From Belief Systems To Relief Systems

A friend got my attention the other day when she wrote that few of her female friends had been able to find husbands willing to support them as strong women. When another friend wrote something similar the next day, I began thinking seriously. And when my daughter relayed an NPR report that today’s children are being taught to look out for themselves but not for others, I started thinking even harder.

Doom-mongering is not my style. Nor do I think things are worse than they used to be. Good old days are good only because they are no longer around to remind us of their messy complexity.

Nonetheless, I worry. Nothing is more fundamental in the life of faith–nay, in life itself–than the call to love others. Love you neighbor as you love yourself, said Jesus. If you do not tend one another, then who is there to tend you? ask the Buddhist scriptures.

This seems too obvious to merit discussion. But is it? And if it is, why do I have so much trouble practicing it?

Why, I have asked myself time and again this week, is it so easy to hate–and so hard to empathize? Why so easy for this morning’s Chicago Tribune to demand that we “sink on sight” every Somali boat that leaves shore, with barely a word about the conditions that turned those fishermen into pirates?

Why so much fun to hate Bernard Madoff, or the CEOs who kept accepting those bonuses, while ignoring my own greed?

Why such relish in jumping on Rod Blagojovich? Or Sarah Palin? Or Barak Obama? Or Lindsay Lohan?

Do Christ and Buddha call for uncritical sympathy for those with whom I disagree, or those who do what I consider wrong? Absolutely not. Neither do they ask me to stop looking out for myself. I am urged, after all, to love my neighbor as I love myself.

What they ask is that I take seriously something that Bob Thompson wrote recently: “One and all, we are Christs in the making.” All of us? Somali pirates? Rod Blagojevich? Sarah Palin? Bernard Madoff? Me? Yes, absolutely yes.

And what would it mean if I took that seriously?

It would mean being as concerned about the joy of my spouse, friend, or partner as I am about my own.

It would mean seeing the good in the Iranians, the grumpy neighbors, the pirates–and treating them with the respect I would like people to show me, or my own father or mother.

It would mean encountering a rude sales clerk, or taxi driver, or neighbor and asking how I could cheer her up rather than snapping back.

It would mean caring (and doing something) about the economic plight of people who hurt–before the stock market and home mortgage crisis made me feel the pinch myself.

And it would mean beginning to really live: beyond bitterness, beyond self-doubt, beyond fear (it is love, after all, not courage, that casts out fear), beyond my own self-absorbed world. “To live,” said Nitobe Inazō, the Japanese vice-president of the League of Nations in the 1920s, “is to work for others; to die is to do nothing.”

Last August, my family and I blew a tire on a deserted Wyoming road. The sun was blazing, the temperature in the 90s; there was no shade. I began to worry when the old tire would not come off and a Triple-A clerk told me the nearest help center was 60 miles away. My grandchildren looked so vulnerable under the sun.

Then Hub, a rough cowboy-turned-singer, drove up, got out his tools, and fixed the tire. It was a simple act, but the love overwhelmed me. I’d been the recipient of the sharing that lies at the heart of faith. He’d reminded me, not only how profoundly connected we are–but how cold (or scorching !) and desolate life is when I live unconnected.

In a recent issue of The Christian Century , theologian Daniel Bell challenges the underpinnings of conventional Christianity, “God does not demand or require blood to redeem us. God neither inflicts violence nor desires suffering in order to set the divine-human relation right. In spite of its pervasiveness in Christian imagery, the cost of communion, of reconciliation and redemption, is not blood and suffering.”

In conventional Christianity, the cross of Christ is the ultimate axis mundi, the center of the universe. Conventional Christianity says God’s only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Human beings are universally born with original sin—it is as if there is a stain on the soul. Salvation comes through believing Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by washing away the stain of sin on the human soul, so long as we believe it.

He sacrifices his life for many. He is our substitute. But for many progressive Christians, the idea that Jesus was the lamb of God who whose violent death pays off a vengeful God, just doesn’t make sense.

We have been taught to look at the cross through the eyes of a sinner.

We are told that on the cross, Jesus does something for us that we can’t do for ourselves. He bore and carried away the sins of the world. Because he was fully divine and fully human, he was like an actor (this is how Jesus is presented in the Gospel Of John ), playing the part in a great drama—and all of this was God’s plan for bringing salvation to earth.

I respectfully disagree. To believe God sent his only Son from heaven to earth to demand bloodshed for the forgiveness of sins turns God into a terrorist and Jesus into a willing victim of suicide. The world has too often absorbed the bitter fruits of pre-planned violence. How do we account for this interpretation? Blood atonement is, after all, an interpretation about the meaning of the cross.

It’s interesting that the Gospel narratives paint a picture of Jesus on his cross but he never once refers to himself as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

In the canonical Gospels, Jesus speaks a total of seven times (seven last words) from the cross. One time he talks about being thirsty, another time he says, “it is finished,” his life his ministry is over. The other five words have to do with his relationship to God, family, friends and the two who are crucified with him.

None of the “seven last words” from the cross imply a blood sacrifice. And five out of the seven words have to do exclusively with Jesus’ relationships.

