“Call to Prayer” (Frederick Buechner)

“Because the Word that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word – a word spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically, in events, even in the books we read and the movies we see – the chances are we will never get it just right.

We are so used to hearing what we want to hear and remaining deaf to what it would be well for us to hear that it is hard to break the habit. But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear [God], he is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, his word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling.

In that sense autobiography becomes a way of praying, and a book like this, if it matters at all, matters mostly as a call to prayer.”

– Originally published in Now and Then

No God in Church (revised)

Author’s Warning: the following diatribe may step on your toes, anger you, disgust you, challenge you, or cause you to judge me, lose respect for me, make you give off a sigh of relief…or you may merely shrug your shoulders and say ‘big deal, get original.”  

Here is my starting point: we do not find God in church.

Before anyone starts sifting through stones to see which ones is best for casting, pause and permit me a moment to expound on what I see as the truth that we do not find God in church.

For you see, I believe, it is the other way around.  We ‘find’ God (a misnomer) and out of that flows a living community incarnation called church.  For no “model” of church will produce God or God’s life in us.  It is in fact our life in God – our shared life in and through Jesus – that becomes the building blocks of the expression called ‘church.’

Because we have gotten it backwards (thinking we find God in church) has led us to become dependent, or codependent, upon church – both the building and the denominations – as well as church leaders for ‘creating’ God’s life in us.  We have done this so much so that we become passive in our own spiritual growth.  When we rely upon others to “impart” God’s life to us, we become spiritually lazy; veritable spiritual coach potatoes.

We not only end up waiting for others to show us how to grow spiritually but we even begin expecting others to do the work for us (as if spiritual growth can be imparted magically with no effort or desire on our part).  And to top it off, we then end up complaining about the lack of “fruit” or growth and as a result of our spiritual passivity we then tend to give up on the most important relationship we will ever have in our lives – the one we have with God.

It is vital that we become active in our spiritual journeys; we must hunger for Jesus and desire to experience what it means to live deeply in God and to follow and imitate Jesus (the word “Christian” means “little Messiah”).   And the great work that we do is the mere desire; for grace comes and draws us closer to the One Who is closer than our own skin.

I can tell you about my experience of God, but I cannot impart my experience of God into you; you have to have your own experience of God.  Others can offer guidance, but the truth be told, there should be 8 billion spiritual experiences happening, namely each and every person in the world must have their own personal (and therefore unique) experience with God.

In our modern age, it seems everything has become too easy, too fast to obtain that we have surrendered the daily, lifelong journey of a life with God.  We have settled.  We have settled when we allow our relationship with God to become an historical event instead of what it has always been meant to be – what Jesus showed us it could be – a dynamic, living, breathing, loving, bare bones to the wall, intimacy with God!

And this relationship is about God sorting things out within us.  God transforms us and by God’s grace and doing (not ours), we learn to live contentedly in God’s love and Providence instead of in the realm of worry, hurry, and religious structures.  But to have this life, to be this type of people, we must each and every one of us be friends with God.  Reading spiritual giants, reading about spiritual giants is all good, but at the end of the day, I am held accountable for my own spiritual growth.

I must actually have a relationship with Jesus rather than merely talking about having one.

Paradoxically, I cannot do this alone, but I do this within myself.  Community of some sort nurtures our connections to God, but we must in some form of solitude come face to face with God Who is the Ground of All Being (see Paul Tillich).  And rest assured, God longs to have this dynamic intimacy with each of us.  God pines for you and me more than we desire God.

So hold on to this Truth: God starts it; God sustains it; God waters it; God nurtures it; and God completes it.  Our role is to “show up” and surrender to this Living God of love.

Here come some toes stomping: forget the rules, the rigidity, the exclusiveness, the holy rollers club techniques, the loopholes that allow the church to reject me because I’m a democrat, a republican, an anarchist, gay, black, white, yellow, red, brown, poor, rich, a dope fiend or a drunk, all tatted up or whatever.

