Monday, January 16, 2017

The Dog Story: Lessons on Holy Listening

The Dog Story: Lessons on Holy Listening (Thanks to my friend Blair Braden for this title.)

My wife and I founded an interfaith wisdom school three years ago. Over the course of the two-year program we have two goals for the students. One is to help them develop spiritual practices that will sustain them in their daily living. The second goal is probably the most important and that is to teach them how to listen. It sounds so easy, but learning to listen, holy listening, deep listening, takes intention, and practice.

One of the skills in learning how listening is to hear someone’s story without responding with your own story. Try this the next time someone tells you their “dog” story. Everyone has a story about their dog or favorite pet. You’ve probably told someone a story about your dog and what does the other person always do? They respond with their story that’s even more amazing, or unbelievable then your story. So, the next time someone tells you their dog story, listen to their story, and then ask them a question about their story. But don’t respond by telling them your dog story. It might be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done. That’s listening.

In today gospel reading (Luke 6:27-36) we hear Jesus’ most difficult teaching and he starts by telling us to listen. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you…Be merciful as God is merciful.”

It is interesting that Jesus’ didn’t end his first sentence at “love your enemies.” He put some action into the commandment. He went on to say that we must “do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us.” Then Jesus took his teaching even further by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Still Jesus ups the ante to another level. Here, he demands that we be merciful to those who show us no mercy; that we be merciful like God is merciful. The key to following Jesus’ almost impossible teaching is first, learning how to listen.

Today in the Episcopal Church, we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, a man who followed Jesus and lived out his teachings, as difficult as that might have been for him to do at times. King was a defender of the poor and the marginalized. He led this country to confront racism and the injustice it caused. For his efforts, Martin Luther King, Jr. lived his life in the wake of constant death threats. His home was bombed. He was nearly stabbed to death. And then on April 4, 1968 he was shot down while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis.

Martin Luther King taught us that racism, poverty, and militarism are intertwined. He taught us to stand strong for the weak and oppressed; to be firm in our convictions for justice and freedom for all. And while he suffered the prejudice of those who hated him for who he was and what he taught, Martin Luther King resisted oppression through peaceful non-violent resistance.

In the face of hate and violence, King would say that he had “decided to stick with love. Hate,” he said, “is too great a burden to bear. (For) hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” King preached the words of Jesus, “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” The words of Jesus and King still ring in our ears today.

This past week, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker speaking at Jeff Sessions hearing to become the next Attorney General paraphrased King by saying that, “The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve towards justice, we must bend it.” I believe we must bend ourselves toward love instead hate, toward justice instead of injustice.

President Obama, in his farewell speech, spoke to the issue of racism. “After my election (in 2008) there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race,” Obama said, “remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” But the President did offer Americans a way forward. He urged us to begin listening to one another. By listening to one another, together we can begin to meaningfully cross the divide of race and all other differences that divide us.

We must listen to one another by honoring our uniqueness as human beings. We must listen to one another with compassion. We must listen to one another with love and mercy. We must listen to one another like we want others to listen to us.

We can’t love someone if we don’t know them. And we can’t know someone if we don’t listen to them.

This kind of intense listening takes hard work. Recently, several of us gathered here at St Peter’s to study the writings of Howard Thurman. He was a scholar, preacher, visionary and civil rights leader. His teachings had a powerful influence on Martin Luther King, especially Thurman’s work on non-violent resistance. Our conversations were intense and, I thought, productive.

To follow up on this work, during Lent this year, we will offer an opportunity for folks to enter into “Trust Circles.” (These small groups will follow the model taught by Quaker Parker Palmer.) The goal of these circles is to create a space so that we can talk about difficult issues, like race, but also talk about our political and religious differences. We have been told that at church politics and religion don’t mix. But I think that has been a failed mistake. The church should be the place that creates safe space for people to talk about difficult topics. The church can create safe space when we follow the teachings of Jesus. Love you neighbor, love your enemies, treat others the way you want to be treated, and in the end, be as merciful as God. If we can talk about difficult issues at church, then maybe this model can spread into other places of our country. But in order for that hope to be fulfilled we must be vigilant in our efforts to listen and show mercy, and in our prayers.

I think a good place to begin is the prayer the Episcopal Church offers for our celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

O Holy God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

13 Books for Your Reading List

I grew up in home where reading was a natural part of life. My parent’s idea of reading was having four to five books going at the same time and being able to talk about each one at the dinner table. I kept that habit. Fortunately, I married someone who reads at the same pace. Our home is a veritable multi-dimensional library. Our two children adopted the same reading style. Whenever we get together, books are at the center of our conversations. And our two grandsons have already shown signs of having a ravenous appetite for reading.

