Saturday, November 23, 2013

Visions, Dreams, Imaginations

I have been thinking quite a bit about visions, dreams, and imagination in the context of a community. Too many times I find myself using these words interchangeably. But, in the conversation within community, these words, I believe, take on their own distinctive perspective.

Visions are somewhat like apparitions. Those things we see with the mind’s eye. Visions have their genesis from outside our consciousness and apart from our personal unconscious. In other words, a vision is given to the one having the vision. Like reading a book or watching a movie. We see what someone else is thinking but our interpretation is needed to see another dimension of the story. The perspective only we can understand because of what we bring to the vision. Often, we give language to the vision, as God showing us a picture of the future. Indeed, the message may be from God, inspired through Holy Scripture, music, nature, another person, or other mediums through which the Spirit of God speaks. The measure of God’s visions, however, is that while the vision may emerge through an individual—visions appear for the sake of the community of God’s people. God vision’s are for the sake of the many and serve the collective.

Dreams are the work of the unconscious while we are asleep. Our dreams are most often the work of our personal unconscious trying to get our attention about something we as individuals need to work on. Yet, there are times, the collective unconscious will arise through an individual’s dream in order to speak about an action the community needs to move on. As in the case of visions, the bible is full of examples of the collective unconscious, the communion of saints, indeed God, speaking to the community through the dreams of an individual. Once again, these types of dreams can be intended for the community only if they are for the benefit of the community. A good example of mistaking an individual dream for a community dream is Joseph in Genesis. He told his brothers his dream, believing the dream was for their benefit. The dream was clearly for Joseph and for him alone, even though it involved the future of his family. True, had Joseph not been sold into slavery and banished to Egypt the end result may have disastrous. Yet, if we trust the efficacy of God and that of the collective unconscious, Joseph would have walked his pilgrimage down some other path, leading to the fulfillment of his purpose for the benefit of his family. Work with your dreams. Build a relationship with your dreams. Learn to trust them.

Imaginations are the works of the holy stare, contemplation, day-dreams. Imagination has the power of the conscious infused with the liberation of the unconscious. Imagination is the incubator for creativity. Holy rumination can give birth to a new possibility. Frankly, the Christian Church and religion in general could benefit from some fresh imaginationing.

If you have a vision, a dream, an imagination, talk about it with a spiritual mentor, a holy friend. Try it out and see if the vision, dream, imagination has some legs. Then voice the vision, dream, imagination into the community. Listen to the response. Is there resonance in the community? Others may see your vision and if they do, then the vision will take on a life of its own. In that moment the Spirit of God can do some amazing co-creation.

Visions, dreams, and imaginations—are the cosmic makings, the stuff, of being present to this specific moment in this time of life. While the results of visions, dreams, imaginations released into the universe may not be realized in our lifetime, they must be spoken into the cosmos. For sure, then, our visions, dreams, and imaginations will never feel the energy of light if they are never acted upon. Visions, dreams, and imaginations simply swimming in the mystic darkness without being spoken into the universe will exist in loneliness. Despairing of never having the chance to emerge and live in the exuberance of lightened freedom. Have courage. Suck in a deep gulp of air. Exhale the volume of what only you can breathe into the mystic milieu. We all need some true and holy visions, dreams, imaginations.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Woman of Salt: A Novel

A Woman of Salt is a stunning poetic essay on suffering. I found myself wincing and weeping throughout. I was consumed by Mary Potter Engel’s narrative on the life of a young intellectual who was dragged through the foggy world of self-reflection. Hurtling towards the impending death of her abusive and estranged mother, Ruth confronts her buried memories. She battles the demons caused by her mentally ill mother and her own choices in an attempt to escape. Evil feels somehow filthier when enacted by the one who gave us birth.

Engel ripped open my soul, causing me to question my own understanding of relationships, vulnerability, and suffering. I wanted to crawl into Ruth’s skin and feel every ounce of her anguish.