Jesus longs for you, as you are, where you are.  And it is up to God to do the transforming, not me.  If we seek Jesus we will be rewarded with an intimacy that is beyond comprehension, beyond words, beyond being.  But for this kind of intimacy, there is one basic “requirement” – we must surrender to God, plain and simple.

And as we surrender (daily, if you are me), we learn to depend upon the power of God’s in all things and for all things.  And as we do this we gradually learn and discover the fullness of life – the fullness of God’s life – within us.  I believe that when Jesus said that he came to bring life and to bring it abundantly, that is what this aspect of life first and foremost that he was talking about (see Gospel of John 10:9-11).

This abundance of God’s life, both in and through us, is not based on circumstances.  For circumstances do not make or break us, they merely reveal us.  And in this ‘revelation’, God reveals more and more of the divine life to us, and the more God reveals to us, the more we grow in love with and become more like Jesus.

This reality – this dynamic of all of us experiencing God and having Christ’s life in us – leads us to experience called “church.” And rather than trying to figure out how to “do” church, force community to happen, or even worse creating a place where a false sense of community and conformity is commonplace, something else happens – we begin to focus on God’s love and what Jesus is doing inside each of us and through this, we learn to be with each other in God’s love and from this comes authentic community – a living church.

God is the God of community.  Some examples include the Trinity (God in relationship with God’s own self), the ancient Hebrews who were brought together by YAHWEH – which literally means I AM WHO I AM – and were made into a people by this I AM and of the I AM; and then there are the apostles, the disciples, and the early church.  All these forms of community, of “church”, flowed from people being called into deep, intimate relationship with God and concurrently with each other.

The paradox here is that we must have our own intimate encounter with God, but what authenticates it is our connection to and relationship with others.

“Church” is our experience of God and God’s love flowing freely into us, through us, and out of us through Jesus – and towards a wounded world in desperate need of God’s grace.

The world does not need the experiment called “church” that is about being rudely right, or smug or pious or having a holier-than-thou attitude that has become so symbolic of the frozen chosen lost in a holy huddle – that is not what Church is supposed to be.  Church is meant to be a symbol of our collective experience of God and the unconditional love found in Jesus.  Without God’s life in us, in each of us, our expressions of church can become administratively-based religious country clubs, where the broken, hurting, and addicted are excluded from membership.  Without authentic intimacy with God, church becomes a place of self-righteous ethics dictated by appearances rather based on the crazy love of God.

We sometimes forget the very people that hung out with Jesus when he walked the earth would nowadays be frowned upon and judged right out of our congregations.  And lest we forget, Jesus – the man who said if you have seen me, you have seen God – hung out with the whores, the traitorious, the forgotten, the poor, the unclean and the ostracized, and the unholy not the righteous.  The only occurrences we know of Jesus ever judging anyone is when he was confronted by the pious hypocrites of his day, those who thought they held the keys to the rule and reign of God’s love and grace.

God’s life in us – coming from our intimacy and friendship with Jesus – will by default pour into us the very nature and love of this God Whose love is relentless and Whose mercies are never-ending.  As we become a people filled with this God, we are bound to imitate the lives of the early followers of Jesus: turning the world upside-down with divine love.

Now that is Church.

When we are with God, allowing the Spirit to change and mold us like the Master Potter, we are transformed.  And when we share what God is doing inside of us – instead of focusing on what we think others “should” be doing – God uses that to draw us all together, to grow the circle of a place called “Church.”

When God is Useless…

“At times like these God is useless…”

Minister at a Service in NYC held the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.

That statement may seem harsh, caustic, even a proclamation that God is dead.  But that is far from the truth.  It speaks to a rawness of truth that people who have been through tragedy can relate to, and often need to hear.  One of the biggest problems of living a life of faith is the images of God we create for ourselves.  You see I have discovered that most people believe in a God who has an “ego” – because only a God with an ego would get “mad” or seek revenge or have his feelings hurt of I spoke some personal truth in anger towards him.  I have actually had people judge me and tell me I have lost faith all because I tell them that when I pray I sometimes cuss, that I rage at God when I pray because that is who I am; I am being true to the man God made, and yet somehow I am supposed to NOT be human towards God?