A lot of the folks I hang out usually spend a considerable amount of time talking about the books we read. So I thought I would put together my top thirteen books I read in 2016. I have not included two books that I wrote reviews for Mike Morrell’s Speakeasy. You can find my reviews on this blog. Those books were The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski and The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell.

Here are the other eleven books that fill out my top thirteen. I’m listing the books by author and not in any particular order. Hope you might find some of these titles intriguing.

The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy Eiseland. This book should be mandatory reading for anyone with any leadership role in any religion. While Eiseland writes from a Christian perspective, she challenges the religious notion that God has a “perfect image.” She demands that the church create imagery of spiritual access for those who find simply getting inside the church building a challenge.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, Grevel Lindop. This is the first biography of the esoteric and eccentric Charles Williams. I have been fascinated with Williams’ novels and theology as well his involvement in the hermetic ideals. Lindop took years to research and write this book, which contains fresh materials unavailable to previous researchers. If you want to get a different insight on the Inklings, C.S. Lewis, T.S Eliot, and Dylan Thomas this book is not shy on detail.

Alchemical Psychology, James Hillman. He wrote, “Metaphor is the dream work of language,” and “Alchemical soulmaking is illuminated lunacy.” Either quote was enough to get me into the book. Hillman is a renowned Jungian psychologist that has brought his own brilliant insights to the world of depth psychology. This book is a collection of Hillman’s lectures on fives phases of alchemy. He includes a profound chapter on “blue” and his understanding of the value of living in the world of being “in between.”

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, Eduardo Kohn. My good friend, anthropologist and theologian Gaymon Bennett, recommended this book. Anthropologist, Eduardo Kohn, spent four years among the Runa people who live in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon. If you’ve ever wondered if your dog dreams or if trees think, Kohn takes on both subjects through witness and personal experience. The book has insights and implications for understanding the world as the presence of the divine, but never speaks of God.

Revelations of the Magi, Brent Landau. My daughter-in-law gave me this book for Christmas and I couldn’t put it down. Landau was a high school classmate of my daughter-in-law. He studied at Harvard and Cambridge. This book is a translation with his commentary on a rare and forgotten second century book written in Syriac. Landau’s conclusions shed new light on the universal nature of pre-Nicene Creed Christianity.

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy Jill-Levine. Colleague, the Rev. Nordon Winger recommended I read this book. The author is an excellent storyteller. She uses her humor and personal stories to allow us access into the “Jewishness” of Jesus. This book is approachable while offering unique insights and details into Jesus’ world and his life.

Spiritual Doorway to the Brain, Kevin Nelson. My friend, Dr. Candace Lewis who is a neuroscientist recommended this book. Medical doctor and neuroscientist, Nelson has studied thousands of near death experiences. His open approach to the question of what happens at the moment of death is refreshing and enlightening. He uses his research in RIM sleep as a means of accessing a platform to analyze what happens as we approach death. As a scientist he makes no claims about the existence of God or the afterlife, but leaves the question open for the reader.

The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, Peter Rollins. His most recent book, The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith, is a follow up to this volume. Rollins writes in terms of Radical Theology. He is imaginative and is creating a new way to engage the biblical stories of God, Jesus, and Paul. A lot of “spiritual but not religious,” and “nones” are showing up to hear him speak.

The Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human, Daniel Siegel. My son is a psychologist and recommended this book to me. Siegel, a psychiatrist, if proposing some integrated pathways to understanding the mind as being more than confined to our brain, or even our bodies. His ground breaking work is proposing the mind as a relationship beyond the individual, both with sentient beings as well as creation itself.

Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, Howard Thurman. I had previously read some of Thurman’s work. This book is a compendium of his best writing. I used the book as a study guide on the issue of racism in America. The others in the group were taken with Thurman’s work and moved by his poetic style, interfaith understanding, and universal faith.

Time and Timelessness: Temporality in the Theory of Carl Jung, Angeliki Yiassemides. This is a unique, concise, and brilliant approach to a yet unstudied concept of Jung’s understanding of time. Jung never wrote specifically about the topic, making Yiassemides work much needed. This study brings some light to Jung’s ideas on life in the now and what might be to come. Her style is approachable, yet substantial.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Some Advice for Mr. Trump from the Baseball Gods

A few weeks ago, I wrote that the church had become politically irrelevant because it sat silent on the sidelines during the most continuous presidential election in history. I still believe that the church is politically irrelevant. I want that to change. So instead of simply being a critic, I want to offer some thoughts about how a follower of Jesus can make wise decisions concerning leadership in the state of our American political arena, one that is now being described as a post-truth, post-rational era.

