The “Givenness of God”

February 19th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

To Jesus, God was Creator of life and the living substance, the Living Stream upon which all things moved, the Mind containing time, space, and all their multitudinous offspring. And beyond all these, He was Friend and Father. —Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit

The work of theologian Howard Thurman was heavily influenced by his own mystical experiences. From a very young age, he felt God’s real and loving presence, whether he was on the water, in the garden, or looking up at the night sky. He knew he lived in a safe and sacred universe and this Big-T Truth became the foundation of all of his teaching. Like Jesus, the mystics, and all great teachers, Thurman takes what is personal and makes it universal. Walter Brueggemann calls this “the scandal of particularity.” [1] We “get it” in one ordinary, concrete moment and wrestle and fall in love with it there. It’s a scandal precisely because it’s so ordinary. What is true in one place finally ends up being true everywhere. In this passage, Thurman applies this youthful lesson to prayer:

One night I was awakened by my mother, who asked if I would like to see the comet [Halley’s Comet]. I got up, dressed quickly, and went out with her into the back yard. There I saw in the heavens the awesome tail of the comet and stood transfixed. With deep anxiety I asked, without taking my eyes off it, “What will happen to us when that thing falls out of the sky?” There was a long silence during which I felt the gentle pressure of her fingers on my shoulders; then I looked into her face and saw what I had seen on another occasion, when without knocking I had rushed into her room and found her in prayer. At last she said, “Nothing will happen to us, Howard. God will take care of us.” In that moment something was touched and kindled in me, a quiet reassurance that has never quite deserted me. As I look back on it, what I sensed then was the fact that what stirred in me was one with what created and controlled the comet. It was this inarticulate awareness that silenced my fear and stilled my panic.

Here at once is the primary ground and basis of people’s experience of prayer. I am calling it, for the purpose of this discussion, the “givenness of God” as expressed in the hunger of the heart. This is native to personality, and when it becomes part of a person’s conscious focus it is prayer at its best and highest. It is the movement of the heart of a person toward God; a movement that in a sense is within God—God in the heart sharing its life with God the Creator of all Life. The hunger itself is God, calling to God.

The Reciprocity of the Universe

February 18th, 2021 by Dave No comments »

The bloodline of God is connected to everything . . . shells on the ocean shore, the mushrooms growing in the forest, the trees stretching to the clouds, the tiniest speck of snow in the winter, and our dust-to-dustness—we are all connected and tethered to this sacred gift of creation. —Kaitlin B. Curtice, Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God

In cultures that have kept alive the knowledge that we are all one, woven in the same fabric of life (what I referred to earlier this week as “the Great Chain of Being”), people honor the reciprocity of the universe through ritual and tradition. Botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer elaborates on this teaching:

The ceremonial giveaway is an echo of our oldest teachings.

Generosity is simultaneously a moral and a material imperative, especially among people who live close to the land and know its waves of plenty and scarcity. Where the well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all. Wealth among traditional people is measured by having enough to give away. Hoarding the gift, we become constipated with wealth, bloated with possessions, too heavy to join the dance. . . .

I don’t know the origin of the giveaway, but I think that we learned it from watching the plants, especially the berries who offer up their gifts all wrapped in red and blue. We may forget the teacher, but our language remembers: our word for the giveaway, minidewak, means “they give from the heart.” At the word’s center lives the word min. Min is a root word for gift, but it is also the word for berry. In the poetry of our language, might speaking of minidewak remind us to be as the berries?

The berries are always present at our ceremonies. They join us in a wooden bowl. One big bowl and one big spoon, which are passed around the circle, so that each person can taste the sweetness, remember the gifts, and say thank you. . . . The generosity of the earth is not an invitation to take it all. Every bowl has a bottom. When it’s empty, it’s empty. . . .

How do we refill the empty bowl? Is gratitude alone enough? Berries teach us otherwise. . . . The berries trust that we will uphold our end of the bargain and disperse their seeds to new places to grow. . . . They remind us that all flourishing is mutual. We need the berries and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect. We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us. And so the empty bowl is filled. . . .

The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue. . . . Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world.


A Cosmology of Connection

February 17th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

Christians often use the season of Lent (which begins today), the six and a half weeks preceding Easter, to reconnect with God and the fullness of our own humanity—the good and the bad—in some intentional way. The act doesn’t need to be sacrificial or impressive, but I’ve found that some form of contemplative practice, reflection, or commitment is a wonderful way to draw closer to God during this time. The world insists that we are what we do and achieve, but contemplation invites us to practice under-doing and under-achieving, and reminds us of the simple grace and humility of being human. I offer you this description from Barbara Holmes about her own nature-based contemplative practice.  

