2. He was heralded as a great improvisor but not composer during his lifetime!

On iTunes today, I was able to find 8416 melodies either written by Bach or based on his melodies. Take the Prelude No. 1 as an example.  Though an exquisite piece for the harpsichord (as written), it also works beautifully on the piano, harp, and harmonica. Gounod used it as the underlying harmony for his exquisite Ave Maria — which has been recorded by many classical musicians, including my favorites Kathleen Battle and Nana Mouskouri. Of the non-classical versions, my choice is the one where Bobby McFerrin sings the Bach prelude-harmony while cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays the Gounod super-melody.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a beloved chorale, and it is surprisingly enchanting when played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or Leo Kottle on 12-string guitar.

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded shows up with different words in numerous hymnals  plus it’s the melody that Paul Simon uses for his “American Tune.” (Of course, Bach probably thought it was a German tune, but what the heck — it’s so beloved and effective that it’s probably a universal tune.)

Air on a G String is the underlying harmony to Sweetbox’ “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” — in fact they did to this melody what Gounod did to the Prelude No. 1 in C. There’s also a 2010 version by the Fucking Champs, a heavy metal band from California, that is surprisingly enjoyable (from the standpoint of one who is NOT a heavy metal fan!)

You can find the Fugue in G Minor performed by illustrious organists (as written by Bach) AND a wonderful version by the U.S. Navy Steel Band!  Plus the exquisite melodies from the Anna Magdalena Notebook is given words and percussion additions in The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto.”

What does this say for worship, if not also for life?

We need to remember the why — namely the melody — of what we’re about. Personally, I may not like the harmonies and instrumental arrangements of many of the pieces I found on iTunes, but I have to acknowledge that some people are put off by the words “Bach” or “classical music.” They would never pick up an album of Kathleen Battle or Andrea Bocelli, but might fall in love with Bach-Gounod’s “Ave Maria” sung by Stevie Wonder, Michael Crawford, the Carpenters, or Wynonna Judd. (To say nothing of “These Are Special Times” by Celine Dion.)

The harmonies and instrumentations may change, but it’s Bach’s melodies that have enchanted us for centuries. Would Bach, famed as one of the great improvisors of all time, be discouraged or delighted by the many (and sometimes outrageous) re-interpretations of his melodies? I think the latter!

Similarly,  the music of Jesus warrants different expressions. For some, it’s organ and standard hymns sung by a traditional choir.  For others, it’s praise music and overhead screens. Some won’t open their lips or raise any body parts; others offer a chorus of “amens” and wave arms. In all cases, it’s about Jesus’ gospel of inclusivity, justice, and all-embracing love. The interpretations may change, but the melodious message lives on — for Jesus, for Bach, and for us.

S.D.G.

 

 

Share