Let’s start with some common sense advice from one of baseball’s most colorful managers, Earl Weaver. Weaver managed the Baltimore Orioles from 1968-1986. His teams played in the World Series four times, winning it in 1970. Following his retirement he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, having been one of baseball’s most winning managers.

Weaver was never at a loss for words. Regarding leadership he said, “There are twenty-five guys on a baseball team. As a manager you must realize that five guys love you and five guys hate you. The other fifteen guys haven’t made up their mind yet. Your job as manager is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the fifteen who haven’t made up their mind.”

In light of Earl Weaver’s words of wisdom, here’s some advice for President-elect Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump, 25% of Americans believe you are going to change their lives for the better. They believe you are going to return America to a previous era they enjoyed.
They believe you’re going to retool America’s economy so they will personally benefit. They believe you’re going to create a safer America by removing an unwanted element that they think are dangerous, specifically immigrants and Muslims. And they believe you will appoint Supreme Court Justices that will roll back the cloak on abortion and same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, 25% of Americans believe you have the potential to become a dangerous demigod that could lead America into the darkest days of its over 200-year history of democracy. These people believe that you have promoted racism, sexism, and homophobia that has emboldened your followers to act out against people of color, women, and those who are LGBTQ. These people are afraid they are going to lose their insurance, their Social Security, their freedom and their right to vote.

Mr. Trump, that leaves the 50% of Americans who haven’t made up their minds. They are waiting to see what you will do as the 45th President of the United States. They will make up their minds based on what you have done in their best interest.

In the words of Earl Weaver, my advice to you is to keep those who believe you are a dangerous leader away from the 50% who haven’t made up their mind. Of course, we all know that is an impossible task.

What will be more helpful is for you to take a page from Jesus’ leadership book. Jesus’ holy book was the Hebrew Bible, which had a lot to say about leadership. The Hebrew Bible was written and read in such a way as to be open for an interpretation, making it still relevant today.
Take for example the Book of Isaiah. (Today’s reading are from Isaiah 11:1-10.) The oracles of Isaiah were written about 2,700 years ago. Interestingly enough, their situation sounds very similar to ours. Isaiah’s community was suffering from political turmoil. The community was divided over who should be their leader. Eventually, because they had become a divided nation, both sides were defeated by foreign nations.

Isaiah was speaking to the remnant of people were still willing to listen to God. His oracle provided the people with some straightforward counsel about the characteristics of good leadership. Isaiah said a leader should be wise, understanding, and knowledgeable and be in an intimate relationship with God. Isaiah said that a wise leader should do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, and defend the helpless and the poor.

Isaiah said the wise leader should build bridges of peaceful reconciliation between those who stood in opposition of one another—those who were as opposite as a wolf and a lamb. Isaiah went on to say that the leader must be as gentle as a child who would be willing to reach tenderly into a den of snakes in hopes of making peace with the enemy.

I have found psychologist Edwin Friedman's books to be extremely helpful in understanding human relationships and how they work and why they don’t. In his book, A Failure of Nerve, Friedman offers leaders four guidelines that sound like Isaiah could have written them.

1. Playfulness will get the leader out of a rut more successfully than seriousness.
2. Pitting people against one another defeats communication.
3. Leaders must expect sabotage. (Friedman must have been an Earl Weaver fan.)
4. A colossal misunderstanding is to assume that rational thinking will work with people who are not motivated to change. Friedman said the best strategy of enacting change is: 1) stop trying to convert others to your way of thinking, 2) instead, build peaceful bridges of reconciliation through developing relationships with those who won’t listen to you, and 3) work on changing yourself before trying to change others.

Being a leader is extremely difficult. And being the President of the United States is an almost impossible task. But, to be a successful president requires a combination of opposing skills of leadership, boldness and humility, strength and mercy, power and grace.

Honestly Mr. Trump, I have yet to witness any humility, mercy, or grace from you.

But, instead of only being a critic, I vow to pray you, Mr. Trump as you begin your pilgrimage of being the President of the United States. And I also vow to share Isaiah’s leadership model with the remnant who are still listening to God.