Engel, a former professor of Christian theology who converted to Judaism, weaves her gift of biblical insight into the narrative using creative Midrash. Each chapter of Ruth’s journey is juxtaposed against Engel’s interpretative unpacking of the biblical story of Lot’s wife—the woman, who upon looking into the eyes of her burning past, was emblazoned into a pillar of salt. The power line of the novel’s characters combine with the brilliance of Engel’s theological construction like therapy for suppression of trauma. The dangers of religious fundamentalism are replete in almost every theme in the novella. I wondered throughout the novel which character would become memorialized in a pillar of salt from looking over their shoulder.

“Not one of us can help succumbing to the endemic power that eternally tempts us to re-create our past in a beauty that renders us tolerable to ourselves: to be human is to deceive ourselves,” writes Engel.

The author draws the reader into the gut-wrenching world of self-reflection. Anyone who is willing to trespass into this raw tale of psychic damage and brutalized intimacy must be ready to consider their own role in the conflict. Written almost as a lucid dream, readers could find a bit of their own disturbing and hidden self in every character.

The novella appears to be autobiographical. Engel writes her theological expose with authority. Yet, A Woman of Salt is experimental. The voice of each novella chapter alternates from the first person to third person, then back again. The technique left me with a sense of reading a series of thematic short stories. Until I understood the author’s style, I kept going back to the previous chapter to see if I had misread. Almost as if I was reading three books simultaneously. While not bothered by the technique itself, I am not convinced alternating the storyteller’s point of view added depth to the novella portion of the book. The storyline was powerful on its own merit.

Reading A Woman of Salt is a spiritual experience. We are invited to enter the story in order to find our way of being honest about our past, as well as seeking a hope for our future.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

During the last 100 years, the academic quest for the historical Jesus has wandered through at least three major cycles of research and publication. The work to uncover the Jesus “behind the text” has been almost impossible. Without fail, writers with conclusions landing outside creedal orthodoxy find their books being read more for the controversial content than for the author’s insights. Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Time of Jesus of Nazareth moved critical review into an unfortunate position. Much of the initial criticism levied at Aslan was more about Islamophobia than his progressive views of Jesus. Still, as if by design, immediately after Aslan’s now infamous interview with Fox News’ Lauren Green, his ratings on Amazon shot to the top and his publisher printed another 50,000 copies. A week after the interview, Zealot was number one on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Aslan’s historical Jesus is a zealous revolutionary, who in the name of Yahweh sacrifices all to overthrow the Roman oppression. Jesus of Nazareth is not the Son of God, but the Gospel of Mark’s Son of Man. Jesus zealously follows God’s commands for the sake of God’s people. He lives his life in defiance of the occupier leading to his crucifixion—as all others who would dare defy Roman’s crush. Aslan dismisses creedal absolutes—the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, and bodily resurrection. He does so with a bibliography that reads like a who’s who of the last twenty-five years of liberal historical Jesus research. Not surprisingly, his conclusions are little more than a compilation of the likes of John P. Meier, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, among other Jesus scholars.

Surprisingly, Aslan’s does not fully deconstruct the miracles of Jesus. However, he does place them alongside Jesus’ contemporaries who are magic workers. Aslan’s depiction of the resurrection is quite similar to that of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Where in his book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, Williams writes that, “something happened,” on Easter morning. Such acknowledgment by Aslan about the critical event in the life of Jesus the Christ, is quite affirming, especially from a non-Christian.

Interestingly, while conservatives are up in arms about Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus, they have said little about his quick deconstruction of the New Testament Paul. In the final chapter the author states that Paul had little concern for the human Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, Aslan suggests Paul built a new religion based upon his mystical experience with the resurrected Jesus Christ. Instead of Paul, Reza focuses on the story of the early church found in the Acts of the Apostles. The conflict between Paul and the trio of James, Peter, and John, for Aslan, is the blame for the loss of the historical Jesus. Paul, the victor in the first century church wars replaces Jesus of Nazareth with Jesus Christ, in order to make his new religion more palatable to the Romans.

