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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year! Middle Ground Spirituality

What if both the conservatives and liberals have big holes in their spiritual thought? What if a middle path would be better? What about salvation, whatever it is? Is it an individual thing, or a communal thing? We look at this and more today on Interspiritual Insights!

Check out this episode!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Catching up for Christmas

With Craig and Erin's move recently, it's been a while since we have done a podcast. Join us today as we catch up for Christmas!

Check out this episode!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Train Crashes and The Pope Elopes

A commuter train in New York derailed killing four and injuring many, and it was revealed yesterday that the train was travelling eighty miles per hour when it should have been going thirty - and the engineer was asleep. Even more shocking, the Pope is apparently eloping!

Check out this episode!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Gift of Myth

One of my favorite definitions of myth is "a story that is true, and may have happened that way." The so-called historical Jesus movement attempted to devalue myth, believing that there was some greater value in things that could be historically verified about Jesus that would somehow tell us more than the unique combination of fact and myth contained in the Bible. The problem is that while we can know a fair amount of general information about the time and culture in which Jesus lived, about all we can definitively verify from secular sources is that he lived and was crucified. The rest is all conjecture, and really even less reliable than myth because of its insistence on the rather dry and incomplete story we get when we apply the sterility of scientific method to the richness of myth. In the end we strip away everything of beauty and end up with stark slivers of speculation. We should be extremely thankful that myth cannot be reduced to post-Enlightenment sensibilities.

I don't know that there has ever been a historical Buddha movement. It seems that Buddhism is much more accepting of its mythology, and that's a huge asset. The mythos tells us that Buddha was born and raised in a palace. He also was born before people were capable of two story construction in a culture where the primary building material was mud, making "palace" a very relative term. No Buddhist seems terribly upset about this and there are no large groups of Buddhists saying that we have to throw Buddhism away because the Buddha's palace doesn't match our idea of what a palace should be. There are no Buddhists questioning the validity of the Buddhist Sutras even when they hear that the whole idea of the Buddha's birth to wealthy and royal parents may be the Buddhist equivalent of Jesus' virgin birth - a literary device used to indicate the person being written about was special and important but not an attempt to convey an historical truth.

Why not? I suspect it has a lot to do with the rejection of duality.

We have been packing our household and preparing to move for the last couple of weeks. We are taking the month of December to move. We took an extended period of time to move the last time, too. If you can afford the double rent or house payment it is an idea worth considering, especially if you are over thirty-five. It's much less brutal to have more than a day or two to move everything, and if you are using movers it helps reduce costs because you can move the light stuff yourself and leave the heavy lifting to the professionals. Over the last couple days I have been packing some of my home altar, including many of my statues and spiritual images. I still have quite a few icons to pack. Once of the reasons I love spiritual images is that they take me beyond words to a much richer place. It's not a place that can be measured or easily quantified - it's much richer than that. It's a place of spiritual depth more than of spiritual precision - in fact, to a large extent the idea of spiritual precision may be an oxymoron. To be spiritually precise is most often to miss the point entirely, and if anyone tries to be precise it is biblical literalists and the historical Jesus folk - strange bedfellows, indeed!

Myth takes us to that imprecise place, too. While the rationalists prefer black and white, myth not only provides shades of grey but it also offers hundreds of colors. The beauty of those mythological colors is that we are free to play with them, to change them up and look at the images from a new perspective to see what has been hiding within them. Myth both allows and requires us to surrender our fear that insists on the safety of perfection and so allows us to discover that spiritual truths are found in the imprecise and the imperfect - the last place the rational mind would think to look. "Is it true," and "Is it real," and "Can it be verified," and "Did it really happen," are all questions that myth answers with a resounding "who cares?" The real question in myth is whether or not we can allow ourselves the freedom to crawl inside and take a look around, leaving our cameras and tape measures at the door. If we can allow ourselves that freedom, then and only then will we find the truth - and we will also know we cannot give that truth to anyone else. The best we can do is to invite them to lay down their precision and go inside for a look themselves, for that is where we will see everything!"

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advents and Birth Narratives

The Milwaukee Compassionate Heart Gathering for Sunday, December 1st marks the beginning of our four week Advent series. Today's topic is Advents and Birth Narratives Across Traditions - what do they mean, what can we learn from them, and what is best avoided? 