I’ve taken up praying YHWH as a breath pray. Breathe in YH. Exhale WH. This prayer reminds me that God has given me the air to breathe. God has given my neighbor this same air I am breathing. God has given my enemies this same air. Everyone on this planet is breathing this same air. God has given Donald Trump this same air to breathe.

This prayer reminds me that we all have the same concerns about the earth, the air, our families, our children, and how to take care of all of creation. This breath prayer reminds me that we all have a responsibility to be leaders in the places God has called us to lead. And this prayer reminds me to heed the words of Isaiah; do good and seek justice.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

I Met God at the Theater

The two things we’re taught early in life is that it’s not polite, nor safe, to talk about politics and religion with your family at Thanksgiving. I find that very unfortunate, especially in days like these. The problem with having a nice, polite, safe Thanksgiving dinner is that nothing important is discussed and everyone leaves with the same opinions they arrived with—that their beliefs are the right beliefs.

So instead of having a potentially uncomfortable conversation about God at the dinner table, I went to the theater. There I encountered a ninety-minute conversation about the provocative nature of the character of God in the play An Act of God.

Emmy Award winning comedy writer David Javerbaum wrote the play, which was based on his book The Last Testament: A Memoir by God. Javerbaum was the Executive Producer and Head Writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as well a writer for David Letterman and Stephen Colbert. I found the play ironic, sarcastic, and theologically astute. I could easily imagine that Christopher Moore’s book Lamb and the movie Dogma, has some influence on Javerbaum. Unfortunately though, when the curtain went down only about a quarter of the audience stood in applause. In light of Paige Davis’ (God) marvelous performance, I had to assume the patrons either didn’t get the jokes or didn’t find them funny.

God appearing as a woman brought feminist issues to the forefront, though Javerbaum didn’t really address feminism in the play. I was also disappointed that in the opening monologue, the character of God set aside the topic of Islam for the evening. I had to wonder if the playwright did so because of the Arizona audience?

But then the play moved quickly to take on most of the controversial Judeo-Christian topics. God starts with the stunner that she is not perfect—creator and omniscient, yes, without fault, no. God gives the example that she was trying to make the perfect beetle and it took her 400,000 attempts. God also tells us she supports the use of the King James Bible because it’s the only version basketball star Lebron James has approved. Then she tells us that the bible was meant to be interpreted metaphorically and not literally. Of course, the 4,000 year-old earth and six day creation theories are brought to their knees with sarcasm. And regarding human creation and sexuality? God originally created Adam and Steve and that worked out just fine for a while. And what about Jesus? Yes, Jesus was God’s son, but not the only child. There were also Zack and Cathy, Jesus being the middle child. And that explained a lot about Jesus’ need to be the mediator, especially from the point of view of the birth order theory. In the last ten minutes of the play, God tells us that Jesus did not die for our sins, but instead for the God’s atonement.

That idea of the God’s atonement could have been lifted from Carl Jung’s The Answer to Job. In Jung’s book he wrote that at the time of the writing of Job (600 years before Jesus) humanity’s view point of God was that the divine was a parent was who simultaneously violent and loving (irascible). This perspective, Jung said, needed to be redeemed. Jung says that from the time Job until the arrival of Jesus, humanity had been working out its issues of God. They did so by constructing God as a parent who was filled with unconditional love. That was Jesus’ message. And they began to let go of the view that God was filled with the need for violent retribution—in other words, the need for a child sacrifice (that was actually dispensed with in the story of Abraham and Isaac). In the old view, Jesus of course, was the child that had to die a horrible death on the cross for human sin. In another view, Jesus died at the hands of the hands of the Romans because he threatened their status quo. Jesus’ followers subsequently then saw this as an act of God’s love (God being present with Jesus in death) instead of an act that demanded human sacrifice for sin. God was atoned and a new perspective of the divine was born.

Finally, Javerbaum offered a few positive words about the future. Here, he borrowed from what is known as Open Theology. Open and Process Theology rely on a positive and cooperative effort between humanity and the divine in order to create a future for the sake of both. That theology says that if we, as human beings, accept our role as co-participants in re-creating the earth then maybe life on earth will be saved for future generations (and the presence of the divine within humanity). However, if we continue on our present trajectory our course will not be reversed and our days on earth will be numbered. Javerbaum, however, leaves us with a hopeful belief that humanity can and will do its best to protect and re-create the earth on which we live.

