AWE…SOME

If you like the idea of adventure, if you don’t want to spend your days floating in a tiny boat called “My Knowledge,” and are willing to risk jumping into the vast ocean containing “Infinite Mystery”…then I’ve got a mooring for you.  Here is where God resides, with an anchor weighty enough for firm grounding and yet light enough to change course gracefully.

Today, I wanted to look at an understanding of God as “the ultimate mystery of things, as the serendipitous creativity manifest throughout the universe…through which new forms and configurations of reality and life have come into being.” (Gordon Kaufman, God, Mystery, Diversity.)

Now, before your eyes glaze over and you exit the post, stay with me a minute.  While this idea is different from our  traditional views of God as Lord or Father, we are not talking about mystery here as some far out, non-rational construct.  Harvard theologian Kaufman treads carefully upon the word mystery, stating the word “in its theological employment should be taken as a kind of warning that our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking are beginning to fail us and that special rules in our use of language should be followed.” 

When we start our conversations about God, with an air of mystery, instead of an attitude of already knowing, God can emerge in dialogues with those from many cultures, dogmas, and religions, without fear of judgment. In lieu of God being perceived on the model of property (in other words, something that an authority figure has, that is passed down as a possession to another party, who receives and accepts it), God is liberated from our absolute and exclusionary conceptions that most of us have inherited. 

 Beliefs like: “I ‘get’ God and you don’t”, “God is on my side and not yours”, “God is saving me and not you”, “God is all loving but he doesn’t love certain groups of people”,  etc.etc.) have no sea legs in mystery.  They need walls and divisions to prop them up.  

Without an agenda, God becomes the Vehicle that brings us to newly created ideas and truths that emerge in free conversation with one another.  Conversation and not conversion becomes the paradigm for engagement with one another and a commitment to allowing the process to unfold, trusting that God will be continuously and serendipitously creating; and it is good.   

The beauty of this concept is that God is presented as something that everyone has access to.  The final outcome of any open dialogue is part of the “serendipitous creativity”, and this cannot be encapsulated by one stream of thought, as all participants contain but a fragment of the ‘truth’.  They are fully engaged in working on expanding their consciousness together; with faith that what will emerge (which has no explicit directive) will be something greater, something more.

 This fellowship of commitment to creative communication “about things seen and unseen” must be sharply distinguished from simply a fellowship of a common perspective.  It is certainly more uncertain than a hierarchical approach to truth.  But it allows God and humankind, in Mystery, the constant joy of creative expansion.  This dialectical model “encourages criticism from new voices, and insights  from points of view previously not taken seriously.” (Henry Wieman, The Source of Human Good)

  

SPIRITUAL NOTES TO MYSELF

Hugh Prather, whom the New York Times has called “an American Kahil Gibran”, wrote a book with the title of today’s blog.  In it, are anecdotes, observations, and  spiritual wisdom that Prather has collected and absorbed for himself in over 30 years as minister, lecturer, and counselor.

You may have notebooks or quotes on your memo board that speak poignantly to your heart.  Or perhaps, they are there in way as a reminder for spiritual or emotional hopes you have…the person you would like to be at your best.

Also, there are literally thousands (probably more like millions) of books on meditation, prayer, affirmation, every religion since the dawn of time, and spirituality…practices, techniques, and thoughts.

I have more than a few of them myself.  I also keep several notebooks full with quotes, ideas, and prayers that inspire, teach, or bring comfort to me.

However, I tack a few up on my cork board beside my writing desk for several months at a time.  After absorbing their wisdom, I rotate in fresh ones . Here’s what’s up there right now:

“I will not die an unlived life.  I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.  I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.  I choose to risk my significance, to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom, and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.”  – Dawna Markova   

“For things that you believe in, pray like a preacher but fight like the Devil”.

“If we hold resentments toward the people who let us down, we’ll be exhausted.  It’s better to focus on the ones who have been there for us”.

The content of two fortune cookies are pinned up there: “Everybody feels lucky for having you as a friend” AND “We are made to persist.  That’s how we find out who we are”.