Check out this episode!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The End Times and Christ the King - the November 24th Compassionate Heart Gathering in Milwaukee, WI

Our scripture commentary shifts its focus slightly beginning today. Each week we will feature the message from Sunday's Compassionate Heart Gathering in Milwaukee. Compassionate Heart is Milwaukee's Interspiritual Church.

Check out this episode!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Implosion of The United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church has just convicted The Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, PA of violating Church law for performing the wedding of his son to another man. In the punishment phase of the trial, he was suspended for thirty days, at the end of which he must agree to abide by the Methodist Book of Discipline (their equivalent of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law) in its entirety or surrender his ministry credentials.

Pastor Schaefer's prosecution by the UMC is but one in a series of such trials, some of which have already been performed and others which are yet to be convened. In these trials one of the accused clergy's colleagues serves as a kind of prosecuting attorney. I must confess that the idea of serving as a prosecutor of a colleague is so foreign to my understanding of what it is to be an ordained minister that I cannot understand why any ordained person would agree to serve in such a role. Perhaps more importantly, I fail to understand why in the 21st century any Church body would ask a pastor to serve in such a role. Either the Church is a place of forgiveness and grace or it is a place of prosecution and persecution. It cannot be both at the same time.

Did Pastor Schaefer violate UMC Church Law? There can be no question that he did. The question is whether or not the Law is just. The Bible and competent ethicists agree that human beings are under no obligation to obey an unjust law. In order to be just, a law cannot be arbitrary nor can it be arbitrarily applied. On the second count the UMC Book of Discipline fails, because there are UMC pastors who have performed many marriages for same gender loving people and not been prosecuted because their bishop sees the injustice in the law. There is also disparity in the so-called punishment phase of the trials because the punishments are not uniform. In some cases pastors are instructed to work with local Church officials to determine a way to best move forward. In Pastor Schaefer's case, there is no such grace afforded him.

The truth is that the UMC is the only mainline denomination that has not afforded some place in the Church for Same Gender Loving people. Even groups that support LGBT people must hide in the shadows because they are illegal in the UMC and those belonging to them can be excommunicated. Some claim that this is the case because the UMC is a world wide Church and the UMC clergy in the southern hemisphere are profoundly conservative in their views of human sexuality. While those claims have merit, there is still the issue that someone has to decide to prosecute these cases and others must be willing to help. Comparisons with the terribly evil Spanish Inquisition in the Roman Church are unavoidable. People are not only willing to prosecute these cases, they are fairly salivating to get at them. That reflects a true and frightening evil, for it is nothing less than evil when human beings relish the opportunity to devour one another.

Unfortunately for the UMC, they have taken a position regarding human sexuality that allows no dissent because dissenters can be prosecuted by the Church. This is absolutely incompatible with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ on which Christian Churches are allegedly founded. Such small mindedness and autocratic leadership style is the stuff of the great despots of history and the UMC appears willing to goose step solidly in line with that tradition. Could there be any more convincing evidence that what was once a fine and respected denomination has descended to the ranks of evil?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Other Drugged Turkeys

Today on Interspiritual Insights we examine crack smoking, drunk driving, prostitute associating, drug dealer chaffeured, plenty of oral sex having Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, recently stripped of his powers by the Toronto City Council - and other drugged turkeys, like the one you will probably eat at Thanksgiving!

Check out this episode!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Attachment to our Bodies

We Americans, in particular, are extremely attached to our bodies. A cursory look at the cosmetics, fitness, wellness, and cosmetic dentistry and surgery industries will confirm this. We are obsessed with how we look, and the impact on our behavior and self-esteem are astounding. We reward narcissism and punish the unavoidable, if postponable, effects of gravity. We want to appear younger than we are, yet be perceived as holding a wisdom that is achievable only with the experience of age. If ever there was a recipe for failure, this is it - but this isn't really a new story. I have written about it before.

