Sunday, February 11, 2018

Communicating with the Feminine Face of God

My first walking pilgrimage in Ireland was an alchemical soup of missteps and mystical experiences, most of which happened as the result of being lost. My son and I walked from Dublin to Glendalough and then turned west toward Kildare, the home of Ireland's patron, St Brigid. I wanted to make a pilgrimage to Kildare because I felt compelled to name the young adult group I was leading, St Brigid's Community. It felt right to name an open, progressive, Episcopal young adult group after a woman who would transverse Druidry and Christianity, lead a religious order of both women and men, and was known as a mid-wife and healer of humans and animals alike.

My son and I walked through deep dark forests, mucked through wet bogs, and jumped over rapid running streams. We made our way along the well-marked Wicklow Way and then suffered the illusions of the nearly unmarked St Kevin's Way. Though terribly lost at times, we were not to be deterred on our pilgrimage to St Brigid's home.

On a dark rainy day, we came to St. Kevin's Pool, a frigid pond that the ancients used for medicinal bathing. In order to stay on the trail, we had to jump across a narrow, rapid, deep stream. My son went first and cleared it with some effort. Age, fatigue and my forty-pound pack made the stream look like the Grand Canyon. I took a running leap. My front foot hit the slippery rocks of the opposite bank, but my pack pulled me backwards. With one strong arm, my son reached out, grabbed my poncho and pulled me to safety. My hollow fear of falling out of control into disaster was immediately reversed into redemption. The experience was like a dream, it felt like an out of body experience, yet it was so absolutely real. My heart was pounding and my head was spinning. Standing on the other side, I had to re-orientate my bearings and catch my breath. It was a mystical experience woven into the fabric of reality.

Mystical experiences only appear in our lives when we are willing to take the risk of free falling out of control. No net, no guarantee-no risk, no gain. The goal of the spiritual life is to live in a state of mystical redemption- a perpetual spiritual free fall. The redemption is not in being caught, but in the willingness to risk not being caught, while at the same time, knowing we are already standing on the opposite shore. Living the spiritual life is a dizzying experience. Yet, the joy of living such a life is that we are never alone. On that dark rainy day, my son kept me from getting soaked or worse. He was also the living manifestation of the presence of the divine.

For me, Saint Brigid has become the perpetual presence of the divine. She is an agent of the One Holy Living God. In the tradition of Celtic spirituality, one never asks the question, "Was Brigid (or any other person) real?" That's the same as asking someone if God is real. The answer is always of course they are real, because the story of Brigid is not about a person in history, but about the femininity of the divine. Brigid is swept up in the great mythopoetic Jewish tradition of Sophia, the feminine face of God. Included in that wisdom tradition are the myriad of feminine faces, the Druid's goddess Brigid, the Jewish Sarah, Rachel, Bathsheba, Solomon's Wisdom Queen of the South (the Black Shulamite, the Queen of Sheba), Christian's Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Ireland's Brigid, her daughter Black Brigid, and Revelation's Mary the Queen of Heaven. The scope of the feminine divine is carried in the multiple archetypal figures of womanhood and the power of feminine spirituality.

In meditation, I have a regular conversation with Brigid and with her daughter, Black Brigid. In the mythic Celtic tradition, Brigid was a druidess and the keeper of the ancient perpetual fire of the goddess Brigid. In this tradition, the job of the firekeeper was passed from mother to daughter for eons.

When I have these meditative conversations, I am engaging Brigid, Black Brigid the Firekeeper, the goddess Brigid, Mary the Mother of Gael, Sophia, and the face of God. And I am having a conversation with my soul. The soul of every male is the anima, the feminine manifestation of the Self. For women, the soul, the manifestation of the Self is masculine. To have a conversation with one's soul, is to be in union with the One Holy Living God that resides within us all.

Why do I have these conversations? To better understand myself and God. If I can understand the feminine, the opposite within me, then I have a better chance of understanding the divine that resides within me. I can ask Brigid, "In a spiritual sense, what does it feel like to be mother?" As a man, I can never have the experience of giving birth. Yet, knowing motherhood can deeply alter my spiritual experience.

The great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said, "What difference does it make if Mary gave birth to Jesus, if I don't give birth to God every day in my life." Who better to ask than Sophia, Brigid, the feminine aspect of God, what it's like to give spiritual birth to the presence of the One Holy Living God?"

We can each give birth to our spiritual purpose-the child that comes from being at one with God. We birth our holy child, our holy purpose in life.
Who better for me to ask about how to do such a thing than Brigid, the keeper of the perpetual fire-a symbol of her spiritual purpose. She was the mid-wife and the hospice worker, the healer of the sick and protector of the poor. She has much wisdom to offer.

Should Brigid become everyone's saint. Of course not. We each have to be open to the saint, the self, that already resides within us-yet, has also become manifested in the external world. Brigid is the exterior manifestation of my own self. She is not me, yet she is me. Our saint, or our spiritual guide, might be an ancient person, like Brigid, or a bird, or an animal, or a standing stone. Who might be our guide is only limited by the voice of the divine and our imagination.