Like all of us, Jesus died a human death. Every human being comes into this world one person at a time, and leaves the same way.

I will never forget my dear, sweet grandfather on his deathbed, saying, “I don’t mind the death part. I just hate leaving all of you kids.” Throughout my years of ministry I have spent a lot of time with friends or family members of someone who is dying. At such a time people want only to talk about their relationships. They talk about how much they love each other and about their longing for God.

Jesus died a human death.

In his valley of suffering he felt Godforsaken—in the midst of his pain he reached out to loved ones. The canonical Gospels report that, in his own words, Jesus died the way we all die.

But the church has turned his death into a once and for all metaphysical transaction between heaven and earth.

From whence did this notion of Jesus being the “lamb of God” come?

Where did this theological idea that God requires a blood sacrifice originate?

Blood animal sacrifice was a common practice in ancient times.

In the book of Leviticus, strict instructions are given around the requirement of making an animal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. In ancient Israelite practice, the lamb, the livestock, was given as a peace offering to God.

There was also another ritual practiced by the ancient Hebrews. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would take a goat, symbolically cover it with the sins of all the people, and send it out into the wilderness. Bearing everyone’s blame and being forced to suffer on everyone’s behalf, the innocent goat became a scapegoat.

From this theological perspective, and out of this cultural context, many New Testament writers proclaimed the cross to be the definitive blood sacrifice. Jesus was like a pure and innocent lamb, a peace offering unto God. Jesus became our scapegoat, taking the consequences for our sin so that we won’t have to bear the consequences ourselves.

I respectfully disagree.

The idea that God requires blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is inextricably bound to an ancient world-view that equated domination and violence with peacemaking and reconciliation.

Consciousness evolves.

It’s time to see the cross of Jesus through different eyes. We are not redeemed by violence or suffering. We are redeemed when we convert violence into nonviolence. We are transformed when we, like Jesus, move beyond every excuse to give or receive violence and insist there is no other way to peace than living peaceably.

Jesus died on a cross not to appease a bloodthirsty God, but in that violently turbulent climate of authoritarian religion and empire, he believed it better to lay down his life, rather than a single other person perish.

There is no greater love than this.

If Jesus were to stand before us today, I believe he would say, “When you look at my cross, see your own life reflected in it.”

In other words, Christ suffers not to keep us from suffering but because we already suffer. Christ hangs there because we already hang. Christ hurts because we already hurt, cries because we cry, dies because every human being will die.

But just as the cross did not destroy Jesus, our crucifixions will not destroy us.

Herein lies a great mystery. The cross is an emblem of death, but if we look deeply into it, we see that death is never the end. When one way of life is over, a new one is beginning.

Jesus is a mirror of our humanity but also a window to God—which is to say that as it was for him, so it is for us. When we feel we are being crucified it is the end—but also a beginning.

I just added my name to an online petition that supports Fr. John Jenkins and Notre Dame University for inviting President Obama to speak at the 2009 commencement. The petition is sponsored by Notre Dame Alums in Support of Father Jenkins, Faithful America and Catholics United.

Manya Brachear, religion reporter of the Chicago Tribune perfectly summed up the controversy, “Some Fighting Irish are fighting mad about the prospect of an American president addressing graduates at the spring commencement. Should Roman Catholic colleges and universities roll out the red carpet for a sitting president if he doesn’t agree with the church’s stance regarding abortion?”

The petition argues that the invitation of the pro-choice President as a commencement speaker provides an opportunity for dialogue: “For decades, presidents of both political parties have been invited to Notre Dame for this occasion to engage in rigorous discourse about the most pressing issues of our day. Presidents have addressed such essential issues as international affairs, peace building, poverty, and human rights. Through this invitation, Fr. Jenkins is honoring the best of our nation’s democratic and religious values.”

Supporters of Obama as commencement speaker also maintain that this invitation honors the American cornerstone value of free speech.

Once again we have an example of dissent within the Roman Catholic Church.

When dissent collides with hierarchy who wins?

It is one thing to see this discussion as a pro-choice, pro-life dichotomy. But that is too easy.

As a Protestant minister standing outside the swirling Catholic controversy, I find myself seduced by a different question.

Who has the right to decide what is right or wrong? Where is the moral locus of authority?

Okay, I admit it. I come out of the free church tradition that affirms not hierarchal Papal authority but the authority of the soul—or, as we call it, “soul liberty.”

In his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul writes, “For freedom, Christ has set you free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

A slave is someone who is completely dependent upon somebody else for their very existence. One consequence of this dependency is that the slave loses his or her capacity to choose. Slaves must do as they are told or lose their source of livelihood.

Spiritually speaking, if we depend on anything in the external world to give us inner security, it can be argued that we have submitted to the yoke of slavery. It is easier to become a slave to somebody else’s version of the truth than to search for it within ourselves.

The deeper moral question is always, who has the authority to decide?

“Truth is my authority, not some authority my truth,” said Anne Hutchinson, a seventeenth century American pioneer of religious freedom. She was then declared an “American Jezebel who had gone awhoring from God” and brought to trial. She was found guilty of heresy in 1637. Her accusers said her truth was false and theirs was true.