Lately I have been struggling with my attachment to my body as a fully functional and relatively pain free entity. Since Christmas of 2007 I have struggled with profound back issues as an injury at work when I was twenty-five years has old progressed over time into degenerative disc disease with the chronic pain and limitation that accompanies it. Finally, in February 2011 I elected to have spinal fusion as my pain had become unmanageable even with strong medication. For nearly two years everything was much better. I could mow the lawn again, something that I never really enjoyed doing but suddenly loved because to me it meant I had conquered adversity. Little did I know that I had not won victory but rather a temporary reprieve. As the two year mark passed the little aches and pains that had returned became more substantial. Limitations returned, only now they were more extensive. Not wanting to believe that I was declining, I blamed myself and thought perhaps I was becoming soft. Yesterday I went for an MRI and learned nothing could be farther from the truth.

The beauty of computer technology is that now you are given a CD after your MRI and you can go home, pop it in your computer, and view the images. If you aren't sure what you are looking at you can Google what they should look like, though anyone who has been a back patient becomes fairly proficient in reading their MRIs if they are at all interested and pay attention at their appointments. Though I haven't seen my doctor yet, the images clearly reveal that something has gone terribly wrong in the two and one half years since my surgery. Though my fusion appears to be intact, meaning that all of the hardware has held everything in place, somehow material has oozed out of the space between my vertebrae where the discs used to reside and bone growth hormone was inserted in a cage-like device. Whatever that material is, and it may well be unwelcome bone growth, it is now pressing on my spinal column and causing me a significant amount of discomfort. The biggest struggle for me is that I believed that my surgery had worked - I became attached to that outcome.

My doctor had explained that the cause of my pain was most likely the disc or two above the fusion site. Even before my surgery I was told that fusion places extra stress on the discs adjacent to the fusion and that there was a good possibility that between five and ten years after a fusion other disc problems would develop. That sounded fair enough to me. Five to ten pretty good years was a tasty carrot, even if the stick that followed it might be another surgery down the road somewhere, and I now recognize I became attached to that time frame as well.

What function do our bodies really serve? Are we our bodies, do they just move whatever constitutes "us" around, or is the answer somewhere in the middle? If we lose an arm, or the use of our arm, is our body still our body or does it become something else? Of course it is still our body, we haven't been transported to another body. Somehow, despite that objective truth, I am sure that people who have the experience of losing use of a limb feel betrayed by their bodies. While that feeling is understandable, I am not sure it is entirely reasonable because we receive no guarantees or warranties at birth. Some of our bodies serve us well for all of our lives, other bodies serve us well for only a short period, while most of them fall somewhere in between the extremes. Those are the objective "body facts." Our expectations may or may not conform to our realities.

One of the ways we try to justify our disappointment resulting from our attachment is by establishing systems to explain our body's unwillingness to conform to our expectations. We don't like randomness, so we have historically blamed just about everything from sin, to bad luck, to karma for the adversity we experience. I have learned that while such explanations many ease the fears of those who have not yet experienced a particular adversity and are trying to convince themselves they never will, the explanations are of very little consolation to those of us who are facing the adversity already. It matters little to me why it is that when I go out shopping with my wife I need to keep an eye out for a place to sit down in case my pain flares, it just matters that I in fact need to be a chair hawk and so my participation with her is limited. It's not as if someones ability to definitively tell me why I need to sit down would change the reality of my limitation! If someone told me it was an unskillful action in a past life that led to my limitation now, it really wouldn't change my reality one iota. Yet that, too, is an attachment! Who ever said we get to be a mall rat forever? What sane person over the age of seventeen would want to be?

We can choose to live our life celebrating the things we can do or we can choose to live our life bemoaning the things we cannot do. In truth, there are times in all of our lives when we move between the two extremes as we adjust to changes in our health and abilities. That's a normal response to stress. After an initial adjustment period, however, it seems to me we are faced with a choice to either celebrate our abilities or mourn our limitations. I could choose to allow my limitations to keep me from accompanying Erin to the mall at all and instead sit home alone, but the truth is I never really accompanied her into the fitting room at all (dammit). What's the difference whether I am standing outside the fitting room waiting for her or sitting outside it? The only difference is how I choose to interpret my waiting, and nothing is stopping me from choosing to see sitting as an equally valid choice - and that's all it is, a choice. I can choose to stand an be miserable until I fall over or to sit and be comfortable, and only a masochist chooses misery!

