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.