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”- Edith Wharton

A note that my beloved Dad (who tragically died too young) had written me many years ago:

 “In case you’re depressed today and feeling lonely: You are pretty!  You are smart!  You are vivacious! You have a warm smile!  You have an interesting personality!  You are a little wacky!  Five out of six ain’t bad, Love, Dad xxx” 

These thoughts make me laugh, give me a spiritual shot in the arm, and keep me reaching towards my Higher Self, the one God wants for me.

These are fitting thoughts as my little/big chicks fly the summer coop: one off to another year of college in Rhode Island, one on a year’s adventure, first in Paris and then to Senegal, and the “baby”, 6’1″, driving a car, writing his own music, towering over me, teasing me, “his little mama”.  

In closing, a gem from Mr. Prather: “Our children can see us.  They can’t see God.  Our function is not to describe God’s love or to talk endlessly about it, but to reflect it so that it can be seen.” 

 

A RELIGION FOR GREATNESS

Prelude:

Friedrich Schleirermacher (1768-1834), considered by many to be the “Father of Modern Protestant Theology”, in his Addresses on Religion (1799), remarked:

“Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death nor the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man.  It is not a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all essentially an intuition and a feeling…Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it.  Religion is the miracle of the direct relationship with the infinite. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one’s own finite self.”  

 Consider this:

There is a universal religious experience that crosses all time and culture.  It dissolves illusions of individual separateness. It is that which Clarence Skinner, 20th century Universalist minister and social activist, deemed “radical religion”.  Radical in that it returns religion back to its primary roots, which from the earliest recordings of human existence has been to  “lift man out of his isolation into union with powers and influences greater than himself.”  

By way of example, Skinner (in his classic A Religion for Greatness) relates the findings of looking through a spectroscope on the farthest star: “We get a series of light bands informing us of its chemical composition.  Turn this same instrument on man and we find the same light bands, indicating the identical chemical composition!  What does that prove?  Precisely this, Man and the universe are one.”

 The extent to which this Reality can be lived out in a way that brings lasting positive transformation in the world depends on a commitment to be “continually cleansed of self-centerdness.”  Selfishness, greed, ruthlessness, or deceit expose a “contractive organism that clutches and holds things to itself.  The source of its unsocial attitudes and conduct is the tension centering around the ‘I’.  Ease the tension and you lessen the unsocial complex…Contemplation thrusts us from our tiny thrones and renders us subjects of a greater kingdom.”

The great mystics of centuries past have discovered this Truth. The sense of division between the individual and the other is a major cause of  perpetual suffering.   Lest we think this is simply thinking left to those living in the stratosphere of theological  idealists, Skinner includes that religion, like other institutional endeavors “must yield to emergency and must bend itself to the tasks of alleviating the suffering of the intensely now.” He takes into account the fact that the “frame of reference in which most of us live is that of the immediate.” However, there is a time when instead of hurriedly trying to “fix” this or that issue; it is imperative to expand our ideas of inclusion (even when our first thought is to turn away). 

 A closing meditation:

My life is not so much mine as a particle of the Infinite life encased for a passing moment in a frame which houses it in fragile solitariness.  It is the drop of water lifted for a brief day by the lotus leaf from the pool.  Soon the drop will fall back into the source whence it came- merged in water which is common not only to the one pool, but with all water everywhere.”

WORSHIP IS A LOT LIKE COMMUNITY FARMING

In my last post, I ended the questions “what is worship?” and “who is it for?”

Well, worship is a lot like community farming.  You come together and grow as a group. You have your own individual patch of ground, but what you are cultivating is part of the greater whole.  There is a sense of purpose that is larger, loftier, spiritually speaking, than the albeit satisfying task of raising your own vegetable garden. Both are good, but they are very different. They both feed you, but community farming includes, the community!