What is the truth and who has the authority to decide?

This latest controversy in the Catholic church reminds us that what stirs the hornet’s nest of authority most, is the suggestion that truth is something to be engaged rather than blindly accepted.

This of course implies that in matters of moral ambiguity the ultimate moral authority can be summed up in six words–let your conscience be your guide.

The power of this inner authority is what we are seeing in the Rev. John Jenkins and Notre Dame.

Let us give thanks.

A card came from a wonderful friend in Tokyo the other day, making me sad. He told me that he and his wife had divorced, after many years together. The cause: “She became involved in a religion”: a true religion that demanded conformity.

I sighed as I thought of my friend, then fought off even sharper emotions as I began thinking about “true religion,” that form of belief that knows itself to be right and others to be wrong.

There is much to be said for religion–even true religion–Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchins notwithstanding. Hope, meaning, love, togetherness, moral compass, compassion: they all spring from it, more often than skeptics or progressives want to admit.

Those are big things, not to be dismissed.

But . . . ! How often I’ve seen the other side, the side my friend experienced last year. How often I have come away chilled, frightened, or excluded by those who know their religion to be uniquely true.

Why? What’s wrong with such a faith? Why have I grown so uncomfortable with “true religions” in recent years?

Let me list a few of my reasons.

  • True religion, all too often, separates us: insider from outsider, believer from non-believer. If God is about love and connectedness, true religion is about separating. I sang it as a child: “One door and only one, and yet the sides are two. I’m on the inside; on which side are you?”
  • True religion judges. Is your doctrine correct? Do you live by the right rules? “Judge not,” said Jesus. “The faults of others are easier to see than one’s own,” said the Buddha.
  • True religion makes it harder to appreciate the truths and insights of other faith (or non-faith) traditions. If mine alone is true, how can I sit openly or eagerly at the feet of Buddha, or Mohammed, or Confucius, and learn what that wise one has to tell me?
  • True religion warns me against fully exploring unorthodox or heretical ideas. And that restricts my own growth: in the arts, in the sciences, in the spirit, in the world of thought. Why did Charles Darwin put off publishing his findings for decades? Because he was afraid of offending the church’s orthodoxy.
  • True religion inspires pride. If mine is the only truth, how easy it becomes to consider myself not just blessed, but better–all my talk about humility notwithstanding.
  • True religion justifies–and often intensifies–disputes, controversies, even wars. Convinced of the superiority of Nichiren Buddhism, Ishiwara Kanji taught his soldier-disciples in the 1920s that true Buddhism would defeat America and bring prosperity to the world. “Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother Who Sits in Darkness,” said Mark Twain after an American massacre of “heathen” Filippinos, “has been a good trade and has paid well.”
  • True religion–let me say it again–excludes. If God is love, if God is presence, if God is connectedness, there is no place (in the words of Bob Thompson) for that which excludes. For when I exclude, I make myself smaller, because I make my world less than the encompassing whole that God intended it to be.

I am thankful for religion; it has given the world great things. I’m thankful too for the practitioners of true religion; they have much to teach me about conviction and earnestness, among other things. But God’s reality is too big, too complex, too dynamic and powerful to be captured by a system or doctrine. God’s presence is too pervasive, too energetic, too compassionate to be contained by a true religion.

I often wish this were not so; some days I wish I could squeeze God into my own small mind, into something I could easily define. But most days I’m glad I can’t do that. For in God’s massive, moving, not-to-be-captured presence comes that sweet connection with everything and everyone I touch–or don’t touch.

While attending a dinner party I found myself sitting next to Sr. Barbara, a 75 year old nun.The church’s treatment of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people infuriates and exasperates her.

Indignantly she asked, “How can the church treat these people with such disrespect? These are good, decent and wonderful people. I just don’t get my church.”

I have heard many other Catholic friends express a similar sentiment
not only about LGBT rights but also about the priesthood being limited to men and the proscription against priests being allowed to marry.

I always listen sympathetically.

Clearly, the pronouncements and policies of the current Pope only intensify the frustrations of my progressive friends.

I listen as an outsider.

Pope Benedict XVI has recently rehabilitated a group of schismatic bishops, including one who denied the scope of the holocaust, and subsequently appointed as bishop an Austrian priest who blamed hurricane Katrina on the sins of the people of New Orleans. An uproar within and outside the church has ensued.

When I was Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the Pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger was the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, known in earlier times as the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Cardinal Ratzinger was well known for his saucy conservatism so it is not a surprise that Pope Benedict XVI often issues pronouncements and policies that run counter to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

My progressive Catholic friends always impress me with their ability to live in the gap between narrowly defined church doctrine and a more expansive theological understanding of the world. Of course, many are losing faith with the church and seek more open spiritual environments. Approximately 30% of the congregation of the Lake Street Church of Evanston grew up in Catholic schools or churches. Many of them say they will never go back but will always think of themselves as being Catholic. Our early religious experiences have a way of imprinting themselves on our spiritual DNA.

