A Subtle Peril

July 24th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Howard Thurman lovingly critiqued Christianity, which has often ignored the direct teaching and witness of Jesus in relationship with those who are oppressed. This excerpt is from one of Thurman’s most well-known books, Jesus and the Disinherited. I think this message is important today and always.

To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail. The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples.

It is not a singular thing to hear a sermon that defines what should be the attitude of the Christian toward people who are less fortunate than himself. Again and again our missionary appeal is on the basis of the Christian responsibility to the needy, the ignorant, and the so-called backward peoples of the earth. There is a certain grandeur and nobility in administering to another’s need out of one’s fullness and plenty. . . . It is certainly to the glory of Christianity that it has been most insistent on the point of responsibility to others whose only claim upon one is the height and depth of their need. This impulse at the heart of Christianity is the human will to share with others what one has found meaningful to oneself elevated to the height of a moral imperative. But there is a lurking danger in this very emphasis. It is exceedingly difficult to hold oneself free from a certain contempt for those whose predicament makes moral appeal for defense and succor. It is the sin of pride and arrogance that has tended to vitiate the missionary impulse and to make of it an instrument of self-righteousness on the one hand and racial superiority on the other.

That is one reason why, again and again, there is no basic relationship between the simple practice of brotherhood in the commonplace relations of life and the ethical pretensions of our faith. It has long been a matter of serious moment that for decades we have studied the various peoples of the world and those who live as our neighbors as objects of missionary endeavor and enterprise without being at all willing to treat them either as brothers or as human beings. I say this without rancor, because it is not an issue in which vicious human beings are involved. But it is one of the subtle perils of a religion which calls attention—to the point of overemphasis, sometimes—to one’s obligation to administer to human need.

Faith Teaches

July 23rd, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Mystic: Howard Thurman

Faith Teaches
Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Like many mystics, Howard Thurman saw that humans need to relate to a God that is both beyond rational thought—what I might call a force field of love—and very relatable and personal. This is why Christians have both Jesus and Christ: In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart we could trust, in one moment of time. Christ is God’s presence incarnated in all of Creation, before and beyond time. Read how Thurman understands this:

Not only is faith a way of knowing, a form of knowledge, but it is also one of life’s great teachers. At no point is this fact more clearly demonstrated than in an individual’s growing knowledge of God. It is obvious that, in the last analysis, proof of the existence of God is quite impossible. A simple reason for this is the fact that, if there is that to which God may be finally reduced, then He is not ultimate. But let us not be led astray by this apparent abstraction. Faith teaches a man that God is. The human spirit has two fundamental demands that must be met relative to God. First, He must be vast, limitless, transcendent, all-comprehensive, so that there is no thing that is outside the wide reaches of His apprehension. The stars in the universe, the great galaxies of spatial groupings moving in endless rhythmic patterns in the trackless skies, as well as the tiny blade of grass by the roadside, are all within His grasp. The second demand is that He be personal and intimate. A man must have a sense of being cared for, of not being alone and stranded in the universe. All of us want the assurance of not being deserted by life nor deserted in life. Faith teaches us that God is—that He is the fact of life from which all other things take their meaning and reality. When Jesus prayed, he was conscious that, in his prayer, he met the Presence, and this consciousness was far more important and significant than the answering of his prayer. It is for this reason primarily that God was for Jesus the answer to all the issues and the problems of life. When I, with all my mind and heart, truly seek God and give myself in prayer, I, too, meet His Presence, and then I know for myself that Jesus was right.