Of course, we don't make these shifts in perspective overnight. We need to allow ourselves the grace to allow some time for shift to occur. We need to be gentle with ourselves and avoid the value judgments that far too often seem to automatically accompany limitations. The truth is even when we are perfectly healthy we all have limitations. None of us can fly without assistance, few of us will even run a four minute mile, we can't really make ourselves any taller than we are, and none of us can learn a new language in a week or less. Odd that we don't have any problems with these limitations, isn't it? Do you suppose that the difference is that not too many of us expects to run a four minute mile, but for some reason in other areas we are attached to other expectations that may be equally unreasonable but we don't recognize them as such? Hmmm...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Racism at Home Depot and Other News

Today we look at the unabashedly racist Home Depot Twitter post over the weekend, a professional football player who decided he had enough to live on and no longer wanted to risk his health, and infighting between Christians - what could be more attractive?

Check out this episode!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Arguing About Names

I read a Facebook thread today that really turned my stomach. In it some clergy from an Independent Catholic denomination had advertised that in their denomination divorced people can receive Communion. Some Roman Catholics took umbrage and tried to tell the Independent Catholics that because they weren't Roman Catholic they couldn't identify as Catholic. The Independent Catholics answered back that Romans aren't the only Catholics and pointed to the Orthodox Churches which identify as Catholic without receiving any grief from Roman Catholics. In this they were factually correct - the term "Catholic" is not the exclusive possession of the Vatican. In fact, if we don't capitalize "catholic" we now have a term which is applied to the Church universal - even in its Protestant forms. However, just because you are factually correct doesn't mean it's a good idea to throw gasoline on a fire.

The accusations from the Roman Catholic side escalated with the Independent Catholics remaining rather calm but holding their ground. The Romans attacked the Independent Catholic clergy as less than legitimate, their sacraments as invalid, their Church as no Church because in their view the only true Church is the Roman Catholic Church, and recommended they all join the Episcopal Church - apparently in their minds the equivalent of casting them into hell. It's really a tired old argument that has been rehearsed and rehashed at least tens of thousands of times both in public and in private, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth and two questions: (1) Who cares? and (2) Does anybody believe these exchanges are attractive to anyone on the outside?

Honestly, who cares what anybody calls themselves as long as they aren't defrauding anyone in the process? I could call myself the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the only way it would bother anyone would be if they decided to let it bother them. The Roman Catholic Church and her members is no more impacted by some group calling itself The Cleveland Catholic Church than I am impacted by that decision - unless and until they decide to make a big stink about it! I could call myself the King of Wisconsin, and it wouldn't give me any more power or notoriety than I already have. The only thing people getting all upset about my self promotion would accomplish is to get me more attention, which is probably what I wanted when I anointed myself King! Only a moron would play into that game, and apparently more than a few morons can be found inside the conservative wing of Roman Catholic Church!

Meanwhile, as the two sides flung vindictive at one another I couldn't help but wonder if anyone but the most committed masochist would be attracted by their display of peeing on trees like dogs on a walk in a new neighborhood. Who would want to be a part of a Church that seemed more intent on marking its territory - whether Roman or Independent - than in reaching out in love and compassion? I thought about it for a long time, and realized the only kind of small minded asshat who would be intrigued by such childish behavior is most likely already a member of one or the other Catholic Churches. I suppose the advantage is they don't have to worry about running out of seats!

In the end, why do we care how anybody else identifies themselves - spiritually or otherwise? The answer is that we might just find our own sense of being somehow special and better than the public at large violated if someone starts using a name similar to the one that we believe makes us special. Our fragile egos get trampled, and our own insecurity flares when someone (in our mind) misappropriates our special name. Can we see that names in themselves are completely arbitrary? There is nothing inherently "Catholic" unless we can get enough people to agree on what that might be - and even then it is a purely subjective and assignment of meaning we could equally well assign to the word "umbrella." Despite that, many people are willing to fight to the death for their piece of a completely insubstantial and arbitrary definition of a random word.

Somewhere Jesus is shouting, "Get a life, would you?"