Let me state this to people as simple as I can, this thing that transformed my relationship with God making it more real and authentic then at any time in my life is this change within me: I came to believe and know that God does not have an Ego.

Ego is defined as a “person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.”  In psychoanalysis, ego has to do with the role the “mind” plays in mediating between the conscious and unconscious mind.

See where I am going with this?

God does not need to have a “sense of self importance” for God is self-contained (so to speak).  God does not need me to placate his feelings with trite remarks of praise.  God does not need anything from me, at all.  Nada.  God does not have a Mind that needs a mediating element.  God does not need a mind.  God just is.  God is the all that is and that is all.

And because I now live my life from the particular space/place that God has no ego, I can freely state such things like God is useless sometimes and it is not heresy.  In fact, it is particularly freeing and relevant.

Freeing because there is nothing more dangerous and powerful than a person who has been released to love and be with a God Who is so freeing and relevant because in the last few days I have had conversations with 2 different people – one whose sister died in a car accident a year ago and the other a young father whose infant daughter had died three months ago – where not only did I feel inadequate, but God seemed so useless as a source or presence of comfort.  And know that all I wanted to be was some symbol of God’s presence and comfort in the midst of the unexplainable rawness of our joint humanity.

Much has been written about God, suffering, life, etc., and because I am feeling so spiritually bankrupt (more like overdrawn on the spiritual bank account), I’m throwing my truncated two cents.

If there is anything I have learned in my struggles – which include the death of my both my parents (Dad when I was a teenager, Mom as I entered my forties), the death of my son in childbirth, the death of grandparents, an aunt, a brother, and the numerous deaths of friends to addiction and mental illness, and even in my own personal darkness – is that God can’t be made a scapegoat.

Frederick Buechner said “God cannot make [tragedies] unhappen any more than we can use a floodlight to put out a fire.”

If I blame God for all tragedy, then in my scapegoating of God I remove free will and the grand mystery of it all and I end up hating God.  Some Christians talk about the permissive will of God as a way of explaining away tragedy and evil (i.e., God ‘allowed’ this to happen for some lesson to learn (which is a bullshit excuse, by the way).

Here are some squirmingly uncomfortable realities: EVERYTHING that happens falls under the will of God (if it does not then God is no longer omnipotent or omniscient); not everything has an explanation or a “purpose”; and some things in life will forever remain a Mystery and our job is not to solve the Mystery, but to live it.

God is always being blamed for all sorts of human tragedies and errors, while simultaneously we remove all elements of human error and the laws of nature as well as the reality that we humans create much of the variables that lead to tragedy and I refer back to the aforementioned reality of Mystery.

So when I echo the sentiments of the pastor from the post 9/11 service – that in times of suffering and death and pain, God can indeed be useless – I am not saying God is not a present reality.  What I am saying is that it is a futile exercise to expect God to give us pat answers or solutions when tragedy occurs; that is putting ego into the equation.

I can hope for God’s presence, but in the brutal rawness of misery and tragedy, my senses tend to be numb and blind to any divine presence.  I become lost in my own emotions, swirling and swimming, drowning me.  What I can say is that in all the tragedy I have experienced, God is present more so in the pain than in any so-called answer given to me by well meaning people.

So I try and remind myself when pain comes, and come it will, when suffering overwhelms my world, and I grasp and grope for God, for answers, hell, when I am grasping for anything to make sense of the pain, I will remind myself that although God is useless, God is still present.

 

Revised Musing on God: Evolution & Revolution

“It is good and right that our own understanding of God and God’s purposes should change and develop.”  Geoffrey Tristram, Anglican monk

“[All of] life is engulfed in God and God can reach out to us anywhere at any level.” – Evelyn Underhill

I firmly believe that God appears to us as we see God; if we see God as Love then so God appears. If we see God as angry, so too will God appear.  If all I see is an angry God in Scriptures, then so shall God be.  If I see God as Love, then too shall God be.  In truth, each of us holds the power of perception over how God comes to us.  Maybe all that needs to happen is the slight transformation of how we see God in order to become more open to real grace and to grow closer to God as God Is (and not as I see God).