A note on language from Thurman’s editors: We realize that inclusive language is noticeably absent in Howard Thurman’s writings. As gifted and prophetic as he was, Howard Thurman was also a product of his times, and inclusive language was not a part of the social consciousness. Regardless of language, the substance of Howard Thurman’s work is inclusive. His life and theology were inclusive, and if he were writing today his language would more accurately reflect this worldview. [1]

Mystic: Howard Thurman

July 22nd, 2019 by Dave No comments »

The Meaning of Life
Sunday, July 21, 2019

In spite of all seeming evidence to the contrary, mystics know that God is love, and this love is both our source and our goal. I’d like you to recognize that it’s not just me saying these things. There are a great many theologians, saints, and laypeople who have conveyed this reality much better than I. I’ve previously written about some of the Christian mystics who have had a profound impact on me, such as Francis and Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Ávila. [1] This week I’d like to reflect on a more contemporary mystic, Reverend Howard Thurman (1900–1981).  

Here’s an insightful description of how Thurman’s significant influence was built upon his commitment to contemplation and action: 

The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman contributed much to the incorporation of the contemplative in social/racial justice efforts. An African American theologian and mystic, Thurman was reared in an African American Baptist Church, . . . [and] served as spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and thus played a critical role as a “behind the scenes” leader in the development of an alternative to violence in the dismantling of racial injustice in America.

Thurman chose to engage in work that would serve all people and to use the contemplative experience as a path to peace, joy, and power. . . . [He] had the prophetic ability to make a connection between the silence and scrutiny of one’s inner life and the work for social justice. [2]

This week I’ll share Thurman’s own writings with very little introduction or explanation. His words speak for themselves. Read with your heart wide open:

The goal of life is God! The source of life is God! That out of which life comes is that into which life goes. . . . God is the guarantor of all [our] values, the ultimate meaning—the timeless frame of reference. That which sustains the flower of the field, the circling series of stars in the heavens, the structure of dependability in the world of nature everywhere, the stirring of the will of man to action, the dream of humanity, developed and free, for which myriad men, sometimes in solitariness in lonely places or in great throngs milling in crowded squares—all this and infinitely more in richness and variety and value is God. Men may be thrown from their courses—they may wander for a million years in desert and waste land, through sin and degradation, war and pestilence, hate and love—at last they must find their rest in Him. . . .

The source of life is God. The mystic applies this to human life when he says that there is in man an uncreated element; or in the Book of Job where it is written that his mark is in their foreheads. . . . To deal with men on any other basis, to treat them as if there were not vibrant and vital in each one the very life of the very God, is the great blasphemy; it is the judgment that is leveled with such relentless severity on modern man. “Thou hast made us for thyself and our souls are restless till they find their rest in thee,” says Augustine. Life is like a river.

Deep River, my home is over Jordan—
Deep River, I want to cross over into camp ground. [3]

Opening the Doors of My Being
Monday, July 22, 2019

This week we’re reflecting on the writings of Howard Thurman. (See Sunday’s meditation for my introduction.) Today Thurman explores how prayer is not a transaction, nor is it about changing God. It’s about opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to be receptive to God’s already and always presence:

The place and significance of spiritual disciplines and exercises cannot be overemphasized. It is important, however, to understand what that significance is. There is no necessitous relationship between the disciplines and the awareness of God’s presence. All disciplines of this character are meant to “ready” the mind, the emotions, the spirit. They are no guarantor of Presence.

This is the miracle, the heights and depths of wonder and awe. God reveals His Presence out of the mystery of Being. With all of my passionate endeavor, I cannot command that He obey. All of my prayers, my meditation, my vast and compelling urgency or need cannot order, woo or beg God into the revealing of His Presence. Even my need and my desperation cannot command Him. There is an overwhelming autonomy here;  God does move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. But He is so full of such wonderful and heartening surprises.

In the total religious experience we learn how to wait; we learn how to ready the mind and the spirit. It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me. . . .

I work at preparing my mind, my spirit for the moment when God comes to Himself in me. When it happens, I experience His Presence. When this experience becomes an object of thought and reflection, it is then that my mind creates dogmas, creeds and doctrines. These are the creations of the mind and are therefore always after the fact of the religious experience. But they are always out of date. The religious experience is always current, always fresh.[Emphasis mine—RR.] In it I hear His Voice in my own tongue and in accordance with the grain in my own wood. In that glorious and transcendent moment, it may easily seem to me that all there is, is God.