By their very nature, relationships are complex. This is what Sister Barbara was saying to me at dinner that night. In giving pastoral care to LGBT people she was able to say Yes to them while saying No to the rigidly hierarchical doctrines of the church. She lives in the gap between what is and what could be. In her heart she has experienced a spiritual truth independent of the church’s teaching. She has a love/hate relationship with her church.

Over the years I have known many Catholic friends who have skillfully held this tension between the authority of the church and the authentic truth of their own lives.

The late Brother Wayne Teasdale was one such person. He developed the term interspiritual. He said that the dramatic shift in global human consciousness is preparing us to live in a universal civilization in which human beings recognize their spiritual interdependence. We can remain rooted in our own tradition, he said, without being stuck in it. Being rooted in a tradition is what keeps our feet on the ground. But we can also branch out. We branch out because more light is available than can be seen through the prism of our parochialisms. In this way we can cultivate a new and larger spiritual community; one that is rooted in our own tradition but not limited to it. We can move from a parochial understanding of religion to a universal understanding of interspirituality. Brother Wayne lived in the gap.

Interspirituality is based on the realization that the truth is not defined by a few people at the top. Truth, spiritual truth, wells up from the real lives of real people.

The late Senator Paul Simon used to tell the story about a Special Olympics over which he presided. He told this story many times, and every time he told it he could scarcely finish it because it choked him up so.

In the story, disabled runners assemble at the starting line. The gun sounds and the racers sprint. About a third of the way through the race, one of the runners falls. The crowd gasps. With utter spontaneity, the rest of the runners stop in their tracks. They look in horror at the one who had fallen. Then, one by one, of their own accord, they turn around and slowly make their way back to help the fallen runner to his feet. They get him up and the race continues, with all of them running arm in arm to the finish line. They finish the race together. They recognize their inter-connectedness. They are all winners.

We all fall. We all suffer. But we are called by the Spirit to move beyond our suffering to join hands and help each other to the finish line. To move beyond religious tribalism to the interspiritual city of God requires an understanding of what it means to be religious at a deeper level.

Let your heart be your Pope.

Mahtama Gandhi said, “You must watch my life. How I live, eat, sit, talk, and behave in general. The sum total of all those in me is my real religion.”

Real religion is not hierarchical or doctrinal, it’s relational.

I hold nothing but deep respect for my Catholic friends who have a love/hate relationship with their church. I also have a love/hate relationship with my denomination, the American Baptist Churches USA. While I have grown up in this denomination, its theology is too narrow for me and its worldview too small.

A continuing lesson of life is that nothing is perfect and relationships are complicated.

Sometimes the best thing to do is hold hands.

It’s mid-February, a few days after the sacred feast of Saint Valentine, which perhaps we don’t fully recognize the import of, being confused about love, or Love, as we sometimes are.  It is raining in Northern California, at long last, an ebbing of the drought of the past three years, we hope.  I know the rest of the country has had the winter of no return, but spring, inevitably, thankfully, and providentially, is right around the corner.  Six weeks from now, there will be crocii in the Great Plains.

I have been given some showings of late, glimmerings of the divine, and, as almost always, they have been manifest in the most mundane if sometimes quite remarkable of human events and in the persons of other human beings.

For instance: The divine has chosen to show the divine self in a television series!  Who knew.  Last summer my friends Art and Jo said: “You have to get Friday Night Lights, the television show, not the movie.”  I knew it was about football, and a high school in Texas, and I was unmoved.  Not so unusual how wrong I was.  Scott and I have gone through the illuminating first season, and are anticipating the second.  It is a revelation, really.  The characters, to a person, hold the deepest aspects of humanity, both our grand and our shadowed parts.  The teenagers are emblems of authenticity, as teenagers always are, even in their emotional, sexual, and familial chaos.  The adults are, well, adults.  Some are dolts, some are developmentally regressed, some heroic, some holy.  All humbly human. All trying to find out about love.  The show captures the daily-ness of living an imperfectly honest life in the grit of contemporary American society.  I’d go so far as to say you’ll love it.

For instance:  At Christmas, my brother John and his wife Sonya gave us a three-disc set of audio recordings from Kevin Kling.  I opened the gift and my Enneagram One persona immediately thinks: “I don’t listen to audio tapes”.  Not so unusual how wrong I was.    Having never even heard of Mr. Kling, these tapes have made present another showing of the divine.  Kling, an evidently well-known storyteller of immense personal gifts, shares the most mundane aspects of being a human being.  His Minnesota voice makes Frances McDormand’s in Fargo sound sophisticated.  He sneaks in the presence of God obliquely and regularly.  He has an unusual disability he regards as a grace, and lives life with unusual rigor and absolutely no judgment.  Clearly not an Enneagram One.  Who knew the divine has such facility with current technologies, both DVD’s and audio tapes?  What’s next for a graced invasion, Facebook?