One of the ways I practice contemplation in my life is through fishing. It’s the space and the place where I find a real connection through the ocean, the waves, the sound of the water, the birds diving, and the struggle with the adversary, which is the fish. Now, normally we throw them back, but on occasion we bless them for giving us nurture and nourishment and we keep them.

I fish with my husband George. Because I am one of the Gullah [1] women who is a shaman in my family, I am really open. So I don’t look at a lot of violent movies and I don’t like to kill things and I can’t put live bait on. And I can’t take hooks out of fish that are wishing they could live. All of those sensitivities make this a practice that I need a partner for. And my husband George loves to be in support of it, so we don’t talk a lot. We commune, we listen to music sometimes, other times not. But it’s being in the cycle of life and enjoying that struggle. And enjoying giving life back and releasing some. And realizing that this is the dream that I asked God for long ago. And so God’s grace for me has been that my husband and I live out a dream I’ve had since I was a child, to breathe salt air, and to just learn how to be. 

My parents had to struggle. Suddenly Martin Luther King had opened a way. And the cheer and the rallying cry behind us was “Go as far as you can go. Go as fast as you can go. Get as many degrees as you can. You now have a chance to be somebody!” And I ran at it as hard as I could and I got as many degrees as I could, and three or four careers. But to just be is such a blessing! 

I suppose the equivalent of Barbara’s fishing in my life would be walking my dog. It really can be a contemplative practice where I engage with God, with nature, and with my own beloved friend, Opie. I’m not really doing anything. I’m just being me and being in love with the world.

The Great Chain of Being

February 16th, 2021 by Dave No comments »

Francis would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of “brother” or “sister,” because he knew they shared with him the same beginning.
—Bonaventure, The Life of Blessed Francis 

I would like to reclaim an ancient, evolving, and very Franciscan metaphor: the Great Chain of Being. This image helps us rightly name the nature of the universe, God, and the self, and to direct our future thinking.

Scholastic theologians tried to communicate a linked and coherent world through this image. The essential and unbreakable links in the chain include the Divine Creator, the angelic heaven, the human, the animal, the world of vegetation, all water, and planet Earth itself with its minerals. In themselves, and in their union together, they proclaim the glory of God (please read Psalm 104 and Daniel 3:51-90, which make this explicit) and the inherent dignity of all things. This became the basis for calling anything and everything sacred. 

What some now call creation spirituality, deep ecology, or holistic gospel actually found a much earlier voice in the spirituality of the ancient Celts, the Rhineland mystics, and, most especially, Saints Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) and Bonaventure (1217–1274). Women like Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) communicated it through music, art, poetry, and community life itself.

The Great Chain of Being of the early Middle Ages was a positive intellectual vision not defined by being against another or having enemies, but by the clarity and beauty of form.It was a cosmic egg of meaning, a vision of Creator and a multitude of creatures that excluded nothing. The Great Chain of Being was the first holistic metaphor for the new seeing offered us by the Incarnation: Jesus as the living icon of integration, “the coincidence of opposites” who “holds all things in unity” within himself (Colossians 1:15–20). God is One. Each one of us is a reflecting mirror of that wholeness and so is everything else. Science now has at least a couple of words that try to describe the same in the whole universe: holons and fractals.

Sadly, we seldom saw the Catholic synthesis move beyond philosophers’ books and mystics’ prayers. The rest of us Catholics often remained in a fragmented and dualistic world. We have been unwilling to see the Divine Image in those we judge to be inferior or unworthy: sinners, heretics, animals, things growing from Earth, and the Earth itself. Once the Great Chain of Being was broken, we were soon unable to see the Divine Image in our own species, except for people just like us. Then it was only a short time before the Enlightenment and modern secularism denied the whole heavenly sphere—a denial unknown in any culture except the recent West—which finally led to a denial of Divinity itself. The chain fell apart.