Summary: Week Twenty-nine

Introduction to Christian Mysticism

July 14 – July 19, 2019

A mystic is simply one who has moved from mere belief or belonging systems to actual inner experience of God. (Sunday)

A mystic sees things in their wholeness, connection, and union, not only their particularity. Mystics get the whole gestalt in one picture, beyond the sequential and separated way of seeing. (Monday)

A Christian is one who can see Christ everywhere else and even in oneself. (Tuesday)

If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will always see God beyond you. For it is only God in you who knows where and how to look for God. (Wednesday)

Saints embody goodness while mystics embody love—Carl McColman(Thursday)

The mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic. —William McNamara (Friday)

Practice: A Prayer of Gratitude

Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us, choosing gratitude until we are grateful, and praising God until we ourselves are an act of praise. Mature prayer always breaks into gratitude. This week’s practice is a body prayer from Beverly Lanzetta. Adapt the movements to your body’s needs so that you’re comfortable. Focus simply on the feeling of gratitude and, as you are able, do the following as you read through the stanzas: bow, kneel, lie down, rise, put your hands over your heart, place your hands together, bow your head, and open your arms wide.

Holy Earth, Holy Cosmos,
I bow before you
With my whole being.

Holy Creatures, Holy Nature,
I kneel upon the earth
In honor and thanksgiving
Of your blessed bounty.

Holy Waters, Holy Mountains,
I lay my body on your temple
In gratefulness for nurturing
My tender soul.

Holy Passion, Holy Longing,
I rise up before you
A devotee of truth,
Following wherever you lead me.

Holy Silence, Holy Solitude,
I place my hands over my heart
Breathing in serenity,
Breathing out your peace.

Holy Sorrow, Holy Suffering,
I close my hands in prayer
May I bear every wound
With compassion and nonharm.

Holy Humility, Holy Emptiness,
I bow my head before you
I have become open,
For your All to shine in my soul.

Holy Freedom, Holy Rejoicing,
I open my heart to the world
Offering myself to this day,
In joyfulness and gratitude.

Amen. [1]

The Mystical Heartbeat

July 19th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Introduction to Christian Mysticism

The Mystical Heartbeat
Friday, July 19, 2019

Today I share again from Carl McColman’s book Christian Mystics:

The first Christian mystics appear in the Bible, figures like John the Evangelist and Paul of Tarsus. But mysticism didn’t end when the Bible was written. Great mystics appear in every century of Christian history. [1] By the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity became socially acceptable in the cities of the Roman Empire, remote wilderness locations like the deserts of Egypt and Palestine or the forests of Ireland became home to many saints and mystics.

Out of the deserts came the first monasteries, intentional communities of Christians who sought to give their entire lives to God. As this movement caught on throughout the Christian world, it became a natural home for great mystics and visionaries; and, indeed, nearly all of the great mystics between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries lived as monks or nuns. But with the dawn of the modern era—and the social changes such as the Renaissance and the Reformation in particular—monasteries became less central to Catholic Christianity and were largely rejected by the Protestant churches, so in recent centuries more mystics have emerged who did not live in a cloister.

By the twentieth century, several important figures, such as Evelyn Underhill [1875–1941] and Karl Rahner [1904–1984], began to insist that mysticism was not just a special quality for the “elite” Christians found in abbeys or convents, but rather everyone is meant to be an “everyday mystic.” Indeed, Rahner, widely recognized as one of the greatest of twentieth-century theologians, famously remarked that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or . . . will not exist at all.” [2] . . .

Carmelite friar William McNamara [writes]: “the mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.” [3] . . . In order for Christianity to survive, all Christians need to discover the mystical heartbeat that is already alive in the center of our tradition—and our souls. Put another way, mysticism is not something we achieve; it is something we receive. . . .

How do we find out what “special kind of mystic” we are called to be? Certainly the ultimate guide to union with God can only be God. . . . But God is assisted in this task by the wisdom and writings of the great mystics throughout history.