I found David Javerbaum’s An Act of God as an excellent place to begin a conversation about how we talk about God without using theological terms. Anytime we can allow ourselves the permission to consider that God has a sense of humor, we are closer to discovering the truth about ourselves—and possibly to realize that we might be taking ourselves, on one hand too serious (as in we hold the absolute truth), while at the same time not taking our responsibility serious enough (as in our days as humans of earth is dependent upon how we take care our island home).

Maybe it’s time for a bible study using Javerbaum’s The Last Testament?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Church has become Politically Irrelevant

The most contentious presidential election in modern times is over. The division in our country is visibly pronounced. If our congregation and the Episcopal Church is representative of America, and I imagine it is, then twenty-five-percent of you voted for Donald Trump and twenty-five- percent of you voted for Hillary Clinton. And sadly, fifty-percent of you who were eligible to vote, didn’t. Without regard to whether you voted or not, we are all in the continuing chaos of this divide that will not go away. Maybe you came to church this morning to get away from the political conflict? Maybe you came this morning to hear some comforting words; some words of inspiration or some words that would ensure you that all will be well?

As synchronicity would have it, this morning’s assigned gospel reading offers not one word of solace. (Luke 21:5-19, assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary) The reading contains the final teaching of Jesus before he was to be crucified. The Roman government executed him because he was a threat to the status quo. Jesus’ message in this reading was not inspiring, uplifting, encouraging, or comforting. To the contrary, Jesus told his followers to expect doom and gloom: war, revolution, family betrayal, famine, and natural disasters. He didn’t promise them personal security. Jesus didn’t tell them they would be saved from their troubles. He didn’t tell to be calm and that all would be well. Instead, he told them to prepare for more oppression.

He acknowledged the reality of their suffering. And then he offered them a way to move forward. The only thing Jesus promised his followers was his wisdom. (21:14-15) Jesus doesn’t say where this wisdom will come from or what it will look like. But Jesus’ brother, James, tells us his interpretation of what Jesus meant. James said, “You must understand this my beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19) James is echoing the words from the wisdom text of the Hebrew Bible, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. James is saying that listening is the source of wisdom.

We are a divided nation because we have not listened to one another. But in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, if we are going to have chance to move a bit towards unity, we must listen to those who don’t agree with us. And that will not be easy. It might even make us angry, something James warns us against.

If the church has anything left to offer our country, it is to create a safe space where we can gain wisdom through listening to one another. In my opinion, the church has failed to create this space.

Basically, the church has avoided providing safe space for the conversation about the painful fears we have experienced during this presidential election. While millions of Americans stayed up until wee hours of the night to hear the results of the most tumultuous election in modern history, the church remained on the sidelines, silent. The church was unable, or unwilling to offer a place for us to talk about our divisions. Why—because the church has been afraid of offending the offering plate.

The church didn’t want to face the painful and difficult conversations about the political world we live in, the world that causes us to be afraid, to hide, and to avoid talking to one another. Listening, deep listening, the kind of listening that brings true empathy, the place where it hurts to listen—the church has been afraid of that kind of listening because it might offend someone. And that failure has made the church politically irrelevant.

One of my mentors is Hugh O’Doherty. I met Hugh at the Clergy Leadership Project. He’s a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s from Northern Ireland and has worked for decades on issues of peace and reconciliation in many war torn countries. I have learned from him that to be leader, I must listen, even when it’s most risky.

Hugh stood before our class one morning, simply holding silence. Standing perfectly still, he made eye contact with each of the twenty-five people sitting in our circle. His eyes continued to go around the room for what was easily twenty minutes until finally one person couldn’t stand it anymore and broke the silence with a question.

Then Hugh told us a story that changed my life. He was working with a Para-military group in Northern Ireland. It had taken him months to gain their leader’s trust. He convinced them that if the group would meet with him, he would listen, and only listen. For safety sake the Para-military group felt they had to meet in secret. Secrecy and safety are illusions.

About halfway through the meeting, a few men from the opposing Para-military group entered the house where they were holding their secret meeting. They demanded that Hugh follow them outside. At that moment he said he knew his life was at risk. He knew that whomever he faced outside might kill him. But he willingly went with them. First they began to threaten him. But he held silence. Eventually, they started to tell him their version of the troubles in Northern Island. He listened. He held silence. Finally, they felt heard. They drove off and he went back into the house. He told the group inside what the opposing group outside wanted them to hear. Both groups simply wanted to be heard.

I asked Hugh what brought him to the place where he had the courage to listen under such great risk. He told me it was through his practice of meditation. In meditation, he said, he held silence. There he listened to the silence of God.