New Language for a New Story

February 15th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

The Spirit whispers,
the ancestors agree.
You are star born
and God loved;
The universe awaits
your gifts. —Barbara Holmes, Race and the Cosmos
The addition of Barbara Holmes to the CAC’s Living School has been a gift, with her wonderful teachings on the origins of the universe and what they have to teach us about our future. In this passage from a lecture given at the Living School in 2019, Barbara shares the internal shift that led her to write her book Race and the Cosmos:
Writing Race and the Cosmos was actually my own transformation and awakening. . . .
As I considered it, the truth of the matter was that we were living within an old story; and a new story needed to be told, but we didn’t have the language for it.
The old story was of victimization, marginalization, oppression, oppressors; and the new story would see all of us evolving, self-expanding, and finding a new place in this wonderful cosmology that is a reality we have not paid attention to. So, in order to get to that point—and here is where my transformation begins—I had to reconsider what I thought about people, because I had hardened my view of others and who they were and what they meant. I had spent my time raising two little African American boys who had to be taught how to survive in society. In doing that, I taught them to view the world in only one way; and I myself was hardened into a position that either you were with me or you were against me or us.
All of that had to change. I had to begin to think of us as spiritual beings having a human experience, and not bodily, embodied folks without spirit or soul. . . . That’s a very limited view of humankind, and I wanted to expand the story. . . .
Richard here: Barbara brilliantly turned to the languages of science, cosmology, and physics to expand our view of humanity.
The physics and cosmology revolution that is 100 years old has not been translated into the ordinary world of any of us, and specifically not in communities of color. The world that scientists describe now is so different than the world that I grew up in or even imagined. According to physicists, this is what the world is like: it is a universe permeated with movement and energy that vibrates and pulses with access to many dimensions. . . . We are all interconnected, not just spiritually or imaginally, but actually . . . and the explicate [or manifested] order that’s all around us makes us think that we’re separate. Finally, I learned that ideas of dominance are predicated on a Newtonian clockwork universe. So, like dominoes, you push one and they all fall down, and everything is in order. But quantum physics tells us that the world is completely different. Particles burst into existence in unpredictable ways, observations affect the observed, and dreams of order and rationality are not the building blocks of the universe.

All Creation Has Soul

Nature itself was the first Bible. Before there was the written Bible, there was the Bible in things that are made. This creation starts with being very good (Genesis 1:31). We come to God through things as they are; spirituality is about sinking back into the Source of everything. We’re already there, but we have too little practice seeing ourselves there. God, in Christ, is in all, and through all, and with all (see 1 Corinthians 15:28; Colossians 3:11). We call this the Universal Christ or another name for every thing—in its fullness.
A spirituality of the Universal Christ is at the same time a creation spirituality. It allows you to start seeing your own soul imaged and given back to you in the soul of everything else. All of creation has soul! The Latin word for soul is anima, which became animal in English. This earth is participating in the mystery of redemption, liberation, and salvation. The whole creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth (see Romans 8:22). The whole thing is being reborn, re-covenanted, and realigned. Instead of seeing natural things as merely objects to be used, we must allow nature to enchant us.
This week we will be featuring authors of color, people who, like Jesus, see God in everything. Howard Thurman (1900–1981), the Black mystic, theologian, and spiritual guide for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, shares his early experiences of God:
The true purpose of all spiritual disciplines is to clear away whatever may block our awareness of that which is God in us. . . .
It will be in order to suggest certain simple aids to this end. One of these is the practice of silence, or quiet. As a child I was accustomed to spend many hours alone in my rowboat, fishing along the river, when there was no sound save the lapping of the waves against the boat. There were times when it seemed as if the earth and the river and the sky and I were one beat of the same pulse. It was a time of watching and waiting for what I did not know—yet I always knew. There would come a moment when beyond the single pulse beat there was a sense of Presence which seemed always to speak to me. My response to the sense of Presence always had the quality of personal communion. There was no voice. There was no image. There was no vision. There was God. [1]

Awe and Joy

February 12th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

The spiritual journey is a constant interplay between moments of awe followed by a general process of surrender to that moment. We must first allow ourselves to be captured by the goodness, truth, or beauty of something beyond and outside ourselves. Then we universalize from that moment to the goodness, truth, and beauty of the rest of reality, until our realization eventually ricochets back to include ourselves! This is the great inner dialogue we call prayer. Yet we humans resist both the awe and, even more, the surrender. The ego resists the awe while the will resists the surrender. But both together are vital and necessary.

The way to any universal idea is to proceed through a concrete encounter. There are a number of ways to say the same thing: the one is the way to the many, the specific is the way to the spacious, the now is the way to the always, the here is the way to the everywhere, the material is the way to the spiritual, the visible is the way to the invisible. When we see contemplatively, we know that we live in a fully sacramental universe, where everything is a pointer and an epiphany.

To let the moment teach us, we must allow ourselves to be at least slightly stunned by it until it draws inward and upward, toward a subtle experience of wonder. We normally need a single moment of gratuitous awe to get us started—and such moments are the only solid foundation for the entire religious instinct and journey.  