Not all mystics are writers, of course. But the ones who made the effort to record their life stories, their insights, their wisdom, their poetry and teachings, are the ones who have left behind “lessons,” so to speak, in the school for the love of God. . . .

Our goal, therefore, is to learn . . . the curriculum of a truly spiritual life . . . grounded in love, mercy, tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, hope, trust, simplicity, silence, peace, and joy. To embody union with God is to discover these beautiful characteristics emerging from within and slowly transfiguring us. . . .

Goodness Of God

July 18th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Introduction to Christian Mysticism

Goodness of God
Thursday, July 18, 2019

Spiritual director and author Carl McColman explores the etymology of the word “mystic” and the difference between a saint and a mystic. Carl is a wise and holy man still among us.

The Greek root for mystic and mysticism is mueo, which means to shut or to close, as in shutting one’s mouth or closing one’s eyes. It comes from the pagan mystery religions. . . . The “shutting” or “closing” quality of mueo implied keeping the secrets or mysteries hidden, locked away in the heart or mind.

The writers of the New Testament adapted this language for Christian purposes. . . . Among Christians, the idea of mystery referred not so much to what is secret as to what is hidden. And topping the list of hidden things is God . . . : as the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Truly, you are a God who hides” (Isaiah 45:15). Meanwhile, Jesus, the Son of God, represented the hidden things of God made manifest—and not only in Christ himself, but also in his followers, who were said to be part of his “body.” So, mystery in Christianity involves the hidden things of God made manifest, or revealed, in the hearts and minds and spirituality of those who love God and follow Christ.

In every generation, in every century of the Christian era, men and women have existed who have exemplified this spirituality of manifesting the presence of God, the wisdom and power of God, the love and mercy of God, in their own lives, in their hearts and minds. . . . [1]

While the idea of sainthood came to be associated with almost supernatural levels of goodness, mystics encountered and embodied the presence of God in profound and life-changing ways. And the mystics (at least the ones we know about) shared their encounters with God through poetry, confessional or autobiographical writing, philosophy, theology, and spiritual teaching. The language of the mystics is often deeply beautiful, expressing love of God, communion with God, even union with God (which sometimes got some mystics in trouble with the less spiritually inclined authorities in the Church).

Of course, many mystics have also been recognized as saints, and some authors suggest that it is impossible to be a saint without also being a mystic. But the two words have distinct meanings, at least in popular usage: a saint is someone who is good and holy, while a mystic is someone who knows God, and whose life has been transfigured by this divine presence. Put even more briefly, saints embody goodness while mystics embody love.

There’s plenty of overlap here. But this is one way to understand the distinction.

What makes someone a mystic is less about a top-down kind of approval and more about an organic, broad-based recognition on the part of the people whose lives have been touched. In other words . . . , mystics teach us how to find God, and a great mystic is someone who has been recognized as doing this particularly well. [I, Richard, would suggest that saints are supposedly perfect people, whereas mystics are visibly imperfect people who have been convicted by moments of very real divine union. If we knew the full story, most “saints” are really mystics!]

Our Response

July 17th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will always see God beyond you. For it is only God in you who knows where and how to look for God.

When you honor and accept the divine image within yourself, you cannot help but see it in everybody else, too, and you know it is just as undeserved and unmerited as it is in you. I call this the “Principle of Likeness.” From this frame you stop judging and start loving unconditionally, without asking whether someone is worthy or not. The breakthrough occurs at once, although the realization deepens and takes on greater conviction over time.

As I mentioned earlier this week, mystics are nondual people who see things in their wholeness and call forth the same unity in others, simply by being who they are. Wholeness (head, heart, and body, all present and positive) sees and calls forth wholeness in others.