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Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong said that “imagining God as a “being” with primarily anthropomorphic constructs is an immature way of imagining God.”  I could not agree more.   The late theologian Paul Tillich nailed it on the head when he spoke of God not as “a being,” but rather as the “Ground of all Being.”

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My spiritual task is to “discover the Infinite in the finite.”   My passion, my hunger and my search in life is for oneness with God, not some fairy-tale, mythological/magical intervention by God.

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As I watch and study Christians from all walks of life and from every construct (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) I am coming to believe that the greatest enemy of (our) faith in God is not doubt, but certainty.  By its very nature, certainty blocks the child-like nature needed to see and experience God unfettered, without constraint.    ‘Certainty’ assumes a perspective that can become myopically idolatrous – the belief that my beliefs are the Truth (rather than my experience of truth) and that there is no need or room for the evolution of beliefs.

Our Scriptures are thousands of years old, our creeds are more than 1500 years old and our liturgies are about 500 years old and our Christian faith has evolved almost nil.  Every single facet and paradigm of human existence has evolved and changed in some capacity or another in that time period: science; technology; medicine; politics; education; economies; philosophies.  But NOT so much in the Christian faith.

I wonder why that is…

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In the early years of Christianity, the common hallmarks of those who followed Jesus (and and who were called people of the Way long before they were called Christians – which means by the way, “little Christ/little Messiah”) included their immense and passionate care and love of each other, their enemies and the poor, the widows and orphans; they were also known for not serving in the military and for burying not on their own dead but the dead of the ‘pagans’ as well (not only a gracious thing to do but a HUGE public health positive that helped stop the spread of disease).  You can study the manuscripts of non-Christian historians and writers and even they wrote of this as a “marvel to behold.”

Now if I run that by what Christians are known for today (at least the ones we see on the news and on political talk shows and read about in the news) : almost violent and all consuming in their being against abortion; hating gays, lesbians and all who are different; cutting social welfare programs and healthcare; hating all Muslims; protecting the 2nd Amendment at all costs; anti-immigration nationalism; and a stark aloofness towards climate change and protecting and preserving God’s creation.

As the old 1990s song says: “things that make you go, ‘hmmmm.’”

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God may be never changing, but I must…change.  I must allow God to ‘evolve’ me with a revolution of the heart – a revolution of radical love that alters my own agenda, placing it at the service of loving neighbor, showing mercy, doing justice, and practicing kindness regardless of my religion or denomination or political slant.

In the end, I pray for God to evolve me into someone who imitates God and that, my friends, would indeed be a Revolution!

“God’s Invitation” (Ruth Halvorson)

“God invites us, perhaps even challenges us, to become co-creators and co-collaborators in birthing fledgling dreams and in encouraging fragile seeds that have lain dormant within us.  When I finally acknowledged, honored and acted upon this truth that I perceived within, I experienced God’s presence as never before!   With this acknowledgement I began to recover a greater acceptance of myself and also deeper relationships with God and the rest of God’s world – relationships which are all interconnected.

As I became more aware of the presence of God in my life, I also became more attentive to the deeper promptings and leadings within my own being and began to look more honestly and objectively at my own gifts and resources.” (Introduction, p. i)

“To step out in faith is to experience risk and uncertainty, but it is also to experience God’s loving embrace and continued steadfastness.”  (p. iii)

By Ruth Halvorson, founder of ARC Retreat Center and quoted in Action Reflection Celebration: the ARC story

“Turned Upside Down” (Fr. Thomas Keating)

“The Divine action may turn our lives upside down; it may call us into various forms of service.  Readiness for any eventuality is the attitude of one who has entered into the freedom of the Gospel.  Commitment to the new world that Christ is creating requires flexibility and detachment: the readiness to go anywhere or nowhere, to live or to die, to rest or to work, to be sick or to be well, to take up one service and to put down another.

Everything is important when one is opening to Christ-consciousness.  This awareness transforms our worldly concepts of security into security of accepting, for love of God, an unknown future.

“The love of God will take care of the rest of the journey … ”

Fr. Thomas Keating