Maybe this spiritual guide will appear in your dream? That happened frequently in the Bible. Or maybe your guide will be an angel. That also happened quite often in the Bible. What I am suggesting is that we put flesh on God and on our own soul. God became one with Jesus. And Jesus told us that God had already become one with each of us. What I'm talking about is finding our way to becoming one with the Living God. You can't be in a relationship with God unless you have real conversations, that includes the words, "I love you, God." And to hear God say back, "I love you, too." A true mutual relationship shares feelings of pain and joy, darkness and light, birth and death. To be at one with God, is to be in love with God and to experience God in every person and thing; in the seen and the unseen; in the ugly and the beautiful.

Wednesday, on the eve of the Feast of Saint Brigid, the super moon was eclipsed by the earth's shadow, producing a blood moon. I walked that morning in a symbolic pilgrimage of living under the mystery of the earth and symbolism of the divine. The feminine light of the moon mated with the black shadow of the sun, producing the red child, the Philosopher's Stone, the Christ of the Self. Being alive means living into one's spiritual purpose-being in a perpetual state of oneness with the Holy Living God. Seeing the glory of God being born into a specific moment of creation is like seeing God being born into every moment of our life. But to live like this requires the risk of living in the state of a perpetual free fall-the risk is the redemption.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Being in a Trance

How many decisions do you make every day? And how do you make those decisions? Today, it seems we hear a lot of "I like it" or "I don't like it." I like a certain coffee shop. I don't like this other coffee shop? The real question is, why do you like one over the other?

How many major decisions do you make every year? Major decisions might be things such as, buying a car or a home, or choosing the school your children are going to attend. Or if you're going to college, which one to attend? Would you make those decisions simply based on whether you "like it" or not?

How many life changing decisions have you made? Things like, whether to get married, or get divorced? How about deciding whether to move to another city, or another country? What factors would you consider in making these decisions?

There can be dozens of factors that affect our decisions. And the uncertainty about the outcome can be paralyzing enough that we never actually make the decision. How often has fear kept us trapped in a situation we desperately want to change?

And where does God fit into all this process? Does God talk to us by sending us a text or an email, or maybe an old-fashioned letter in the mail box? How about skywriting? A still small voice? And how do we know it's God and not our own mind convincing us that our "certain feeling": is really the divine?

Recently, I had the great privilege of being a guest speaker at the OHALAH conference. OHALAH is a Hebrew acronym, that in English stands for, Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. Jewish Renewal is a movement, not a denomination of Judaism. This association is a cooperative of Hasidic Jews who practice the inclusion of all people, including their potential for God's calling in their life to become rabbis, cantors, and chaplains through ordination. They practice Kabbalah and many of those in this movement would be considered mystics. The Jewish Renewal follows the teachings of Rabbi Zalman, who recently passed away just shy of his 90th birthday. Reb Zalman rewrote the Hasidic prayer book, infusing contemporary life and language into their daily practice. He insisted that life should be filled with a laughter, which would diffuse the temptation of taking ourselves too seriously. Hasidic Jews practice an integrated orthodoxy that includes the mind, body, soul, and spirit. They meditate on the many faces of God. They sing their prayers and move their bodies all as a means of worshipping the One Holy Living God.

They invited me to join them for morning prayer. They sang, chanted, and moved for forty minutes. Most of the prayers were in Hebrew, releasing me from having to intellectually know what was being said. This freedom lifted me into the space of feeling the prayers in my body. They created a safe space that fetched my soul to sway and rock with the rhythm of the sounds. The forty minutes felt like forty seconds and at the same time like forty years; the experience was timeless. It wasn't long enough, but it was like I had been there most of my life. These people made me feel at home.

We spent the day together discussing how to be pastorally present in a world filled with so much dis-ease. As pastors, we engage people on a daily basis who are frightened, disturbed, and confused by the state of our country and the world. And because of their fear, they suffer pain in their personal lives. Life is hard and people are looking for guidance from their pastor. People are seeking guidance on how to make difficult decisions in a world that's seemed to turn itself upside down. As pastors, we can't help but take on the feelings of pain and uncertainty of those to whom we minister. Then the question comes, "What do I as a pastor do with all of these dark emotions. How do I take care of myself? Lots of people making lots of important personal and corporate decisions. How do we make the best decisions for ourselves and for our community?

I believe that the best way to make decisions is by being at one with God. Being at one with God comes about through a lot of personal interior work. It's not something that happens over night or simply because you want it to. Some of you attended my classes on Carl Jung's The Red Book and the Three Mystical Mary's. In these classes I laid out the framework for the personal interior work required to become one with God.

When we are at one with God, then we can hear the Spirit of God. I call this living a life of discernment, the art and practice of being at one with God. It's a way to live, move, and have one's being in the world; including affecting the decisions we make on a daily basis. I believe that being at one with God will help us discern the myriad of decisions we face every day.