Dualistic or divided people, however, live in a split and fragmented world. They cannot accept that God objectively dwells within them or others (See 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). They cannot accept or forgive certain parts of themselves. This lack of forgiveness takes the forms of a tortured mind, a closed heart, or an inability to live calmly and humbly inside their own body. The fragmented mind sees parts, not wholes, and invariably it creates antagonism, fear, and resistance.

What you see is what you get. What you seek is also what you get. We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, not by demanding or forcing it on others.

Mystics are human like the rest of us, and none of us are perfect. We are inconsistent creatures with blind spots and cultural limitations. Outside of flashes of insight and unitive experience, mystics are products of their place in time. For example, they may have sexist, anti-Semitic, or other biases common for that period, as we see even in the much-idealized Desert Fathers. In spite of momentary glimpses of universal and unconditional grace, they may still be rooted in a retributive understanding of God. It takes more than a lifetime for us to grasp the Mystery that we experience during moments of deep presence and surrender. [1]

What mystics finally do, it seems to me, is heal in themselves the fragmentation that is evident in the world. Instead of hating, excluding, or dismissing it over there in others, they heal it in themselves. This healing is God’s Spirit working in us. Mystics see the whole—good, bad, ugly, and beautiful—in themselves and others, refusing to hate or ignore any of it. This allows them to have immense sympathy, empathy, and compassion and to work in service of the world’s healing. I am not sure if you can come to such empathy in any other way.

Christ is Everywhere

July 16th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Introduction to Christian Mysticism

Christ Is Everywhere
Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The twentieth-century English mystic Caryll Houselander (19011954) describes how an ordinary underground train journey in London transformed into a vision that changed her life. I share Houselander’s description of this startling experience because it poignantly demonstrates what I call the Christ Mystery, the indwelling of the Divine Presence in everyone and everything since the beginning of time as we know it:

All sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging—workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but because He was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here too . . . all those people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come.

I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by, everywhere—Christ.

I had long been haunted by the Russian conception of the humiliated Christ, the lame Christ limping through Russia, begging His bread; the Christ who, all through the ages, might return to the earth and come even to sinners to win their compassion by His need. Now, in the flash of a second, I knew that this dream is a fact . . . Christ in [humankind]. . . .

I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his [or her] sin, which is in reality [their] utmost sorrow, one must comfort Christ who is suffering in [them]. And this reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ. . . .

Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life. . . . Realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness. For me, too, it is the only ultimate meaning of life, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to every life.

After a few days the “vision” faded. People looked the same again, there was no longer the same shock of insight for me each time I was face to face with another human being. Christ was hidden again; indeed, through the years to come I would have to seek for Him, and usually I would find Him in others—and still more in myself—only through a deliberate and blind act of faith. [1]

I (Richard) would say that my only real definition of a Christian is one who can see Christ everywhere else and even in oneself.

Experiential Knowing

July 15th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Monday, July 15, 2019

When I use the word “mystical” I am referring to experiential knowing instead of just intellectual, textbook, or dogmatic knowing. A mystic sees things in their wholeness, connection, and union, not only their particularity. Mystics get a whole gestalt in one picture, beyond the sequential and separated way of seeing that most of us encounter in everyday life. In this, mystics tend to be closer to poets and artists than to linear thinkers. Obviously, there is a place for both, but since the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there has been less and less appreciation of such seeing in wholes. The mystic was indeed considered an “eccentric” (off center), but maybe mystics are the most centered of all, which leads them to emphasizing love as the center, the goal, and the motivating energy of everything.

The word mystic is not a title of superiority. It’s rather that mystics see things differently. Mystics are nondual seers. They don’t think one side is totally right and the other side is totally wrong. They can see that each side has a part of the truth. When people on either side of any contentious issue cannot love one another, it means they don’t have the big message yet.