For instance:  There is currently a retrospective at the Art Museum at Boston College of the work of Georges Rouault, who made such an impression on me as a young Jesuit 35 years ago with his impasto evocations of Jesus, particularly Head of Christ and Ecce Homo.  Both are akin to his celebrated clownish figures, and appropriately so.  Rouault had fallen out of favor, as has my other early favorite, Marc Chagall, as art has moved into regions that do not tread near the divine, either in representation nor essence.  But he is still accessible (again, blessed technology) online.   I read about this show in a moving article in the current The New Republic, in a piece on the subtle re-emergence of the religious in art.  If you’re surfing, go to the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem’s web site and allow yourself to behold Chagall’s Jerusalem Windows.  Magnificent.   And find Ecce Homo.  Beyond magnificent.  Painted love.

For instance:  I recently submitted an on-air editorial to the local public radio station, where I have several times offered my opinions on topical issues.  I thought I had written a pretty smart piece, a defense of gay marriage, in light of the upcoming arguments before the California Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of the recently passed and very painful and ultimately unjust Proposition 8.  The editor, for whom I have a lot of respect, returned the editorial with several searching questions for me.  The gist of his comments: you are better than this.  He didn’t mean my style or prose.  I had railed against my opponents, cogently I thought, in essence calling them bigots. But I offered, really, little more.  In getting Mark’s response, I felt chastised.  And appropriately so.  I had not gone a nano-inch toward them, and completely left out the call I, we, have been given, to love our enemies.  I am re-thinking how I might do that.  Not re-writing the editorial, but, really, learning to love my enemies, perhaps by seeing in my self that which I find so hard to accept in them.  And it’s in there, rest assured.  A glimmering.

For instance:  Last week I went into Sawyers, the local card and news shop to get a Valentine for my One True.  While there, I found a card that brought to mind a friendship of mine, and I pulled that card into my stack.  A few minutes later, I delivered it back to its appropriate slot.  I thought: You can’t be saying I love you like that.  I made my smaller purchase and left the store.  Fast forward to Valentine’s Day.  That morning Dear Abby, one smart woman, printed a letter from a guy who was lamenting the fact that in grammar school all kids sent Valentines to all kids,  boys to boys, boys to girls, girls to girls and girls to boys. He had, as an adult, difficulty in finding the same courage to do the same now, though he wanted to.  I suspect he meant the boy-to-boy part, but who knows.  Later that day, I emailed my friend a lame but sincere Valentine’s note.  He graciously accepted it and returned the same.  I’m only 60, still learning to trust the stirrings to share my love.  The divine is still working with this one, thank you very much.

For instance:  The aforementioned on-air editorial was aimed at Mormons, or, I should say, my Mormon brothers and sisters.  I have a hard time with them.  And they with me, no doubt.  But who should I be reading currently but Terry Tempest Williams, another of the many avatars the divine embodies, a woman who has touched me for many years now with her gracious and trenchant writing. And, lo, she is a Mormon!  Go figure.  Williams has written her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, in three parts, which best be imagined as three trays stacked on top of one another.  Part One: she observes the beautiful and ancient mosaic work in the churches and convents of Ravenna, where mosaic is still created in the manner of the 9th century, CE.  She proceeds to learn this intricate and rough art, and in doing so weaves many strands into her emerging tale.   Part Two: the demise of the once vast and highly intricate and communicative prairie dog villages in the West, particularly near her home in Moab, Utah.  She knows her prairie dogs, and their essential role in the ecological conundrum we face, and she charts their demise, and perhaps ours, as development encroaches.  Part Three: she travels to Rwanda to help create a monument in a small city to the vast numbers of its denizens who lost their lives, often deceptively sheltered in churches, in the butcherings of 1994.  Her account, even if you have read others, is profoundly moving, as the spiritual, psychological and physical devastation continues to haunt the women and men of that tiny and unaccountably maimed nation.  And beyond.  She weaves these three parts together, or, the reader does with her, to create a vision and a whole of what we humans are about, and are called to, and must finally be.  A Mormon, my teacher.  Glimmerings.

Finally, for instance:  We traveled to Washington in January for the inauguration of the new president. We walked the streets of the District for four days, and I found myself mostly in tears.  Kinda non-stop.  Kinda no matter what of the innumerable moving vistas and vignettes I was witnessing.  The air was thick with emotion and historically-laden expectation.  But it was, I believe, most thick with forgiveness.  For what?  For everything.  For the racial divide, for all the minute separations we suffer, for the vagaries of justice, for the incivilities in which we partake, for the lack of magnanimous hearts we display on any given day, for, as the Irish say, for the all of it. I got the sense once again that there is this universal desire to be our best selves, our most generous selves, our most divinely-touched selves.   But as the weak human beings we are, we need to be again and perhaps daily shown how, reminded , mirrored, again, invited, somehow, to be our true selves.  To send metaphorical Valentine’s to everybody that say: There can never be too many I love you’s.    Below all of what we think we see going on is, I get, a vast and intricate network of energies, yes, graces, yes, showings, that are conspiring with our less-than-conscious selves to open us up and heal all of our wounds and heal each other and heal this wounded planet.  Glimmerings of the divine are everywhere.

So finally: As I finish this piece, the rain has abated some, but promises to return later this afternoon.  Nonetheless, shards of light crack through, are always cracking through, always saving us from ourselves, always giving us to each other.  And always returning us to the divine source from whence we came.

Happy belated Saint Valentine’s Day.