To listen like Hugh means to hold silence with no intention of responding to what is being said. Listening like this means that we take the other person’s pain into our heart. By doing so, we know that their story will effect us in ways we couldn’t imagine. Trying to listen like Hugh has been painful and risky for me, but it has changed the core of my being. I don’t listen because it’s a leadership strategy. I don’t listen so that I can convert someone to my way of thinking. I listen because I know it will have a deep, deep transformative effect on me. Listening has changed how I see the world, and how I respond to other people.

Jesus has taught us that there aren’t any easy answers. Empty platitudes that sound like comfort and solace are meaningless in times like these. Only the wisdom of listening can help us. Jesus said there would always be wars, international conflict, and natural disasters. The question is, will we listen for Jesus’ wisdom? Will we do what Jesus told us? Will we feed the hungry and listen to them? Will we clothe the naked and listen to them? Will we give water to the thirsty and listen to them? Will we visit the sick and listen to them? Will we visit people in prison and listen to them? Will we welcome immigrants into our country and listen to them? Will we listen to the homeless? Will we listen to those without insurance? Will we listen to women? Will we listen to people of color? Will we listen to the gay person, the lesbian person, the bi-sexual person, and the transgendered person? Will we listen to the disabled person? Will we listen to the Republicans? Will we listen to the Democrats? Will we listen to the Independents? Will we listen to the Tea Party? Will we listen to the Socialists? Will we listen to those who didn’t vote? Will we listen to our neighbors? Will we listen to our enemies? Will we listen to Jesus?

Friday, November 04, 2016

Rohr's Magical Metaphors Breathe Life into the Old Tradition

Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation
by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell

Richard Rohr once again has delivered an imaginative light to shine on the path of the “Old Tradition” of Christianity. And Mike Morrell has beautifully gifted us with this possibility. With Rohr’s encouragement, Morrell took two of Rohr’s conferences, The Divine Dance and The Shape of God, and artfully wove them into a masterpiece. Having attended several of Rohr’s conferences, I could hear his voice in every word, yet, there is a fresh component that illuminates the work but does not impede the message—that is Morrell’s hand in crafting The Divine Dance.

Rohr dares ask the question that lies hidden in the plain sight of the Christian story—all things must die before being reborn. “Maybe our Christian religion in its present formulation has to die for a truly cosmic and love-centered spiritual path to be born.” (127) He narrows the scope a bit for the intent of this book by asking, “What would it look like to rebuild a Trinitarian metaphysic and recreate a truly human full personhood?” (75) The purpose of Rohr’s proposed reformulation of the Christian language, grounded in the Perennial tradition, is for the sake of the “quantum era,” in which we live and the next age to come. (73) He suggests that this “re-verbed” Christianity must take a vastly different shape and cosmology, “not only of God, but of everything.” (136) For Rohr, everything is witnessed in the “spiral” that contains “the divine circle dance,” (31) the “web of communion that we call the Blessed Trinity.” (136)

Rohr shows the courage to invoke the ancient tradition of Christian Hermeticism (though he doesn’t make a direct reference to the existence of such a philosophy). He writes, “The of magic of three breaks us out of our dualistic impasses, and always invites a fourth world for us to enter into.” He then cites Cynthia Bourgeault and her book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, in a lengthy footnote. He credits Bourgeault for the heavy lifting in regards to the obscure Hermetical references. It is the Hermetical tradition that uncovered the language of nature’s constant movement from the three to the four. The natural flow, Rohr says, brings the Trinitarian language of relationship into full view. Within this relationship of flow, all creation, human and nonhuman, can participate in the divine circle dance. Without the spiral-circle image constantly in flow from three to four, the Trinity has remained trapped in a three-way hierarchical pyramid, a configuration from which conversation is impossible. Instead the triangle becomes a model that dispenses truth, wisdom, and judgment from on high. Rohr, instead, uses several magical metaphors for the divine that invite us into the flow. Without raising the eyebrows of traditional Christians, he is able to use a variety of images that help the reader reimagine theological words that have lost their substantive value in today’s lexicon.

With all due respect to Richard Rohr, whom I admire and respect, The Divine Dance, at times, feels like he is doing a two-step by using dusty theological words that traditional Christian believers can’t seem to let go of; words like blessed Trinity, sin, salvation, transcendence, incarnation. Rohr goes as far as to defend the need for the continued use of the Trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With all the creative work Rohr has done to provide a new imagination for the radical reformation of the relational God language there seems to be no need of clinging to old tired words that are on life support. Rohr’s words that define the Divine as, “flow,” the “Life force of everything,” absolute relatedness,” “Divine wave,” “web of communion,” and the “Divine circle dance,” can breathe new soullife into an old tradition.