And what is the big message, the great good news? I try to explain it in my book The Universal Christ. There is a well-hidden Mystery that’s true everywhere, and only the sincere seekers find it. People may have different names for this Mystery, but I don’t think God minds what we call God as long as it helps us focus on our radical unity while honoring our differences. Mystics—and all mature spirituality—recognize that the dignity in people and created things is inherent, equally shared, and objective. “You were chosen in Christ from the beginning before the world began” (Ephesians 1:4). This dignity is not created by moral behavior or sacraments. It’s the universally shared image of God, already present (see Genesis 1:26-27). Humans are just the lucky ones who can bring this to consciousness. Sacraments just help us do that.

The full Christian story is saying that Jesus died and Christ “arose”—yes, still as Jesus, but now also as the Corporate Personality who includes and reveals all of creation in its full purpose and goal. Or, as the “Father of Orthodoxy,” St. Athanasius (296–373), wrote when the church had a more social, historical, and revolutionary sense of itself:

God was consistent in working through one [human] to reveal [Godself] everywhere, as well as through the other parts of . . . creation, so that nothing was left devoid of . . . Divinity and [God’s] self-knowledge . . . so that “the whole universe was filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters fill the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9) [1]

The Eastern church called this process “divinization” (theosis); Christians in the West call it “incarnation” or “salvation.” The concept of divinization is founded on 2 Peter 1:4: “He has given us something very great and wonderful . . . you are able to share the divine nature!” This is Christianity’s core good news and transformative message.

Incarnational Mysticism

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Years ago, someone asked if I could sum up all my teachings in two words. My response was “incarnational mysticism.” The first word, “incarnational,” is Christianity’s specialty and should always be our essential theme. We believe God became embodied. The early Fathers of the Church professed that God, by taking on human flesh, said yes to all that was physical, material, and earthly. Unfortunately, much of Christianity lost this full understanding.

Many Christians are scared of the word “mysticism.” But a mystic is simply one who has moved from mere belief or belonging systems to actual inner experience of God. Mysticism is more represented in John’s Gospel than in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) which give us the basic story line of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So many readers are not moved by or attracted to John’s Gospel because they were never taught the mystical mind.

In the early 1960s, Karl Rahner (1904–1984), a German Jesuit who strongly influenced the Second Vatican Council, stated that if Western Christianity does not discover its mystical foundations and roots, we might as well close the church doors. I believe he was right. Without a contemplative mind, Christianity can’t offer broad seeing, real alternative consciousness, or a new kind of humanity. Jesus was the first clear nondual mystic in the West, in my opinion. We just were not prepared for his way of knowing and loving.

Alan Watts (1915–1973), a British philosopher, put it this way: “From the beginning, institutional Christianity has hardly contemplated the possibility that the consciousness of Jesus might be the consciousness of the Christian, that the whole point of the Gospel is that everyone may experience union with God in the same way . . . as Jesus himself.” [1]

Watts also wrote: “The truth that religion, to be of any use, must be mystical has always been denied by the seemingly large number of people, including theologians, who do not know what mysticism is. . . . Its essence is the consciousness of union with God.” [2] Basically, to experience non-separateness, or nonduality from anything, particularly with God, one must move to the mystical mind. Any other mind—or heart—is utterly inadequate to the task.

Until people have had some mystical, inner spiritual experience, there is no point in asking them to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus or to really understand religious beliefs beyond the level of formula. At most, such moral ideals and doctrinal affirmations are only a source of deeper anxiety because we don’t have the power to follow any of Jesus’ major teachings about forgiveness, love of enemies, nonviolence, humble use of power, a simple lifestyle, and so on, except in and through radical union with God. Further, doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, and the significance of the Indwelling Spirit have little active power. They are just “believed” at the rational level, but never experienced.

Compassion, Not Sacrifice

July 10th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Prophets: Part Two

Compassion, Not Sacrifice
Wednesday, July 10, 2019

In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren writes about the possible meaning behind Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (see John 2:13-17):

Perhaps it is not merely the cost of sacrifice that Jesus protests. Perhaps it is the whole belief system associated with sacrifice, based on the fundamental, long-held belief that God is angry and needs to be appeased with blood. Perhaps Jesus is overturning that belief right along with the cashiers’ tables, right along with the whole religious system built upon it. . . .