When I met Nishiyama San two years ago, we both were nervous. He had come to brief me and get briefed about interviews we would be doing together the next day, talks with eighty-year-olds in Totsukawa, one of Japan’s deepest mountain villages. His worries had to do with me: whether my questions would be appropriate, how good my Japanese was. Mine were similar: whether I could communicate well enough with him (and the interviewees) to learn what I wanted to know, whether I would commit some behavioral blunder.

We sat there on the floor, at the low table of my hot springs inn room, sipping tea, sizing each other up, planning questions and schedules. Within minutes, my anxiety was gone. Nishiyama San had a presence, some inexpressible, vibrant depth. We connected. Two years later, he remains with me–both that connection and the things he taught me–even though we no longer talk.

The interviews were even better than I’d hoped. These old people talked about childhood in the valleys–treks to the mountain shrine, trapping rabbits for food, playing with home-made toys, fearing the school teacher’s ruler, shivering around the lone wood stove in the winter. But the talks with Nishiyama San were even better. They spoke to my soul.

He told me his story as we drove, and as we ate at a village café. He’d once been a Christian, living in Hollywood, hoping to make it in a rock band, falling in love with a French woman, witnessing forcefully for Jesus. Now he was a Shinto priest, on the clergy staff at Tamaki Shrine atop a 3,500-foot mountain in the heart of the Totsukawa region. And he was not, he told me, religious, not a man of faith.

Ittai! What did that mean? A priest but not religious? Without faith?

His explanation was as tranquil and reasoned as his face. He had become a priest so that he could be affiliated with the shrine. He was at the shrine because the spirits of the Totsukawa mountains spoke to him. He revered them; he felt gratitude to them; he felt one with them He didn’t question their existence; they were just there. At the shrine, he could chant and meditate two or three hours a day, expressing his gratitude, feeling their vibrance.

The spirits here spoke to me too. How could they not? My journal from the bus ride into the area brims with wonder: “Variegated greens on the spring mountainsides: absolutely alive”; “the road is winding, often too narrow for two vehicles to pass, so we stop and start”; “the slopes go up sharply, giving me a sense of being enfolded warmly by the mountain itself;” “we went through 24 tunnels.” (I’m a counter.)

And when I got to my inn: “the water is cobalt blue, pristine”; “the inn bath is all spring water; it never stops running; you’re welcome to take a bath at any time (I took five.).”

On the narrow hiking paths too: the mountain went straight up to my right, straight down to my left. Bushes and animal tracks and shrubs and wild flowers and a vibrant, energizing stillness: they wrapped me in something deep, something big, something more solid than I knew how to articulate. A spirit? A presence? An energy? I felt wholly alive.

The octogenarians I interviewed spoke the same language. Everyone described the shrine festivals as the best memory of all. “We’d walk to the top of the mountain,” said a retired teacher. “There would be 500 or 600 people at the shrine. We’d eat box lunches, snack on fish, drink saké, dance, then walk home in the dark.” Another told me his favorite was the mochi (glutten rice) balls: “The shrine workers would toss them; we’d catch them and eat.” Their faces shone as they discussed the conviviality, the incense, the chanting, the at-oneness with each other, and with the moment.

I have no theories to explain what I found in Totsukawa, either in the lush, steep mountains and cobalt rivers or in Nishyama’s explanations of a life that made him vital: as energetic as he was tranquil.

I don’t need theories.

I simply know that there was a presence there, a presence that left me feeling wholly connected. A presence that will not leave me.

True confession: My problem with Rick Warren delivering the invocation was not only about his misguided position on lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people.  His overarching theological perspective also makes me cringe.  He began his invocation with the words, “Almighty God our father” and concluded with the first sentence of the Christian “Lord’s Prayer”, “Our Father Who Art in heaven.”  Unlike the non-dogmatic and globally oriented benediction of Dr. Joseph Lowery, Rick Warren prayed to an exclusively Christian God.  And in so doing, Rick Warren put the image of God the father front and center.

Typically, evangelical Christians begin their prayers with “Father God”—and that’s fine.

But it also occurs to me that I have never heard a conservative Christian begin a prayer with, “Mother God.”

The way we speak about the unspeakable reality of “God” reveals a great deal about how we understand God but also our life together.

In the book of Genesis there are two creation myths. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the second one. The first creation narrative, found in Genesis, chapter 1, begins with these words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved over the waters.”

The Genesis creation narrative came into being around 600 BCE, when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. While in captivity they were exposed to the Babylonian creation myth involving the young god Marduk and an older goddess Tiamat. There was a cosmic battle between the two of them. The story tells us:

Tiamat and Marduk advanced against one another. When Tiamat opened her mouth to devour him, he drove in the evil wind in order that she should not be able to close her lips. Her belly became distended and she opened wide her mouth. He shot off an arrow and tore her interior; it cut through her inward parts, it split her heart. When he had subdued her, he destroyed her life. He cast down her carcass and stood upon it.

In this Babylonian myth, Tiamat’s carcass is cut asunder and the corpse of the goddess becomes the earth and the firmament of the existing world.