There are some basics in the discernment process. First, you have a brain, it's okay to use it. Studying and gathering information are vital to making good decisions. Second, if at all possible, take your time in making any major or life changing decision. Patience is a good mentor. Third, making decisions in a silo typically means we haven't explored all the options and haven't heard all the important voices. Not including others in our process most likely means we have left out some dimension of God's voice. And fourth, make your decisions bathed in prayerful meditation and contemplation. In other words, we must do our personal work at becoming one with God.

One of the many beautiful experiences I had at the gathering of rabbis was to witness someone in a state of deep meditation-a trance. As a part of my presentation, I asked those in attendance have to imagine an interior conversation with someone, a departed loved one, a biblical character, an angel. Several rabbis at the conference practice Kabbalah, a part of which is a deep meditation on one of the many faces of God. One of the rabbis sitting near me dropped into a trance-like state. For me, it was a mystical experience witnessing someone else have a mystical experience.

The Christian tradition of Ignatian spirituality somewhat mirrors the Kabbalah's practice of meditation. In one of the practices of Ignatian spirituality, you enter meditation through the scripture. For example, in today's reading, (Mark 1:21-28) we hear that Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. To enter into the meditation, I imagine that I am sitting in synagogue. I spend time looking around the synagogue, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells. Then, I see Jesus. What does he look like? What is he wearing? Then, I hear his voice. What does his voice sound like?

Then, Jesus turns to me. He's looking at me. He asks me, "What is your question?" And I ask Jesus what's on my heart. And I wait quietly, patiently, for him to speak. I sit as long as it takes. Maybe, Jesus doesn't answer in the first session. I have to repeat the meditation, again and again, waiting for an answer. After each period of meditation, I journal about the experience.

You may be wondering how one would know whether Jesus was talking to you are you were simply fantasizing. There are a few ways to help you feel more comfortable that you're hearing Jesus correctly. One way is, if this is your first time doing this kind of meditation, you most likely won't get an answer the first time you try it. It took a lot of practice for the rabbi at the conference I was attending to enter into a trance state. Faith requires patience. Another way to know you're hearing Jesus is that what he tells you is congruent with his biblical teachings. If it's not, you probably should share your experience with a spiritual director just to double check. A third way of knowing that Jesus is speaking is to recognize those moments when you hear something from him that you don't want to hear. That's probably Jesus talking.

In these meditations, you are asking Jesus about something in your life. You're not seeking answers on behalf of someone else. You must start with your own work. Once you do that, then together, the community can discern its own work.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lead us to Respect the Dignity of Every Human Being

As an Episcopal priest, baptism is my favorite service. In it, the church celebrates the ritual of a person entering the community. Recently, I had the privilege of baptizing a three-years-old girl, an eleven-year-old boy, and a teenage girl. At every baptism of a young person, I wonder if they might be a future priest, bishop, or president of the United States.

As a central component of the baptism, everyone renews their baptismal covenant. For me, this is time for personal reflection, a time to remind me of what it means to follow the teachings of Jesus. It is also from the baptismal covenant that I draw inspiration and courage to be that follower of Christ that I continually strive to be. The covenant includes these five basic questions.

Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent, and return unto the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Following each question, the people respond: I will, with God’s help.

These are the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian. These are not negotiable statements. These are not things that followers of Jesus can dismiss or ignore. These are the teachings of the Church. As Episcopalians, we renew our baptismal covenant five times a year, but I wonder if we shouldn’t renew our commitment every time we gather? We do fail, we are not perfect, and therefore, we need constant reminders or our commitment.

It’s always a great joy to meet someone that is not a follower of Jesus, but who still inspires me to walk the talk of my baptismal covenant. This week, I met a young woman who is a Jewish rabbi. She lives in Charlottesville. And on that horrific weekend when white supremacist carried torches and shouted anti-Semitic and racist slurs through the streets, she was there to stand against them; and receive the brunt of the supremacist’ slurs. She told me stories of fear, disbelief, and the courage.

After hearing her story, I was left wondering, why is this the America of 2018? Especially on January 15, as we celebrated the life and witness of the Martin Luther King, Jr., I couldn’t get away from asking, after all these years, are we no better? I believe, that for those of us who are white Americans, we must confront the reality that racism is the demon we have not exorcized from our souls.

While individually, I doubt that few people in our congregations would consider themselves racist, I wonder how many would be willing to take an active stand against it? That’s why in August, I stood in the Phoenix streets protesting with those who carried Black Lives Matter signs and those protesting fair treatment of DACA immigrants. Why would I wear my clerical collar and march in the streets? The baptismal covenant demands that I strive for justice and peace among all people, and that I respect the dignity of every human being. But is marching and protesting enough? No, it is not. The potential for transforming our thoughts and actions, the reality of respecting the dignity of every human being, lies deep in our hearts. And that’s where the exorcism of our country’s past sins must begin.

Ta – Nehisi Coates is a writer for the “Atlantic” and author of the book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.” In his book Coates, an African-American, chronicles his coverage of the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama.