More than seven hundred years before Jesus, Hosea dared to say that God desired compassion, not sacrifice [see Hosea 6:6]. . . . Around the same time, Isaiah dared to say that God found sacrifices disgusting when people weren’t seeking justice for the oppressed (Isaiah 1-2). And centuries earlier, the poet-king David made the audacious claim that God takes no pleasure in sacrifice, but desires a “contrite spirit” and “truth in the innermost being” (Psalm 51). In other words, . . . when [Jesus] said sacrifice wasn’t necessary . . . he was siding with the prophetic and mystical/poetic traditions within Judaism, even though that set him against the traditions of the priests and scholars. . . .

When the prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Micah come along, they don’t advocate rejecting religion and culture, even though they are highly critical of its spiritual hypocrisy and social injustice. They want their religion to expand, to evolve, to learn and grow. The same is true with Jesus. He came, he said, not to abolish or replace, but to fulfill what came before him [see Matthew 5:17]. . . . [Or “transcend and include,” as Ken Wilber would say.]

The spirit of goodness, rightness, beauty, and aliveness, Jesus said, is always moving. Like wind, like breath, like water, the Spirit is in motion, inviting us to enter the current and flow.

The problem is that we often stop moving. We resist the flow. We get stuck. The word institution itself means something that stands rather than moves. When our institutions lack movements to propel them forward, the Spirit, I believe, simply moves around them, like a current around a rock in a stream. But when the priestly/institutional and prophetic/movement impulses work together, institutions provide stability and continuity and movements provide direction and dynamism. Like skeleton and muscles, the two are meant to work together.

For that to happen, we need a common spirituality to infuse both our priestly/institutional- and our prophetic/movement-oriented wings. The spirituality will often be derived from the mystical/poetic/contemplative streams within our tradition. Without that shared spirituality, without that soul work that opens our deepest selves to God and grounds our souls in love, no movement will succeed and no institution will stand. . . . It’s the linking of action and contemplation, great work and deep spirituality, that keeps the goodness, rightness, beauty, and aliveness flowing.

The Edge of the Inside

July 9th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Prophets, by their very nature, cannot be at the center of any social structure. Rather, they are “on the edge of the inside.” They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either. A true prophet must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important. Jesus did this masterfully (see Matthew 5:17-48). This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. taught the United States, what Gandhi taught British-occupied India, and what Nelson Mandela taught apartheid South Africa.

Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value. A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice. This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside, and not by negative or angry people.

Holding the tension of opposites is the necessary education of the prophet, yet Christianity has given little energy to what Paul says is the second most important charism for building the church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Prophets must be skilled in nondual thinking, but churches have primarily trained people in the simplistic choosing of one idealized alternative while denigrating the other. This has gotten us nowhere.

After Christianity became the established religion of the Empire in the fourth century, the priestly mentality pretty much took over in both East and West, and prophets almost disappeared. When the Church held so much power, prophets were too threatening to the status quo. The clergy were at the top of the hierarchy in the full company of their patrons—kings and princes—and even began to dress like them. Emperors convened and presided over the first seven Councils of the Church. What does this tell us?

For the next 1700 or so years, most of the preaching and interpretation of Scripture was from the perspective of power, from primarily European, educated, quite comfortable, and presumably celibate males. I am one myself, and we are not all bad. But we are not all—by a long shot! Where are the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, the poor, and differently abled? How would they read the Gospel? Without these voices included, even central, I see little future for Christianity.

My spiritual father, St. Francis of Assisi, saw this problem in the thirteenth century and called people to live on the edge—of the Church, of the dominant economy which always protects the top, of patriarchy, of the “system”—through universal solidarity and chosen simplicity. Pope Francis is evoking the same Gospel spirit, and I pray for his success and protection. What a surprise that the ultimate establishment figure took the name of such a radical saint. It shocked the world because we do not expect prophecy from popes. There is hope!