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Weekly Scripture Commentary for November 10, 2013

Join us each week for Craig's unique take on the Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the week! Today's scriptures are Haggai: 2:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; and Luke 20:27-38

Check out this episode!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Walking the Walk

I've not been feeling one hundred percent lately, and there are probably a lot of reasons for that. As an aside, the whole "feeling one hundred percent" is rather an odd and subjective yardstick that we like to bring out. Suppose that we really had never felt more than fifty percent all of our lives. That fifty percent would seem like one hundred percent, until one day when we suddenly felt sixty percent, which would actually feel like one hundred twenty percent and cause us to reevaluate what one hundred percent was, except that it would still be only sixty percent despite all of our beliefs to the contrary. If that won't make you appreciate subjectivity, I don't know what will.

When Thomas Merton was in his late forties and rapidly approaching his fifties he started to think he was soon going to die. Eventually he decided that his body wasn't telling him it was getting ready to die but rather that it needed to slow down. Ironically, he did die accidentally not too many years later at the tender age of fifty-three. I have often wondered if his body was, indeed, trying to tell him something. There are people who believe that his death was not an accident at all but rather that he was killed by someone within the Roman Catholic Church who was threatened by his openness to other traditions. In any event, I am starting to believe that those of us whose bodies begin to betray us earlier than the average person are forced to confront the reality of our mortality in a substantial, if premature, way.

You might expect that such a confrontation would have predictable effects, and it does. It has led me to reassess quite a bit in my life. I am thankful it has not led me to get hair plugs, a sports car, a mistress, or to start shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch. That's not to say I have emerged unscathed, however. I find that I do not have much patience for nonsense or for wasting my time, and I am not willing to invest huge amounts of time in some project in which I do not believe. I have always struggled with that last one, but now the struggle has been elevated to epic proportions. You might say that the sensitivity on my bullshit detector has been turned way up, and the screeching noise inside my head when it is tripped is almost more than I can bear.

Especially prominent are issues of right livelihood, not just in the traditional sense (which is actually not very demanding at all assuming you aren't manufacturing dirty bombs or something similar) but also in the sense that I have a hard time justifying wasting my gifts doing busy work. All of this comes at a time when my body is severely limiting the kinds of work I am physically able to do. As you might imagine, this sets up a conflict between my physical and spiritual selves of epic proportions. That conflict is only intensified by the years that I spent running away from what it is I knew I was called to pursue - my authentic self. No matter how much we want to believe that it is easy to disconnect from the expectations and definitions of not only society at large but also those closest to us (for better or worse), if it was easy we all would simply stand up for ourselves and live authentically. The fact that we don't reflects how much power we allow others to have over us.

I'm reminded of the old joke that it doesn't matter how old a mother gets, she never gives up hope that her kids will one day make something of themselves. Imagine moving to the place where no matter how old we got we would never feel compelled to make anything of ourselves that wasn't authentic. That might require that we recognize the self-destructive nature of listening to others in their attempts to define us. In the end it is clear that happiness never arises from being disloyal to ourselves. That may be one of life's most important lessons.

Racism, Bullying, and The Miami Dophins

News broke this week of the Miami Dolphin's locker room being a haven for bullying and racism. What is going on here?

Check out this episode!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Weekly Scripture Commentary for November 3, 2013

Join Craig each week for his unique perspective on the Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the week. This week's readings are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-2, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Check out this episode!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Meaningful Work

We spend most of our waking hours at work, which means that when we don't find our work meaningful we can feel as if our lives are passing us by. While we shouldn't get out primary identity from our work, we should feel as if we are wasting our time, either. How can we determine what will bring us fulfillment?

Check out this episode!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Weekly Scripture Commentary for October 27, 2013

Each week join Craig for his unique perspective on the REvised Common Lectionary Readings for the week. This week's readings are Sirach 35:12-17. 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; and Luke 18:9-14

Check out this episode!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Language Fails God

Could it be that the real limitation of language is that it has very limited ability to describe the abstract? If you doubt that, try to tell me what love is in fifty words or less. While you are at it try to describe love in five thousand words or less, or the way a spectacular sunset feels, or your internal response the exact moment when you see a child born. The best we can hope for is a very loose approximation that doesn't really do the experience justice.

How many books have been written about God? Whether you have read one of those books or one thousand of them, the odds are they really don't even come close to your experience of God. They may come close to describing things that you have heard others say about God, but the things we say about anything or anybody rarely come close to portraying the experience of meeting them. If they did, all of those dates you went on with someone you were told had a wonderful personality would have worked out much better!