Plainly speaking, in my opinion, this book is about what every black person in America wants every white person to know. This country and its wealth was built on the sweat and blood of black slavery. And today, white Americans are now the beneficiary of centuries of that slavery. Nothing should be lost on the sad irony that the first black president of the United States lived in The White House that housed was built by black slaves.

Coates writes, “White supremacy in not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it. And so, we must imagine a new country.” Coates goes on, “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.” He writes, “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

And how would such a spiritual renewal come about? Coates believes that the time has come for Congress to seriously consider reparations. I wouldn’t disagree with him. And I might add, the time has come for us to consider how we chose our local leaders, knowing that could affect the potential for a spiritual renewal.

Kirk Smith, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona has announced his retirement. Recently, the clergy of the diocese met to share their opinions for what they thought should be the priorities of the next bishop. They spent the first thirty minutes recalling all the wonderful things that are happening in our diocese and how they didn’t want any of those programs to disappear. The fear of change was palpable in the room. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply respect and admire the work of our current bishop, Kirk Smith. And I wouldn’t want his good deeds to be dismissed or his programs pushed to the side. I do believe, however, that it is time for a change in the perspective of the top leader in the diocese.

The first five bishops of the Diocese of Arizona have been white, heterosexual males. If the diocese of Arizona is going to move forward as a voice for the next generation of Christianity, the face of the leader must be different. In my opinion, someone other than a white heterosexual male must be the leader.

The diocese has been somewhat progressive on social justice issues. But now is definitely not the time to fall back. Now is the time to move forward; now is the time to be a leader in the Episcopal Church and the State of Arizona.

Understandably, a leader should not be chosen simply because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their sexuality—but the committee responsible for selecting the candidates can do more than simply offer token candidates who are people of color, women, and LGBTQ. The slate of candidates, however, can leave no other choice than that the best person just so happens to be a person of color, a woman, or someone who is LGBTQ.

A leader must be chosen wisely, carefully, and thoughtfully—and in a religious community, especially the Episcopal Church, the foremost concern should be—can this person lead us to “respect the dignity of every human being?” And while many can, a picture is worth a thousand words. The vision and presence of our next leader must be able to bring with them the chance for the spiritual renewal that Coates is pleading for and is so desperately needed in our country.

Monday, January 01, 2018

A Few Books for Your Consideration or How I Made It Through the Dark Night of the 2017 Soul

Following is a sample of the books I’ve read in 2017. They are listed in some order, though I have yet to codify such the reason. Undoubtedly, I am sharing them with you because each has had a significant impact on the way I made my way through this most disturbing year. I’m not much into happy, so here’s wishing you a better new year.

"We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy" Ta – Nehisi Coates
What every black person in America wants every white person in America to know. Coates writing is precisely researched and exquisitely sculptured. From such a well-constructed platform, he implores white America to recognize their historical sin of slavery and consider reparation as the means of healing. “American prosperity was ill gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling of old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and banishment of white guilt…What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” If you read one book in 2018, this could be the most important because within his powerful rhetoric lies the clues to becoming honest about white American racism, which is the first step in a way forward.

"A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage" Abdellah Hammoudi
Hammoudi is a Princeton anthropologist. He was a nominally practicing Muslim, but decided to go on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1999. His story is rich, informative, and disturbing at times. Hammoudi discusses the secrets of the Islamic pilgrimage tradition of which all Muslim are expected to experience at least once in their lifetime. His work is provocative and self-reflective ,challenging me to reconsider my parameters of a life altering pilgrimage.

"Healing the Wounded God: Finding Your Personal Guide on Your Way to Individuation and Beyond" Jeffrey Raff and Linda Bonnington Vocatura; also by Raff, "The Wedding of Sophia: The Divine Feminine in Psychoidal"
Raff is a Jungian psychologist who studied under Marie-Louise von Franz, a student of Jung’s. Vocatura is also a Jungian therapist and an expert in working with the Ally, a personal guide who exists in the psychoidal world. The Ally is our psychic twin, the Holy Sophia, found within us all. Raff and Vocatura venture into the psychic dimension of unifying the masculine and feminine aspects of the divine within our own soul. If you’ve read Carl Jung’s The Red Book, these two books bring pragmatism (in a wyrd way) to the idea and practice of active imagination.

"Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic" Perle Epstein
One of the most approachable books I’ve found concerning the complex world of Jewish mysticism. Epstein, is a descendent of Baal Shem Tov, a mystic rabbi and founder of Hasidic Judaism. This book provides a detailed, but brief, history of Kabbalah as well as outlining its practices. Kabbalahic meditation on The Tree of Life and its facets of the divine can expand the mind and one’s relationship with YHWH.

"The Enneagram and the Kabbalah: Reading Your Soul" Howard Addison
I met rabbi Addison at the International Spiritual Director’s Conference in 2016. I attended his workshop on dream analysis and the Enneagram. If you know very little about the Enneagram or Kabbalah, this book is an excellent entry point. If you do have some knowledge of either, this book brings the connection together in an enlightening manner.

"Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity" James Hughes Reho
Reho is a scientist, author, and an Episcopal priest. He is also a certified yoga and meditation teacher. He brings his understanding of Eastern and Western spirituality to the page, helping us unpack the first few hundred years of Christian history in a fresh way. His thesis is that early Christianity was most influenced by Eastern mysticism and is recognizable in the New Testament. He astutely shines a believable light on what has been denied in modernity’s Christianity. By welcoming Eastern spirituality into the practice of Western Christianity and its spirituality, a place for some wondering pilgrims could be made available.

"The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" Jean – Yves LaLoup
LaLoup is an Orthodox theologian and prolific author. He has translated several texts from the Coptic, including the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. (LaLoup’s work has been translated from his native French into English by Jacob Needleman. Those of you who follow Cynthia Bourgeault will recognize Needleman’s name.) LaLoup’s perspective provides a psychological lens for an enlightened, though not critical, view of these non-canonical gospels. In particular, his book on Mary Magdalene provides some valuable insights into her mystical world and her indelible influence on early Christianity, which unfortunately patriarchalism tried to suppress.

"Healing Through Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair" Mariam Greenspan
Greenspan has traveled grief’s journey in her loss of a daughter who had suffered several disabilities. Her journey sounded very familiar to my own mother’s lifelong grief of having a disabled child. Greenspan’s book is very process orientated, offering guides to work one’s way through the dark emotions. She confronts the reality of the stinging effect of grief on a person’s life by never allowing us to avoid or deny our horrific pain of loss.

"Galilean Journey: The Mexican American Promise" Virgilio Elizondo
Elizondo was a Roman Catholic priest and one of the premier theologians who connected Jesus’ life with the mestizo experience. Living in a Southwestern border state, I found Elizondo’s work compelling and enlightening. Some have tried to dismiss Elizondo’s work because of his troubled life. That’s something every reader will have to confront within their own interpretation of the Christ, who was born of a woman and lived the complete human life.

"Alchemy: An Introduction to Symbolism and Psychology" Marie Louise von Franz
Often, I am asked to recommend a primer for alchemy. To my knowledge, no such book exists. Therefore, don’t be fooled by the lure of the word “Introduction” in the title. If you have, however read, Jung’s Memories, Dream, and Reflections and Man and His Symbols, this could be the next step.

Here are four titles you may also want to consider:

"The Holy Trinity and the Law of the Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity" Cynthia Bourgeault

Bourgeault walks us through the convoluted philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff and his use of the Enneagram in her attempt to decipher the elusive Trinity. Her efforts are lacking. She does her best to defend the unfortunate historical orthodox twisting of the Trinity into a masculine construct. She wagered that the reader would get the point that three always creates four and the fourth is the next natural emergence of the androgynous Holy. For some reason, she couldn’t get there. Interestingly enough, Richard Rohr, in his book The Divine Dance, bases much of his view of the Trinity on Bourgeault’s writing, though he only offhandedly referenced her book. Rohr, as well, falls short in the exploration of the Trinity; but so has everyone else. And maybe that’s a cause for a serious reflection on Trinitarian theology itself. That’s why reading Bourgeault is always worth the work—she is forthright about her authentic theology, from which I have learned a great deal.

"The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic" John Shelby Spong

This is not Spong’s most well written book. That said, he offers a few interesting insights about the characters found in the mythic story of John’s Gospel. Particularly, the role of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene.

"What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything" Rob Bell

If you have a tendency to read the Bible with a twenty-first century video captured theology, Bell’s book will open your worldview into a mythopoetic theology. St Peter’s Episcopal Church used this book for its well-attended Fall book study. One person told me, “I never knew I was supposed to build my own view of the biblical stories. I now feel compelled to study the bible in more depth and ask a whole lot more questions.” Bell’s book is very approachable. No prior knowledge of the Bible needed.

"Thomas Merton and the Celts: A New World Opening Up" Monica Weis

Weis does some excellent research into a few of Merton’s yet unmined journals. In Merton’s later years, he discovered a Celtic root. His private musings become filled with speculative connections between Celtic spirituality and Eastern mysticism. Weis’ conclusions are weighted on the side of a Roman scale, which is not surprising. She, however, does provide a more than slight opening into a yet unseen portion of the Merton opus. Purveyors of Celtic Spirituality will find this work a worthwhile addition to their library.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Sun Stood Still

Whenever I’ve gone through a rough patch in my life; someone invariably told me, “Well, you know, the sun will come up in the morning and everything will be better.” I’ve always hated that trite statement. When I feel down, in the blues, depressed, or when I’ve failed miserably, it doesn’t feel like the sun is going to come up in the morning. It actually feels like the sun will never rise again and I feel okay with living in the darkness. And then, there comes that moment when I do want the sun to rise again in my life. I need some light, warmth, sunshine.

Christmas is the celebration of the light coming into the darkest part of our life when we need it the most. Small wonder Christmas is celebrated during the Winter Solstice.