In the end the question Reza Aslan leaves his reader is—can you be a follower of Jesus, if left with the historical Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark, (which has neither the birth nor the resurrection narratives). And are you be a part of the Christian Church conceived of by James, the brother of Jesus, (sans any writings of Paul)?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Formation of the Community in a Village

Cathy and I went on a hike in the Prescott area from Walker to Potato Patch, more than just a stretch of the leg. Near the top of the ridge about three miles into our hike, at the edge of the National Forrest, we met a rancher, his son, and grandson. They looking for trail signs of few of their cattle. The eldest said hello and remarked how it was a nice day for a walk. Indeed, cool, overcast, a mild chance of rain. He told us he was local rancher, five generations he smiled. He asked if we had seen any cattle on our walk up from Walker. We hadn’t. Somehow, walking softens boundaries between people. We began a conversation that would span the next hour, as he would drive his pickup a bit of the road and search for his wandering cows. He told us about how the Bureau of Land Management had reduced his herd lease over the years from 800 to 180 cows. This, he believed, led to the rapid spread of more forest fires. I have spent many summers over the past fifty years in this area and I agree with him. When we told him we lived above the Sheldon Mine, he told us of a time he helped search for a lost autistic boy, finding him near the fire station look out a good three miles above our cabin. We experienced a communal conversation, walking, talking, sharing stories. I am confident we will meet again. And pick up the conversation where we left it when his son and grandson unloaded their horses to gather the cattle they had found. Community building, community work, is done one conversation, one step at a time. St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish and St. Brigid’s Community are doing the hard work of community building, one relationship at a time. The parish has recently been given a grant to expand our community work among the youth (6th-12th grade). Through the graciousness of the Neely Foundation, St. Augustine’s will be able to hire a part time Minister for Youth Formation. The last three years, Chad Sundin has done multiple jobs at St. Augustine’s. One of those jobs has been Youth Minister. Chad created the concept of a Village for Youth Formation, a work of building community. The parish, in order to receive the grant, needed to formalize a plan, which prompted the writing of a document you will find in the next post. I have separated the Village plan from this post in order that our parishioners, or anyone else, can find our model of Youth Formation. We believe youth formation does not stand alone. Neither does childhood formation, young adult formation, or adult formation—all community formation must be integrated into a community-wide village understanding. There are three loaded words in the title of this essay, formation, community, village. These words can be trite and over used. However, my hope is that my musings for the next few posts will be the beginning of a dialogue about the integration of the “Formation of Community in a Village.” The promptings of my scribblings are multilayered. Feeling that I am in a state of unconscious imagination and at the same time, the conscious reality—what has happened over the past few days moved me to write; some synchronistic events, including the grant, a few edgy conversations among friends, more than one mystical encounter, a dream that woke me in a frenzy of confusion, an encounter with a Prescott rancher—these experiences nudged me out of a zone of “all is well,” near the fray of the frazzled edge of the circle of leadership. My belief is that building community is grounded within the work of the Formation of a Village. However, in the twenty-first century, both community building and formation work are not done the same as just twenty years ago. Not long ago, doing the work of community building happened among a homogenous group. Most churches at one time had some sense of communal homogeneity to hold them together. Therefore leadership could invoke dogmatism and creedal uniformity as the codifying agents. Now we live under another truth. We work in a post-Christian, post-denominational, post-institutionalism—religious hegemony has been left in the ashes of cultural and religious pluralism, thank God. We come from varying backgrounds with a different understanding, but we are still seeking community. The rancher along the road may have a different understanding of life than Cathy and me, but we both want what is best for the ecology of the Prescott area, for the community. To the point, community building—we yearn for it, we love it, we hate it, community makes us, breaks us, hurts us, bleeds our heart. We crave it, the longing, the hopefulness, the dangerous wire-walking, the slippery mud covered shit strewn sheep-path falling down, while walking up hill. Yet, most of the time we are not that good at creating real sustainable community. Can we master it? No. We can only pray and weep and be present—sometimes causing suffering, scaring, and still builds healing. And, oddly enough, we dare teach this as a strange path towards community development. We ache for the community experience—the dream of authentic relationships. Such work, what we call community villaging, is hard. And in the context of spiritual pluralism, this community building demands Formation threaded across our differences of every sort; one step, one conversation, one cup of coffee, one beer, one relationship at a time.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Imagined is Real