A great segment of Christianity has spent a lot of time trying to describe God in the way we might describe an office building, or the way a car engine works, or the way we would evaluate someone admitted to a
psychiatric unit. We try to attribute behaviors to God, as if God was some kind of superhuman being, in order to convince each other we know how God "works." We read the Bible as if it was a scientific treatise that describes exactly the way God and the universe interact rather than an attempt by people long dead to describe their encounters with the Transcendent in the only language available to them, the language of their everyday lives. We talk about God speaking to us, as if encountering God was some sort of psychotic episode. Preachers speak about God giving them just the message they need to preach while they were driving over to church on Sunday morning, as if God is their speech writer on call. In the end, it's all just so much nonsense because it's all about the speaker trying to convince the listener that the speaker is just a little bit closer to God than the rest of us and so we really should listen to them and empty our wallets into their collection plates. It's all about Harold, and not about God at all. For these people religion is all about literalizing a very abstract concept and then using that distortion to get ahead by any means necessary. In other words, it's manipulative nonsense. It's little wonder that Christianity has a credibility problem.

On the other hand, those of us who have had experiences of God are hard pressed to describe them. Some of us don't find trying to describe God as a "being," human or otherwise, very accurate at all. Fur us God is that which is found in silence; that which pervades, supports, surrounds, sustains, and animates life. For us God is far closer to what Eastern religions call Enlightenment than God could ever be to Harold. When we experience God it is as if we suddenly see everything very clearly, including the best direction to take or decision to make - not because someone is whispering it in our ear or commanding it under penalty of damnation, but because for a moment we share a transcendent viewpoint in which what has been hidden (and often so much more) is revealed. We are not left with any sort of proof that is a collection of bullet points but rather with a knowing that transcends explanation, and that knowing is what matters. That knowing causes us to realize, among other things, that it really doesn't matter if our understanding or description coincides with that of anyone else or if it earns their approval because the knowing itself is enough.

It's not much of a description, but then the only tool I have to use is language.

If the future is going to hold a meaningful expression of Christianity in a community setting we are going to have to find ways to move away from the popular misunderstandings of God as an angry, intoxicated, abusive parent and Christians as the small child that just spilled the milk across the kitchen table at dinnertime yet again. Whenever I hear about "praise and worship" gatherings I am always left with the impression that attendees are kissing up to the angry and abusive parent God while he is sober in the hopes that a little later tonight when he is drunk the beating might not be as bad. In fairness, there are people who love "praise and worship" services for the emotional high often created therein by well trained worship leaders who understand how to use psychology and music to manipulate their emotions. Isn't that just another kind of deception? Those attending such services believe that the Holy Spirit's presence makes them feel elated, but in truth it's nothing more than a contemporary PT Barnum dressed in church clothes.

What is God is more like the ocean and we are fish swimming in it? The God would both surround us and flow through us like water moves through a the gills of a fish. We would draw our sustenance from God as a fish draws oxygen from the water, and God would also support us and comprise our environment. The entire world as we know it would be God, and no other being we encountered would be outside of our God-environment. Trying to decide who was in and out of the ocean would be absurd, as would any claim that the water liked one of us more than another. Every now and then we might swim out of the cove in which we spend most of our lives and get a glimpse of how vast the ocean really is and how varied are the forms of life it supports. No analogy is perfect, but we can see how those with a limited perspective might believe that the ocean is angry when a story stirs it up and create stories of a vengeful, angry ocean. Those living in deeper waters would experience the ocean as unchanging and dependable and reject the stories of the shallows dwellers. A mature faith has found the deep waters not because it is special in any way but rather because it has engaged in spiritual practice consistently. That means it is within reach of all of us!