For the nearly first 400 years of Christianity, Christmas wasn’t celebrated. Easter was the only feast Christians celebrated. At some point, Christians came into contact with the Celts. The Celts celebrated the three-day feast of the Winter Solstice (as did others and there are other similar theories with different cultures being the influence). “Solstice” translated, the day the sun stood still, was acknowledging the three days when the naked eye could not see the lengthening of the day light. On these three days, the Celts believed they were participating with creation in the lengthening of the days of the sun.

On day one, they gathered around the community’s oak tree, which was typically in the center of their village. They decorated the tree with bright red mushrooms that were indigenous to the season. The oak tree was known as the light bearer. Oaks, being a rough barked tree, are struck by lightning more often than smooth barked trees. Whenever the great oak was struck by lightning, the people would take the limb that was struck and use it for the Yule fire log, which brought good luck into the home with the promise of longer days to come.

On day two, the Celts gathered at the sacred sites like Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland to welcome the rising of the Winter Solstice sun. These feasts honored the souls of the departed who would be taken into the soul of the rising sun.

On the third day of the feast, the people would box up food to take to widows and orphans, to ensure they had enough food to make it through the impending winter.

Christians witnessed in the Celts celebration of the Winter Solstice what they believed about the light of Christ, the Son, coming into the world. They adopted and adapted some of the Celtic practices and established the celebration of Christmas on the same day as the Winter Solstice, which at the time was December 25. Christmas was first celebrated in 336 CE. At the time Christians used the Julian calendar, which had only 362 days and no leap year.

By the 1500’s the Julian calendar no longer matched the seasons of the years. In 1582, Pope Gregory the XIII established the Gregorian calendar that we still use today. With the addition of three days and leap year, the Winter Solstice fell on December 21st or 22nd, leaving Christmas three days after the Solstice. Instead of moving Christmas back to the same day as the Winter Solstice, Christians left Christmas on the 25th, marking the rising of the Son of God, the light of the world, on the third day after the longest night.

In the earliest liturgies of the Christmas feast, Christians would read four gospel texts in order to tell the story of the rising of God’s light.

At the setting of the sun on Christmas Eve, they would read the genealogy text from the gospel of Matthew. This text was read to remind the people that God had always been present to people in the darkest times in their lives. Men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David who lives were often lived in the dark shadows. And women like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba who suffered under the hand of oppression. Yet in all the dark shadows and all the oppression, the promise was that the light of God would shine into their lives.

Then at midnight, Christians would read the story of the angel appearing to the shepherds. The story in the gospel of Luke is not the sanitized version that we are familiar with; a story of sweet shepherd boys being frightened by the appearance of the angel of the Lord. Instead, the gospel of Luke tells about people who had committed a crime or done something unacceptable by the community. These criminals were sent to tend the sheep. After living with sheep, these outcasts would smell disgusting. Everywhere they went, they carried the mark, the smell of being an outcast. Then, at the darkest moment of their lives, the angel of the Lord appeared to them and said the Light of God was now born into the world and they, and all other outcasts, were invited to go and see the light.

Before sunrise, Christians would read the third gospel story, the story of the shepherds arriving at the stable where the Light of God, a baby, had been born into the world. The shepherds, who smelled like sheep, were welcomed into the barn; the stable where everyone, including the baby smelled the same. The Light of God was shining on everyone, most importantly upon the outcasts hiding in a barn; and everyone was invited into God’s house, a barn, not a cathedral.

And finally, after sunrise, Christians would read the from the opening of the gospel of John. The God of all who had become one with creation in the story of Genesis was now one with humanity in the story of the Christ. The Light of the World had become the Light of our lives. The Christmas story is intended to comfort us with a story that God is with us, at all times, even the darkest moments of our lives, when we feel like the sun will never rise again.

God was with the ancient men and women of faith when they had failed, when they were oppressed, in the darkest times of their lives; it was then that God was present as a warm light. God was with the shepherds, the criminals, the outcasts, the rejected, in the darkest worst times of their lives; it was then that God was present as an angel. God was with Mary, an unwed mother in the fear of darkness, with Joseph, in the darkness of being embarrassed by his family, with Jesus, a new born innocent child living in poverty and squalor; it was then that God was present as a warm light.

No matter how dark our life might be, tonight, we celebrate that God, that warm light, that is present with us, in this time, this night.

(The background material for this blog came from Alexander Shaia, author and speaker, as heard on Rob Bell’s podcast December 11, 2018.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Mary was his mother, his sister, and his mate.

In the Anglican tradition, we set aside one Sunday of Advent to honor Mary the Mother Jesus. On this Sunday, we read a text from Luke 1:45-55, which is known as Mary’s Song, or The Magnificat. Often, the text is sung during the service.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor
on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all
generations will call me blessed.

These words are woven deep into our spiritual consciousness. Those of you who say the Rosary will find these words very familiar. The words of the Rosary come directly from Luke 1:39-55.

Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed in the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and the hour of our death.