Still, I find Rohr’s work exciting as he provides a platform for the conversation that must take place in order for Christianity to finds its new place in the constantly unfolding cosmos. Even as Pope Francis has called for a synod at the 1,700th anniversary of the Nicene Creed, we can only imagine what new words might enliven the old creed. And, yes, what old words will discover new life. I pray that Richard Rohr will able to contribute to that conversation in 2025. The Divine Dance has done so in 2016.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Racism Hiding in a Blind Spot

Have you had one of those moments when you were driving down the freeway, you decided to change lanes, you checked all your mirrors, turned on your blinker, started to move into the other lane—and suddenly, in a flash, out of nowhere, there was a car right next to you, the car that had been hiding in your blind spot. You jerked your car back into your lane; now disorientated from an abrupt realization, jarred out of your comfort zone, relieved that you didn’t collide into a disastrous future.
I have had several of those moments. One of them was a month after I thought I had finished my book, Wisdom Walking: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. I had met the publisher’s deadline and thirty days later was headed to a writer’s workshop at the Collegeville Institute on the campus of Saint John’s University, northwest of Minneapolis.
I arrived at the Minneapolis – Saint Paul airport with the instructions needed to find the Fun Van that would take me to the Collegeville Institute for a week of writing. I’m not the best of travelers. I get lost easily and turned around quite often. When I reached the spot where I thought I was supposed to meet my ride, there were vans from hotels, car rental companies, shuttles to other terminals, but no Fun Van. I panicked. I read the instructions for the fourth time.
And then I saw her, a woman wearing a Chicago Theological Seminary t-shirt. I just knew in my heart that she had to be going to the same workshop. Before asking her, I had to overcome my profound introversion—admittedly, I have problems striking up conversations with people I know.
“Um, are you going to the Collegeville Institute?”
I gave her a bit of start. Still, she offered this over-sixty white-guy with long hair a kind but curious look.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Gil.
“Hi. I’m Renee” She was holding her phone in one hand and a small bag in the other with her carry on propped against her leg. She was calm. Her brilliant brown eyes crackled with energy. This African-American woman exuded presence and that was reassuring to me in my moment of anxiety.
I kept talking. “I’m going to the Collegeville Institute. I saw your t-shirt and just thought maybe you were going there as well.”
Her smile was warm. “Oh, yes, my t-shirt, of course. Yes, I’m going to Collegeville.”
She told me she has already received a text from the van driver, who was waiting for all the passengers to arrive before heading to our pre-arranged pick-up. I was relieved. I wasn’t lost and I had met someone who confidently knew where she was, and that’s what I needed.
The van arrived and we boarded. We sat down next to each other. Made introductions with our fellow passengers and started off on what turned out to be a long, sweltering ride. I came to learn that my new colleague is the Reverend Doctor Renee C. Jackson, a United Church of Christ pastor. Renee and I, weary travelers and possibly two introverts, dozed off while the other passengers chatted pleasantly.
I had been looking forward to this workshop for months and I was confident my hopes to learn something valuable would not be disappointed. Our workshop officially began the next morning. It was all I had hoped. Karen Hering, author or Writing to Wake the Soul was our facilitator. She made the space feel safe and at the same time creative. Karen quickly engaged us in her writing process of “contemplative correspondence.”
Then the afternoon session began. Karen had prepped us that before arriving we needed to choose a metaphor that we had been working with in our writing. A word we would be willing to share with the group. When it came my turn I said I had chosen the metaphor pilgrimage and that I would use alchemical language to unpack its meaning. One of our classmates asked me if I would say a bit more about alchemy.
I gathered my thoughts. I had read nearly a hundred books and spent thousands of hours studying alchemy. Now I had to boil it down to an elevator ride explanation. “We begin in the chaos and confusion of blackness and through the many shades of darkness we eventually move into the burning of the white ash, which gives rise to the multicolored phase of the raven with the peacock tail, who eventually becomes the rising Phoenix who flies into the sun of the healing red tincture for the sake of other’s healing.”
Karen then said, “Your language is very poetic. However, we need to be mindful of the baggage our words carry. Words like “black” and “white” can be very heavy words packed with racial associations. How we use them in relationship to what is good and bad is important to our awareness of racism functioning in society and our language—especially in these charged days of heightened racial tension following the death of so many black men.”