“The real is imagined and the imagined is real,” said Irish author Colum McCann. The award winning author’s latest novel is Transatlantic. Last night I watched an interview of McCann on PBS. There are two reasons I am sharing this interview. First, McCann’s comment about writing being a rare moment when the author enters the thin air of magic when the real is imagined and the imagined is real breathes, life into the ensouling of the word. For a writer, his statement is one that has found its way into my quote journal. I can imagine I will return to these words many times as a source of inspiration and encouragement. Much like the Buehner’s Ensouling Language. Second, for those of you interested in Myers-Briggs, watching this interview will give you a perfect example of two types talking right past one another. McCann is obviously an NF (iNtuitive-Feeling), while the interviewer clearly must be an ST (Sensing-Thinking). When McCann utters the creativity of his soul in the mystical realm of imagination and reality, the interviewer is stupefied. Before McCann can move to the next flow of NF, the ST interviewer stops him in mid-sentence so that the interviewer can try and quantify the qualitative. While McCann was caressing the prose in the intimacy of sensual love, the interviewer was hoping the author would provide him with a step-by-step description of how to change the oil in his Ford pickup. When the interviewer asks McCann a conflated question he answers, ‘yea,’ as in “You cannot hear me, so I will further explain myself because I did not understand your question.” The interview is a perfect example of two distinct, and somewhat opposite personality types, having an important conversation. While, one person is describing the intricate subtleties of a well-played baseball game, the other person is explaining the precision of thoracic surgery. Neither is a wiser than the other, nor out of place, nor inappropriate—simply here we have a beautiful portrayal of two stark juxtaposed MBTI personality types. I imagine Jung would have enjoyed the interview. Immediately at the conclusion of the interview I downloaded Transatlantic to my Kindle. About a quarter way through the book, I am not disappointed. In the words of the Irish, this is a beautiful book.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Ensouling Language

My good friend, Dr. Jennifer Botham, introduced me to the author Stehpen Harrod Buhner. She recommended, The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines for Life on Earth and Ensouling Language. I devoured both, reading Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life first because of my passion for writing. Good thing I had not read Ensouling before writing my book, which I just finished. Buhner gave me courage to be bolder in my editor struggles. On second thought, I wish I had read this wonderful book years ago. Reading Buhner’s book surely must be like sitting in on one of his writing workshops, or better yet, having him as a personal mentor. Most every chapter is designed to inspire the nonfiction writer to embrace their work as if they were creating poetic fiction birthed from the recesses of the heart. Imagination, creativity, soul—these are the forces of Buhner’s writing life. And he yearns for those of us who weep to write to feel his presence of blessing; keep writing in the face of rejection. Buhner encourages, no demands, all those brave enough to write to breathe out the words emerging from their soul, feeling for the “Golden Thread,” that which knits every image and thought together in their work. He implores the writer to dream the story, to be the story, to become the conscious unconsciousness of what is being released from the inner self to the outer page. Buhner pulls back the curtain between writing for the sake of telling a story or writing non-fiction to show the reader “how to.” He fetches us to ensoul the language in order to bring joy the readers heart. Writing is an art. Writing is also a craft, requiring hours and days sitting in front of a journal, notebook, and computer. The writer cannot escape the haunting whispers emanating forth from the simple tools of pencil and paper, blank page. She who dares pretend to write, must write in order to breathe, ditching all other endeavors to pour over the page that begs its own life. Write until fingers bleed. Then write some more. I strongly encourage all my writer friends to immerse themselves in Buhner’s work. For those that don’t write, but love to read, I venture you will find his writing refreshing and worth your money and time.