Indeed, Mary holds a special place in our heart, in our tradition, and in our theology. Some refer to Mary as the Virgin; meaning the Spirit of God touched her life in a unique way as the Mother of Jesus the Christ. Others call her the Blessed Virgin Mary; meaning her life itself was unique above others, sinless throughout her life. And still others refer to her as the Ever Blessed Virgin Mary, meaning she lived a truly mystical life beyond all others, escaping death and being assumed into heaven.

The thing about being an Anglican is that there isn’t a specific theological teaching on Mary. Like all other perspectives in Anglican theology, “It could be this, or it could be that, but then again, it’s probably somewhere in the middle.”

During Advent, I’ve been teaching a class on the Mystery of the Three Marys in Jesus’ Life. Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary. The three women are mentioned in John 19:25 and the Gospel of Philip, a non-canonical text. In the Gospel of Philip, it says, “There were three named Mariam, who continuously walked with the Master; his mother, his sister, and Magdalene, who was called his companion. Thus, Mariam is his mother, his sister, and his mate.”

The secret of the metaphor is held in the last line; Mary is his mother, his sister, and his mate. These words were not meant to be taken as a literal, historical fact. The line is meant teach us that just as Jesus spoke of God in masculine terms, Jesus also spoke of God in feminine terms. In other words, God is not male, nor is God female, God is the integration of male and female, sun and moon, dark and light—God is the integration of all the pairs of opposites that we could possibly imagine and beyond. God is all and in all.

Mary’s story, the story of Christmas, is intended to teach us that God placed Godself in the midst of all of creation, in the muck, the mud, the blood, the birth and the death of the human condition—God placed Godself in the very heart of all men, all women, all humans. God made the ultimate sacrifice by giving up the most treasured thing we can imagine—God gave up being in control, just to become one with us.

The story of the three Marys, the story of Christmas, the story of Jesus, is intended to teach us to follow God’s example; in other words, to sacrifice our control, our will, in order to become one with God. We become one with God through making sacrifices in our inner life and in our external life. These sacrifices are what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the cost of discipleship, the cost of being a follower of Jesus, the cost of being one with God.

The cost, or sacrifice, of becoming spiritually mature is a lifetime process. Our sacrifice brings together wisdom and power. Out of their union comes true love. But without their union, wisdom is spiritually weak and power becomes evil. Our work brings us love, which we experience as wholeness, transformation, or what the church calls redemption.

In our inner life, we become at one with God through our prayer and meditation. In these sacrifices of our time, we focus our complete attention on God, on the many attributes of God, on the many faces of God, on the many names of God. By focusing our attention on God through prayer and meditation, our inner being will become transformed. We will see the many faces of God and we will hear the many voices of God, both masculine and feminine.

In our external life, we focus our attention on other people in order to become one with God. We serve others through personal sacrifice of our time, talent, and treasure. In serving others, we follow Jesus’ teaching us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give the thirsty a drink of water, visit the sick and those in prison, and to embrace the stranger.

Our inner sacrifices will cost us the time to pray and meditate. And our external sacrifices will cost us our talents and resources for the sake of others. To sacrifice means to let go of our control. When we let go of control we will find ourselves at one with God and that will truly transform how we live, move, and have our being in the world.

Our willingness to let go of our will, our perceived control, is the first step toward becoming open and vulnerable before God, like Mary. To paraphrase Meister Eckhart, “What good was it that Mary birthed God into the world 2,000 years ago, if I’m not willing to birth God into my world, today?”

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Mother God

Twenty years ago, my sister created a piece of artwork she called “Blue Jesus.” Dinah has Prader-Willi Syndrome and at that time was a part of the ArtWorks program in Tucson. The artist in residence was teaching them how to do linocuts. On a 12x18 canvass, Dinah etched out an elementary blue figure that was stretched out on a cross surrounded with what looks like red tear drops. When I first saw the picture, I was awestruck that Dinah could be so creative. She gave the piece to me and over the years, Blue Jesus has taken on a life of its own. Dinah’s artwork continues to draw me deeper into the earthy, yet mystical, life of Jesus the Cosmic Christ. When I look at Blue Jesus, it’s like reading and meditating on a story from the Bible.

What I have learned from Dinah and her has been very helpful in understanding opaque stories in the bible, like the story of Deborah and Jael (Judges 4 and 5). The story of Deborah and Jael is mythopoetic theology. It’s a novel about a feminine protagonist and her complex mystical relationship with YWHW.
The story is meant to teach us about God and how we can access the Divine within this messy, murky, ugly world we live in. Judges chapter 4 is the narrative version of the story. But chapter 5 is the “Blue Jesus” version. The Bible gives us two ways to read the story. The writer knew that people might try to read the story as a historical event, so she wrote a beautiful epic poem to teach us the various ways to understand this story.

To read this story through the eyes of Blue Jesus is to read it like the Jewish mystics. They read the scripture using a four-step method; 1) literal 2) allegorical 3) metaphorical, and 4) mystical.

We start by reading Judges 4 looking for the literal components; We ask ourselves, who are the characters and what are they doing?