When the Israelites were finally free of Babylonian oppression, there is evidence that they believed that the dead goddess was still underfoot. The story from Genesis says that the Spirit of God moved over “the face of the deep.” In Genesis, the word for “the face of the deep” is tehom, which is derived from the Babylonian word Tiamat.

The firmament, the earth, and the sea are reminiscent of the dead body of the Goddess. Here is a not so subtle implication that mother earth is dead. This also hints at the origin of our current belief that we are somehow separate from the earth and from each other, and speaks to the reasons for the strength and depth of this belief.

Later on in Genesis God says, “Let us make human beings in our own image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over all the earth…be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”

We have mostly taken this to mean that God is the Spirit that moves over the dead earth. The earth is compost and the spirit of the Divine is a separate entity that uses the decay to create life.

In one way this is a hopeful story. The Spirit creates life from death.

The problem is it also implies that God is separate from the earth. It intimates that God subdues and dominates the earth. It suggests that human beings are created in the image of the Divine and are therefore separate from the earth, with the right to subdue and dominate it. Ancient myths have a way of lodging deeply in the collective psyche and providing subtle rationale for treating the earth as an object to be dominated and exploited. As such, this story/myth contains the root of the beliefs that allow us to propagate and propitiate the behaviors that feed our current ecological crisis.

This is why Rick Warren’s inaugural prayer to the ‘God the father’ made me wince.

Thankfully, we are beginning to wake up and see the earth with new eyes. We are waking up because our experience of the life we share on this earth is changing. Other unfamiliar ancient myths are being discovered and recreated in new forms, such as the Gaia hypothesis, which was developed nearly thirty years ago by British scientist James Lovelock.

Lovelock suggested that the biosphere is not a machine with many parts, but rather a living organism with one mind. Lovelock says that things such as the regulation of salt in the seas and oxygen in the air can only be explained if we consider the earth to be a single living organism.

To pray to God especially in a context of climate change and global awareness brings with it the necessity to choose our images carefully.  Ingrained in our collective unconscious is a patriarchal world view.  It may be true enough that the concepts of male supremacy and male dominance are eschewed in many countries, but the impression of patriarchy lingers in the collective consciousness.

At the heart of the patriarchal value system is the conviction that is morally justifiable for some of us to dominate others of us and therefore for human beings to dominate the earth.

This is why Rick Warren’s prayer to God-as-father fails–it is an exclusive and one-sided metaphor. When praying before the world in a symbolically charged occasion, words need be carefully chosen.The openly Gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson whose invocation opened the “We Are One” inaugural concert gets this.

His prayer began with the words, “O God of our many understandings.”

Divine Presence is there when we gaze out upon a sunset or up at the stars at night.  Each and every life, and all of life pulsates with Divine energy. When I am open to it I see it.  I experience it. I know that I am in it and it is in me.

If we are going to pray to God, for God’s sake and ours, let’s at least choose more than one metaphor.

If the New Year reminds us of anything it is that where we have been may not be anything like where we are headed.  What’s ahead of us may be good or bad—but one thing is clear—we don’t know.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as refugees. But when it comes to events and eventualities we never know what is around the corner.

We think we are living on solid ground then suddenly the ground of our lives quakes—a dear one dies, we lose our job, the mortgage goes into foreclosure, a significant relationship crashes—the diagnosis of a serious illness catapults us into a state of alarm and uncertainty.

New Year’s day reminds us that we are one and all, refugees.  We are all in exile from there to here, from that to this—and just when we think we have finally arrived it’s time to move on again.

New year’s eve and new year’s day form a metaphor for practically every day of our lives.

The raucous and noisy gives way to a quiet dawn of a new day.  When the party is over we are left with ourselves.

What do we do when the party is over, what now?

There is a story about a fifth century monk who felt troubled, distracted and unfulfilled.  So the monk went to the abbot asking for a teaching, asking for advice, hoping to hear a word that would help calm things down and clear things up.  “Please give me a Word,”implored the monk.  “Tell me something that will inspire and motivate me.”  The Abbot said, “Go and sit in silence in your room. The silence will teach you everything.”

There is another story about two Zen monks who one day, were having an argument about a flag hanging from a flag pole.  One said, “The flag is moving.”  The other said, “The wind is moving.”  It just so happened that a great Zen master was walking by and overheard the argument.  Stopping in front of the two monks he said, “Not the wind, not the flag; your minds are moving.”

The mind is always moving.

In our minds there is that endless babble, the ticker tape of restless thoughts.  The mind is always thinking. The mind is always chattering.  But deep within each and every one of us is what is famously called the still, small voice.  We cannot hear this still, small voice unless the chattering mind is hushed.  The practice of silence teaches us how to be quiet within even when the world is bustling without.  In silence we find our way home to the wholeness hidden in the depths of our being.  Learning to sit in prayer, meditation and the presence of each other is an acquired skill, and, like every acquired skill, this requires practice.

Silence the chatter.  Quiet the mind.

Sit down. Shut up.  Touch the vast and spacious interior silence.  In this interior silence we can hear the still small voice.

We are all refugees seeking sanctuary.