As she often does, Barbara Holmes expands and strengthens my thinking. She names this moment of awe “Joy Unspeakable.” But awe is not always inspired by beauty and goodness. Truth sometimes comes in hard packages. It takes both great love and great suffering to stun us and bring us to our knees. God is there in all of it, using every circumstance of our life, to draw us ever more deeply into the heart of God. Barbara writes:  

We are not headed toward a single goal: we are on a pilgrimage toward the center of our hearts. It is in this place of prayerful repose that joy unspeakable erupts.

Joy Unspeakable
erupts when you least expect it,
when the burden is greatest,
when the hope is gone
after bullets fly.
It rises
on the crest of impossibility,
it sways to the rhythm
of steadfast hearts,
and celebrates
what we cannot see.

This joy beckons us not as individual monastics but as a community. It is a joy that lives as comfortably in the shout as it does in silence. It is expressed in the diversity of personal spiritual disciplines and liturgical rituals. This joy is our strength, and we need strength because we are well into the twenty-first century, and we are not healed. How shall we negotiate postmodernity without inner strength? [1]

A Balm in Gilead

February 11th, 2021 by Dave No comments »

The Hebrew prophets deeply loved their tradition and profoundly criticized it at the same time. Such truthful love is a very rare art form and a hallmark of prophetic identity. The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time of deep grief and loss. Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians and his people had been exiled. He critiqued the false prophets of his day who denied such necessary suffering and pretended things were better than they were. He poured out his heart to God and famously asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22). The hope for a healing “balm in Gilead” provided inspiration for the African American spiritual tradition and Civil Rights Movement. Today’s meditation is a reflection from the mystic and theologian Howard Thurman about the beloved spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” 

There is a balm in Gilead, 

To make the spirit whole. 

There is a balm in Gilead, 

To heal the sin-sick soul. 

The peculiar genius of the Negro slave [song] is revealed here in much of its structural splendor. The setting is the book of Jeremiah. The prophet has come to a “Dead Sea” place in his life. Not only is he discouraged over the external events in the life of Israel, but he is also spiritually depressed and tortured. [Wounded,] he cried out, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is no physician there?” It is not a question of fact that he is raising—it is not a question directed to any particular person for an answer. It is not addressed either to God or to Israel, but rather it is a question raised by Jeremiah’s entire life. He is searching his own soul. He is stripped to the literal substance of himself, and is turned back on himself for an answer. Jeremiah is saying actually, “There must be a balm in Gilead; it cannot be that there is no balm in Gilead.” The relentless winnowing of his own bitter experience has laid bare his soul to the end that he is brought face to face with the very ground and core of his own faith.

The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: “There is a balm in Gilead!” Here is a note of creative triumph.

The melody itself is most suggestive. It hovers around the basic scale without any straying far afield. Only in one place is there a sharp lifting of a tonal eyebrow—a suggestion of escape; and then the melody swings back to work out its destiny within the zones of melodic agreement.

The basic insight here is one of optimism—an optimism that grows out of the pessimism of life and transcends it. It is an optimism that uses the pessimism of life as raw material out of which it creates its own strength. 


I’m On My Way

February 10th, 2021 by Dave No comments »

In prayer we trust / By hope we live / On truth we stand / From our heart we give / Love. —Sweet Honey in the Rock

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon founded the iconic African American a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, which has been performing for over forty years. In her book If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me, Dr. Reagon recounts how many of the songs of the Civil Rights Movement had their origins in the spirituals of the nineteenth century. The first verse of the title song of her book goes, “I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.” She writes:

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, we sang this song but changed the word “Canaan” to freedom:

 I’m on my way to freedom land / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

One word, “freedom,” documents the time period. One would not have been able to sing freedom during the time when slavery was an integral part of this country. By the twentieth century, the 1960s, we had cleared enough space with our living and struggling and dying and going on that, no matter what, we could say and sing: “I want my freedom now!” . . .

Whether you sang “freedom” during the sixties or the older traditional text with the word “Canaan,” in essence the song says, I must leave or change where I am, and I want you to go with me:

I asked my mother come and go with me / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

Brother, sister, pastor . . . I want you to go, but if you don’t go, get out of my way:

If you don’t go, going anyhow / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

If you don’t go, don’t hinder me. . . .