• The people of Israel were in Canaan in captivity under King Jabin and his commander, Sisera. Because of the oppression the people of Israel cried out to God for help.
• Deborah was a prophetess and the people of Israel would come to her with their problems and she would help them sort out their troubles. Deborah prophesized that the people of Israel would have victory over their oppressors.
• As Sisera’s army was being overcome, he escaped and went into the desert.
• There, he met Jael, who hid him in her tent and when he had fallen asleep, she kills him, assuring Israel’s victory.

In step two, we shift to chapter 5 where the story is written as a poem. Here we read the story allegorically. We ask ourselves, what are the symbols and what are their meanings?

• The first allegorical lesson is that the people of Israel were in captivity, like we find ourselves at times in life. In the NRSV it says the people had done “evil” and in the Hebrew bible it says, “the Israelites had done what was offensive to the Lord.” For whatever reason, the people of Israel found themselves under the thumb of an oppressive government. So, they cried out to YHWH for help. What’s the allegorical meaning? Sometimes we find ourselves in oppressive situations. The oppressor might be the government, the culture, our family, our job, our circumstance in life. Whatever the situation, this story is telling us that when we cry out to YHWH, the divine will hear us.

• The second allegorical lesson is that Deborah and Jael represent two of the many feminine aspects of God. Deborah represents the Divine Mother and Jael represents the feminine warrior of the Divine. In one of the traditions of Jewish mysticism there are 70 faces of the Divine. We get glimpses of those faces though the story in Genesis that teaches us that we are created in the imagine of the Divine. From that statement, then we can conclude that YWHW contains every facet of the total human experience.

Step three, we read the story metaphorically. In other words, what does this story mean for us today?

The story about Israel, Deborah, and Jael is about spiritual growth. It’s not a literal story about a battle against some evil oppressive enemy. This is story about how we can become one with God; it’s a story about our struggles with those things that distract us from the One Holy Living God.

Metaphorically speaking, this story teaches us that as a community, we are Israel. Israel represents the human heart. Our heart is the object of God’s love. We are the beloved. We are the bride. But, as in any love affair, mistakes happen. The moral of this story is that even in the midst of our failures, when we cry out to our beloved Divine Mother, God will hear us and respond. The words of the Divine Mother are comforting. She tells us that, though we have failed, we are still loved. And the Divine Mother gives us words of reassurance. She tells that us, though we have failed, we can still achieve spiritual oneness in our lives. Because in those moments when we think we cannot hear God, or that God is not speaking to us, it’s in those moments that the Divine Warrior is there to protect us, and at times, help us find victory whatever distracts us from our potential spiritual growth.

Step four, we read the story looking for the mystical meaning. There are countless mystical meanings hidden in every biblical story. That’s why we read and re-read the stories. To be mystical, is to have the desire to be one with God. Oneness is our spiritual goal, our deepest desire.

As I read the story of Deborah and Jael this week, I came away with some pointed questions and a few conclusions. Questions about things that might be keeping me and us from being at One with YHWH.

Deborah and Jael represent the Divine Mother and Divine Feminine-Warrior. They represent the presence of God in all women. I must see the many faces of the Divine in every woman. If I can’t the faces of the Divine in every woman, then maybe I am the oppressor is this story?
In light of the flood of revelations about sexual harassment in our country, I had to ask myself the tough questions. Have I said something inappropriate? Have I unknowingly done anything inappropriate? Have I not spoke up to support women when I should have? As a man, I must question myself constantly and be ever vigilant, not tolerating any kind of words or actions that are offensive to women. I must support women who have been abused and who speak out. The recent revelations about the pervasive nature of sexual harassment in our country is the very reason The Episcopal Church is requiring every clergy, staff, and volunteer to take Safeguarding God’s people. We must strive to see the Divine face of God in every human being and act accordingly.

The second question that arose for me from this reading is, “If this text is teaching me that when we worship YHWH, we are worshipping not only Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but also Mother, Daughter, Sophia Spirit, then why am I still using the male only version of the Trinity?” I can no longer assume that anyone who walks through the church doors, or anyone I am talking to, or anyone who reads my writing, will know that I don’t think that God is a male, or that God can only be described in male terms.

I have to wonder if the church’s use of patriarchal language has contributed to men feeling they have power over women. And that men might misuse this power by speaking or acting toward women in an ungodly manner. If, in any way, exclusively using patriarchal language in the church has contributed to this kind of unacceptable behavior, then I believe the church must change the words used in the liturgy.

This morning we prayed that we might be able hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures. Over the years, my mystical sister and Blue Jesus have been teaching me the true meaning of this prayer. Reading the bible, truly reading and studying the bible, is hard work. And the end result of that work leaves me constantly being challenged to make significant changes in the way I live and worship. To not make those changes leaves me feeling complicit to things I know in my heart offend the One Holy Living God. I pray God will hear me when I cry out in my prayers, so that transformation can take place in my life.

I encourage you to consider reading Rob Bell’s book, “What is the Bible?” His work is an excellent place to start in seeing the Bible through a different lens.