A pall of chaos fell over my soul. The stormy clouds of shame rushed into my heart with lusty vengeance. I thought I had searched through all the secrets corners of my life looking for latent racism. I had been open in the past that in 1850 my great-great-grandfather had enslaved a black man and women, and their baby. My great-great-grandfather died in 1860 in Alabama at the age of forty-one, a year before the Civil War broke out. He left behind a wife, four children, and the three people he had enslaved. One of his sons became my great-grandfather and I have no idea what happened to those three souls who had been liberated from his subjection. I have tried mightily to wrest the DNA of enslavement out of my life.
One of my good friends and teammates in high school lived two-doors down the street. Clyde Cunningham, was one of a dozen African-American kids in our school of 5,000. My high school baseball coach was Gil Trejo, a Hispanic man and the best coach I had ever played for. He didn’t tolerate racism of any kind and he would become the model for my twenty-years of coaching college baseball. After high school, the Houston Astros drafted me and my five-year professional baseball career began. Most every team I played on, Caucasians were the minority. The teams were filled with Latin players of every shade of black and brown, then African-American players, and then the rest of us. 1973 was my third year of professional baseball. Our manager was Bernie Smith, the first African-American minor league manager in the history of professional baseball. I loved playing for him. When my playing career was over my wife and I took teaching jobs in Coolidge, Arizona. The collective minorities were the majority in that town. The Black, Hispanic, and Native kids wove their way deep into my heart. Twenty years later, when my sister-in-law and her two-year-old African-American son were in desperate straits, they moved in with us. For five years we provided a safe and loving place for them to heal. I thought I had worked through the ancestral DNA of racism that had lurked in my life. Evidently not.
Karen Hering’s words felt like she had shoved a rusty railroad spike into my heart; cracking open the stone egg of my soul—and from it oozed the putrid smell of an unconscious blind spot. At that moment my book was sitting on the publisher’s desk. I had spent four years writing this book. I had studied Carl Jung inside out. And yes, I know he was a racist, a sexist, and a philander. But his ideas on alchemy, pilgrimage, and individuation helped make sense of my life. Somehow, though, the names of the phases of alchemy, the words, black, white, yellow, and red hid in my unconscious blind spot. How could that have happened? How did I not see the weight of those words?
Sitting in that conference room at the Collegeville Institute, I wanted to run and hide. I felt like I was going to vomit. Synchronicity, however, had brought me to that moment of suspended timelessness. Months before, I had been notified that I had not been selected as one of the twelve who were invited to attend the workshop. I was, however, asked if I would be an alternate in the rare case that someone else would decline. A month later, I was notified that a slot had opened and asked if I would I accept. Synchronicity had brought me to that moment, for that workshop with Renee, Karen, and my blind spot. I could not run. If there is one solitary thing I have learned from pilgrimage it is that when I feel like I can’t take another step forward, I must keep walking in order for any chance of transmutation to emerge in my life.
That evening, as our group went to dinner, I walked along side Renee. I said a few inane things about the weather. Then I apologized. I told her I didn’t mean to offend her or hurt her in any way. I was simply using alchemical language. She told me she wasn’t offended. She understood the context.
Gently and graciously, but firmly, she said, “But I did have a reaction. I wish we could find other words so that black isn’t always bad and white is always good.”
I knew what I had to do. I contacted the publisher. I told him I needed to make a major revision in my book. I wanted to take any color language that smacked of racism out of the alchemical metaphors. I would need to create new names for the alchemical phases, replacing them with more expressive words, void of the baggage of racism. I explained my reasons and waited for a response.
The next day I was walking toward the Saint John campus and Renee was walking in the opposite direction back toward the Institute. Synchronicity was working overtime. We stopped under a large oak tree for needed shade and more conversation. I asked for her permission to tell this story. Renee said she’d think about it and then quickly got to the heart of the matter. She told me that our conversations were building racial and cultural bridges. “Our work is about more than a book. It is about more than you or me. I believe this is God’s work, truly a marvel to behold.” Then she asked me a question that would further pry open the egg of my soul.
“So Gil, where are you on your pilgrimage?”
I told her that I am still on pilgrimage. I am still experiencing the surprising, yet confusing, moments of synchronicity that turn up the heat in my life. I am still being transmuted by the pilgrimage of writing and living as a pilgrim. I am still returning again and again back to the beginning, back to the chaos of the alchemical process—still doing the dangerous work of turning up the heat, phase by phase. And why do I do this—because, consciously or unconsciously, I never want to enslave another soul with my words. I have to keep searching for all the blind spots in my life.