I don't pretend to have the answers about what our community gatherings will look like. Those questions are yet to be answered. They will certainly be grounded more in honest exchange and sharing of the journey than in attempts to manipulate or coerce one way or another. I suspect, too, that the environment for these gatherings will be much more a level playing field than the Church has historically been. There will probably always be people who facilitate such gatherings and are specially trained to do so, but a good facilitator knows that his or her job is to bring people into full participation rather than provide them with pat answers designed to repress thought rather than stimulate it. We could sing the old songs if they still gave us joy, but we would sing them in a way that appreciated them as metaphorical rather than literal - as any description of Transcendence must be if it has any hope of ringing true.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Theologians, Sex, the Bible, and Other Nonsense

Have theologians finally gone completely around the bend? Has it not occurred to them that healthy, well adapted, and relatively normal people find most of their proclamations irrelevant? Do they really believe that consenting adults ponder what St. Paul might think about the sex act in which they are about to engage? Has it not occurred to them that all of their valiant attempts to justify the patriachy and misogyny in the Bible aren't going to convince any thinking person that the authors didn't really mean that women were property and we would do better to talk about cultural differences than justifications? Why are the theologians silent on the things of real life? We'll explore this today on Interspiritual Insights.

Check out this episode!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Weekly Scripture Commentary for October 20, 2013

Join us each week for Craig's unique perspective on the Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the week. Today's readings are Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; and Luke 18:1-8.

Check out this episode!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Who Was This Jesus?

Dare we say it? In the secret places of our heart - excluding most conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, of course - I believe it's the case that the vast majority of people who would identify as mainline Christians, especially mainline Christians who aren't regular church attenders any more, don't believe in what at one time were the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Since I don't want to put anyone else on the spot, why don't I just play a little Q & A with myself?

Q: Do you believe that Jesus was the biological Son of God?
A: No.

Q: Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?
A: I believe that Jesus was the Son of God in a unique, but not exclusive, way because he was fully awake, fully enlightened, and achieved full union with God while still alive. I also believe that all humans are children of God, and that any of us could achieve precisely what Jesus did (union with God) while still alive. I believe the primary thing stopping more of us from doing so, despite the fact that Jesus himself said we would do greater things than he, is that the church has been insisting we cannot for two thousand years and we believed it. We may see some pretty amazing things now that the church is for the most part no longer credible.

Q: Do you believe that Jesus was God Incarnate?
A: I believe we all, every last one of us, are Incarnations of God. Again, most of us are completely unaware of this and so don't even come close to living into it the way Jesus did, but the potential is most definitely there.

Q: Do you believe Jesus died to pay the price for our sins and meet some kind of payment plan that God insisted on?
A: No. In fact, I find such a notion repulsive even as I understand the reasons a first century Jewish Christian might have arrived at that interpretation. How a twenty-first century Christian arrives at that interpretation is another issue.

Q: Do you believe in the literal Virgin Birth?
A: No. In biblical times you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting someone allegedly born of a virgin. Being born of a virgin was a mythological way of saying that someone was special. It had nothing to do with the status of that person's mother's hymen.

Q: Do you believe the birth stories found in Matthew and Luke are actual, factual accounts?
A: No. They were written much later, some seventy years after the birth of Jesus. Of course, that's not to say that they cannot inform us about how Jesus was understood by his contemporaries - or how he might be understood by us, for that matter, if we learned to abandon our insistence on literalism. Jesus was born in a backwater town long before birth certificates or hospital births. There was nobody there recording events for the record.

Q: Do you believe in the bodily resurrection?
A: I am an agnostic on the bodily resurrection. I wasn't there. I know that something about Jesus, more accurately the Christ in him, did live on - whether physical, spiritual, and/or something else I do not know and it doesn't really matter to me. Something continued, and it was so powerful that it changed the course of human history. It is beyond plausibility that a fictional account contrived by a handful of peasants did all of that. So I believe in the resurrection without feeling the need to define it to death (pun intended).

Q: Who killed Jesus, the Romans or the Jews?
A: The Romans, no doubt about it. The biblical accounts of Jesus "trial" are mythological - there were no court reporters in those days. All of it, including the whole, "release Barabbas" business, is a story designed to convey a truth but not a literal newspaper report. Maybe Pilate did wash his hands, maybe he didn't. The point is we will never know. What we do know from independent sources is that Jesus was crucified. If we choose to, we can spend the rest of our lives pondering the minutiae that may or may not have surrounded those events but to me they matter little. Much more important to me is to discover what the biblical writers were trying to convey and what the stories are calling me to do.