Week after week, sowing seeds, tending to the fragile shoots, rooting out weeds in tandem.  As in worship, you develop a kinship with one another over time, in the shared weekly rituals. You are joining forces to rejoice in creation, the Creator, to create.  It doesn’t happen overnight and takes patience. Much of it happens in the darkness of the soil you are tilling and you trust they while you are not in the control of the process; it is worthy of your time and devotion.  In worship, you are growing a soul and that can only happen in relationship.  

The etymology of worship which dates back to the 13th century, Old English.  “Wor” comes from the word worth and “ship” means to shape.  Simply put, worship means to shape worth.  In worship, people come together to affirm, ordain, and revere what they believe to be worthy.  The vast majority of houses of worship in the world (churches, synagogues, and mosques) are worshipping God. Yet while the God they are each pointing to can differ vastly, their concepts of God reflect what they consider as a community to be the most vital, important beliefs to have in life  and instruct their most dearly held values. 

There is joy in devoting yourself to the work, but it can be hard and arduous too. There are big and little sorrows that cry to be heard.  As well, it is good to talk with one another about what’s working and what’s not in your daily efforts, and whether your prayers for rain or sunshine have been answered.  You listen to a trained expert in the field, but then you have to go out and live it each day, gathering knowledge in your heart and mind but bearing the fruit of it only by lived experience.  You find rocks in the garden, stumbling blocks in your own personality, that you would have never known were there, save for the friction that digging deeper and risking the rough and tumble that goes along with being in community.    

When you are in awe of a spectacular sunset or marveling at the vast splendor of  a deep forest, you may indeed have a spiritual experience or a feeling of Unity with Creation.  But it is not worship.  Worship is an outward expression of the love and appreciation we have for the Highest Good it AND it involved a commitment on our part to frame our life around that love and appreciation. Worship may be to God, but it is for us.

A NICE GOD

The Christian Centurys August 10, 2010 cover story, entitled “Our God is Too Nice”, contains a survey conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion on what today’s Christian American teenagers believe.  They created a new term to describe this loosely held set of beliefs, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”.  Here is a condensed version of the findings:

“1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.

4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.

 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Hmm.  Here are my thoughts (in no particular order):

Having three teenagers myself, I see their struggle between the adult rising within them, with complex ideas and  accompanying responsibilities, and their desire to revert back to simple, more comforting, childlike roles.  Teenagers are not quite a grown up, not quite a kid.   With that as a backdrop, I can see how some of these notions would fit the age.  It is reassuring to believe that someone else is in charge and that someone will take care of us (only if and when we ask them). It is certainly assuages our human fears of death and/or hell.  If we are good, if we behave, we will go to heaven.  

However, I asked my own children (19, 18, and 16) to respond to the above list of basic concepts of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. My kids are typical American teenagers in many ways, but they are unusually deep and perceptive thinkers. (I know; I’m their mother, so of course I think they’re brilliant; but just indulge me). In addition, they were steeped in church life since infancy and have the privilege of being well-educated.  Here are their answers to the above 5 points:

1.  “God created the world, yes/ puts in it order, perhaps, but don’t forget about evolution’s role as well/ watches over us (hope so, but more likely is within us and around us in the world, actively participating in our joys and sorrows, not Mr. Fix it).”  One stated that “the jury is still out if there really is a God.”    

2. A resounding yes, “this is just common sense, what it means to be moral and ethical.” “Sounds overly simplistic though.”

3. A qualified no….being happy is good and feeling good about yourself is important, but they are not the central goal of life.  While none of them was sure what the central goal of life was, words like “love, service, growth, and relationships”, were included.  “Feeling good about yourself was necessary to be happy, but happiness is a byproduct, not a goal, and what about the people in Darfur and Afghanistan?” “This belief of the goal of life being personal happiness isn’t even Christian.”  “This is just our consumerist culture.”

4. “Won’t even answer this, it’s too ridiculous.  Who believes that?? It’s like a genie in a bottle.  This is the same kind of personal deity who saves some people on a plane (and that proves to them, there’s miracles) while allowing others to die, including babies (and they say that’s God’s will).”  