During the nineteenth century, being on your way out of slavery usually meant leaving a place to go to another place, covering geographical territory. You actually had to put distance between where you were and where you were headed. During the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement, being on your way often meant staying where you were and wreaking havoc in your local community, insisting on its transformation so that a new construction could be possible. Black people were determined to rearrange space for themselves and their future. We knew that as tax-paying citizens we deserved access to opportunities and resources provided by our organized governing bodies. It really was well overdue, this standing up and taking up new space—we had to move! . . .

Richard again: This is the power of the spirituals! Such sacred songs transcend time, still bringing solidarity, hope, and freedom to people today. 

I’m On My Way

February 10th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

In prayer we trust / By hope we live / On truth we stand / From our heart we give / Love. —Sweet Honey in the Rock

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon founded the iconic African American a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, which has been performing for over forty years. In her book If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me, Dr. Reagon recounts how many of the songs of the Civil Rights Movement had their origins in the spirituals of the nineteenth century. The first verse of the title song of her book goes, “I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.” She writes:

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, we sang this song but changed the word “Canaan” to freedom:

 I’m on my way to freedom land / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

One word, “freedom,” documents the time period. One would not have been able to sing freedom during the time when slavery was an integral part of this country. By the twentieth century, the 1960s, we had cleared enough space with our living and struggling and dying and going on that, no matter what, we could say and sing: “I want my freedom now!” . . .

Whether you sang “freedom” during the sixties or the older traditional text with the word “Canaan,” in essence the song says, I must leave or change where I am, and I want you to go with me:

I asked my mother come and go with me / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

Brother, sister, pastor . . . I want you to go, but if you don’t go, get out of my way:

If you don’t go, going anyhow / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

If you don’t go, don’t hinder me. . . .

During the nineteenth century, being on your way out of slavery usually meant leaving a place to go to another place, covering geographical territory. You actually had to put distance between where you were and where you were headed. During the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement, being on your way often meant staying where you were and wreaking havoc in your local community, insisting on its transformation so that a new construction could be possible. Black people were determined to rearrange space for themselves and their future. We knew that as tax-paying citizens we deserved access to opportunities and resources provided by our organized governing bodies. It really was well overdue, this standing up and taking up new space—we had to move! . . .

Richard again: This is the power of the spirituals! Such sacred songs transcend time, still bringing solidarity, hope, and freedom to people today.

Contemplative Song

February 9th, 2021 by Dave No comments »

The things that help us discover and return to a place of integrated knowing are both obvious and not obvious at all. Silence is one of them, and probably the one I speak of most often. Yet music and art create valuable channels to God as well. It is a gift to our Christian contemplation tradition that CAC faculty member Barbara Holmes names and claims moments that lie beyond the traditional monastic framework of solitude, silence, and stillness as authentic experiences of contemplation. Here she reflects on how worship in the Black church can create a communal contemplative experience:

The soloist moves toward the center of the podium. The congregation of about 1,500 breathes with her as she moans “Oh . . . oh . . . oh, Jesus.” Those are the only words to the song. Unless you are sitting within the sound of her voice, it is difficult to imagine how a song of two words can be a cry of anguish, balm, and celebration. In each soaring note, we participate in the unutterable spectrum of human striving. In this world, you will have trouble, but “oh, oh, oh, Jesus.” The shouts of exaltation give no indication of what is happening. Although it appears to be the usual charismatic congregational fare, in fact we are riding the stanzas through time to the hush arbors and swamp meetings, over the dangerous waters to safety. In this ordinary Sunday service, something has happened and we are changed. The worldly resistance to transcendence that we wore into the sanctuary has cracked open, and the contemplative moment carries us toward the very source of our being.

Moments like this occur regularly in the black church, yet if you ask congregants about their “contemplative practices,” they would be confounded. . . . Despite numerous exceptions, black church worship is known for its heartfelt, rhythmic, and charismatic character. This depiction has become such an accepted view that contemplative practices remain a subliminal and unexamined aspect of black religious life. As a consequence, the practices are not nurtured, encouraged, or passed on to future generations. Yet when contemplative moments occur, worship experiences seem to deepen. . . .

In the midst of worship, an imperceptible shift occurred that moved the worshipping community from intentional liturgical action to transcendent indwelling. There is no way to describe this shift other than to say that “something happened.” During this sacred time, the perpetual restlessness of the human heart was stilled and transformed into abiding presence. Time shimmered and paused, slowing its relentless pace, and the order of worship no longer took precedence for those enthralled by a joy unspeakable. [1]

This is the contemplative moment, the recognition that each and every member of the congregation shares the same angst over the troubles of the world and the need for reunion. . . . Those who listen know the Holy Spirit is in control. [2]