Nikos Kazantzakis put it like this: “I have one longing only…to discover behind the visible and unceasing stream of the world an invisible and immutable presence that is hiding…and  what is my duty?…to let the mind fall silent that I may hear the invisible calling.”

We are all refugees seeking sanctuary, and the sanctuary, the sacred and safe spaciousness awaits us within.

Let’s all agree to sit down and shut up for a while each and every day.

In our deep interior silence we drink from a sacred wellspring of peace and serenity.

In touching our interior silence we touch the sacred connection that holds all of life together.

Will you join me there?

The latest events from the Middle East are heartbreaking.

That hundreds of people have died in Gaza as a result of the bombing from the Israeli government is one more dark reminder of the aphorism “non-violence doesn’t always work–but  violence never does.” Do the Israeli powers that be really believe they can create security with massive acts of violence? Can’t the Israeli government see that it engages in the very behavior it abhors?

Likewise, taking over the Gaza government, Hamas has behaved in an abysmal manner. Hamas has behaved violently toward its internal political opponent, Fatah. It is clear that Hamas places a higher priority on remaining in power than protecting the dignity and life of the Palestinian people. It is also clear that Hamas seeks the destruction of Israel. This much is true–Hamas seeks dark power over bright justice.  Hamas does not seek justice for the Palestinian people, only retribution.

The Israeli government plays the same game when it rationalizes the use of violence as an unfortunate but necessary means to protect national security (with apologies for the loss of innocent lives).  The bombing attacks on Gaza are the most recent example.  Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official, said it was the deadliest force ever used in decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. “Since Hamas took over Gaza (in June 2007), it has become a war between two states, and in war between states, more force is used,” he said.

Force must be used, he said.  How many times must the people of the world be on the receiving end of “necessary force”?

Is there another way? Hamas hurls rockets and sends suicide bombers into Israel.  The Israeli government uses deadly force against Gazans.  This cycle of violence is apparently the only definition of force that either side understands.

How about the use of moral force?  It’s true that moral force requires greater courage, tenacity and the willingness to take risks. Take the example of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat who in 1977 took a 28 minute flight to Israel.  Sadat called it a “sacred mission.”  This bold act represented creative use of moral force and it caught everyone off guard. When Sadat said that the “wall created between us and Israel must be knocked down,” this was an act inspired by moral courage.

The world is sorely in need of a Sadat-like initiative based not on military but moral force.

Moral force recognizes that the means and ends cannot be separated.

No one put it better than Martin Luther King who said, “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”

Martin Luther King showed us that the way to peace is through nonviolence, and he reminded us that there is a relationship between means and ends.

Hamas seeks the destruction of Israel, and the Israeli government seeks the destruction of Hamas. Both are blind to the relationship between means and ends.

Where will it end? When will it end?

It will only end when we see that there is something within each human being that connects us to every other human being.

In practical terms there is not much difference between the policies of the Israeli government and Hamas. Truth be told, both fail so see the relationship between ends and means. Both draw their dark energy by feeding on the unhealed wounds of the past.  Both mistake retribution and revenge for justice.

But, as A. J. Muste put it, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

It’s time to disabuse ourselves of the notion that violence will ever lead to peace.  How many examples do we need?

It is time to get rid of the illusion that our world will be a place of peace and security if only we crush our enemies.

It is time to grow up.

Making peace in the world is about all about making peace in our relationships. What we see in the Middle East is a human problem and human problems have human solutions.

Here is one example. The Interfaith Encounter Association in Jerusalem is dedicated to promoting peace in the Middle East through interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural study.  IEA sees differences as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.  The IEA understands the relationship between means and ends.  The IEA understands that the conflict between human beings is a result of being unable to see you in me and me in you. Rather than burning up money in weapons the Israeli government should be pouring money and resources into IEA and other grass roots organizations that have the capacity to actually make a difference. .

It’s true. It takes two to tango.

But how might it change the Israeli/Palestinian dance if the Israeli government were to see the conflict with Palestinians not as an obstacle but an opportunity? What if the Israeli government “bombed” the Palestinian people with understanding, compassion and good will?

What difference would that make? What if the Israeli government differentiated between the notorious actions of Hamas and the rights and dignity of the Palestinian peoples?

If the Israeli government really understood that the life and dignity of its citizens as being inextricably bound to the life and dignity of the Palestinian peoples—would this change anything?

As Martin Luther King put it, “We are all interconnected and interrelated, what effects one of us directly, effects all of us indirectly. We are bound up together in a garment of mutuality.”

Israelis and Palestinians represent different patches in the quilt of our humanity.

Maybe the way to change the outcome is to change the premise.

There will never be peace in the Middle East until and unless we recognize this fundamental human truth.

It’s time both for sides to take the third side and begin bombing each other with understanding, compassion and nonviolence.  This downward spiral is only headed into the abyss.

As Martin Luther King put it,

One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. Therefore I suggest that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict. We keep saying we will get around to doing what needs to be done. We keep thinking that we will get around to it tomorrow. But we are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We still have a chance to choose between chaos and community.

This is always the question:  do we choose chaos or community?

« Previous PageNext Page »