5. (Note: This is what they were all taught as children in the Catholic Faith).  Here are their 3 very different answers:

a.” Yes”. 

 b. “I believe good and bad people go to heaven, all our welcome, a loving God takes everyone.” (My Universal Salvationist).

c.”I don’t know if there is a heaven, I don’t believe in hell, but I’m starting to think they are both just human constructs or metaphors pointing to something else”.

The writer of The Christian Century article, Kenda Creasy Dean, is rightfully discouraged by the wave of “MTD” sweeping the churches.  It certainly does reflect how our predominant culture has infiltrated even our views about God and the role of religion in our lives.  And she is right, this milquetoast of a faith won’t stand up against the pain and suffering that besets every human life.  REAL religion, whatever it is, has to be solid enough to provide a firm foundation and clear enough to utilize in our daily lives. Superficiality and vague platitudes don’t have the substance when it’s time to just hold on.  If your faith doesn’t provide spiritual sustenance, perhaps the place to begin is to ask the questions, “What is worship?, “Who is it for?”

THE MAD HATTERS AT THE TEA PARTIES

You know, with all the ranting and raving that runs the airways these days, the predictably controversial talking heads of radio along with their shouting and outright rude counterparts on television “news” (and I do use the word lightly) programs, one would think we have become a nation of adamant nonsense. What I hear sounds more like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland and less like the lofty ideals imagined by our Forefathers (and Mothers) . The Red Queen ordered shrilly, for any provocation or for none at all, the command “Off with their heads!”… before finding out whose head or why. It was and is a little scary. 

So please let us not confuse our diverse nation with its 50 states and about 310 million individuals and their variant needs and goals with the so-called Patriots, continuing to foam at the mouth, who either:

A. Stir up the pot using self aggrandizing slander of anyone or anything that SEEMS to oppose their fanatically held sound bite views, with the nuance, subtlety, and thoughtfulness of a brick through a plate-glass window. I will not mention any of these personalities by name as I do not want to give them any more free press than they already get.

 B. This group is similar to those of the above, except for instead of making millions by being media pushers, they are politicians.  Sure, money and fame are two of their goals, but their drug of choice is power and staying in it, no matter the cost or without care to their constituency, that has  them shouting, “Foul!” to any idea that “appears” to come from the other side of the aisle.  I say “appears”, because as the non-contrarian media continues to do its job, we find many of these ideas were first proposed by them!! 

C.  Which leads us to the last, and most unfortunate of all of the screaming mimis, more than a few (although not all)  Tea Party members.  When our Boston revolutionaries threw that tea into the harbor, they too were as mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.  Luckily for them, they didn’t have groups A and B using them as pawns and puppets for their own selfish ends.  Many of the members of the Tea Party have legitimate concerns and articulate them, if not convincingly, at least soundly. 

But too many have joined a movement, fiery and passionate, that perhaps gives them a sense of purpose and connection, but it is more like a “loud gong signifying nothing.”  They are being used by those feeding them alarming bits of information WITHOUT CONTEXT. The somewhat sly and charismatic rabble rousers, rich and powerful, know that it is Fear and not Fact that motivates a mob.  

Mark Twain cleverly defined a Patriot as “The person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.” How true, wise words from our favorite American humorist. Let’s heed them.  Except for the unavoidable and universal childhood stage that we all must go through and that hopefully passes with age (not dubbed “the terrible twos” for nothing), NO should be something more than a knee jerk reaction to any new idea. Might it be more patriotic, never mind more helpful, to learn to curb our childish impulses to respond to anything, reasonable or not, with NO? 

We may very well be a nation of natural-born contrarians. I love that we can argue about things that matter, in private and in public.  It’s sometimes fun to argue just for argument’s sake to pass the time with friends and family. (Although it’s annoying to be with those who seem to take the opposite opinion in every discussion).  Just the same, we are blessedly free.  With that comes the responsibility to think, to openly weigh both sides of an argument, to be willing to change our opinions. 

So, let’s go to our tea parties and leave the mad hatters with Alice; they may be exciting but they are too damn exhausting.