I could go on and on for some time, but by now my point is clear. What's more, I believe if we snuck into most church coffee hours this weekend and spirited the pastor out of the room for safety's sake we could have interesting conversations with the run of the mill church member and get pretty much the same answer to most of the above questions as I gave. In truth I believe we'd get the same answers from the pastor as long as their members weren't around to witness the interview. The question is, why does anyone play the game? I understand it's a requirement of membership, but what organization worth belonging to forces its members to lie in order to remain members? Mind you, there will doubtless be at least one angry comment to this blog post that announces that I am not fit to be called a Christian, and that's fine with me because if Christianity has become a religion where seeking the truth in an honest way is a problem them I don't want to be a Christian. The goal of my spiritual journey isn't religion, it's God, and we have seen far too often in recent history how the former gets in the way of the latter. So why go on pretending? Is Christianity the goal of our journey or is God the goal? I believe there are more than a few churches that have that equation backwards!

Just imagine what might happen if we could have honest conversations about the important questions on the spiritual path. Fortunately, you don't have to imagine. There are places like the organizations I founded, The UAC, and the RHIMES lineage of Interspirituality, where that can happen. There are blogs like this one and sites like my main website where these discussions can be had with honesty and integrity. Why not check places like this out today, and start asking those important questions? Don't let peer pressure keep you from asking the important questions of your life!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Personal Integrity

Personal Integrity - where has it gone? There was a time when people kept their commitments, but today it seems that time is long gone. There was a time when a handshake was all that was needed to seal a deal, when the elderly and children were left alone even by criminals. What has happened, and how do we fix it?

Check out this episode!

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Hopeless Killing the Helpless

My eighty-four year old neighbor was murdered in his home yesterday. From what I could overhear the police talking about outside my home, it seems that a fifteen year old broke into his home and killed him, then stole his car, somehow got into a traffic accident and then set the car on fire. This led the police to Bob's house where they found him murdered. Of course the specific details could be incorrect because the police spread a lot of misinformation during the early stages of an investigation, but the broad picture is probably essentially correct. Bob is dead, someone broke into his house and killed him - or knocked on the door and forced their way in - and then stole his car. Somewhere there was a fire involved because members of the police department's arson investigation team were on site yesterday.

How are we to understand all of this? At the very least, we know a tragedy has occurred. If a teenager was involved, we can say that it was most likely gang related. Trying to arrive at a "reason" for murder that makes sense is always a fruitless task. People of sound mind would never kill someone, and so whatever reasons the killer might have had won't make much sense to those of us on the outside. Certainly, from a Buddhist perspective the reason for anything has to do with causes and conditions being ripe for something to occur, but trying to sort all of that out from the outside is often difficult if not impossible. If the brakes on our car go out we can be relatively certain that a lack of preventative maintenance combined with the passage of time are the causes and conditions. When someone is murdered the causes and conditions become more complex. We can, however, point to at least a few possibilities.

Economic conditions in urban areas are abysmal, and most of our country simply doesn't care enough to change them. This leads to the development of alternative economies in poor areas, chief among them the drug trade. By and large, street gangs control drugs in our neighborhoods and so are perceived to have some power by kids in those neighborhoods. Healthy rites of passage are all but absent in our culture, and in urban areas gang membership has become a valid rite of passage that often requires some senseless act of violence, theft, daring, or some combination of those three. Bob, by virtue of being aged and a bit infirm, made an easy target for pseudo tough guys to prove their mettle.

There are deeper causes and conditions only hinted at in the above paragraph, including economic injustice and lack of opportunity. As I have written and spoken of in other places and spaces, there are very few employment opportunities in the City of Milwaukee that pay a living wage. Access to employment opportunities in neighboring communities and counties is limited by a racist public transportation system which primarily has routes running into the city in the morning and out of it in the afternoon. This means that if you want to get a job in neighboring Waukesha County, you will need a reliable car to do so. When you add to this equation the fact that in every community bordering Milwaukee County the city police wait on the border and stop vehicles with people of color in them in disproportionate numbers, the picture takes on a particularly insidious quality.

Before we get too busy screaming about racism as the only factor in a complex equation, let us not forget white folks like Bob who have stayed behind in the city and not partaken of white flight. Some stayed out of financial necessity, others stayed because they believed in integrated neighborhoods and were not scared away when people of color moved in next door. Bob's female friend of thirty years cried on the curb last night, a black woman bemoaning the loss of her friend. It's easy to believe that the lives of white people and people of color in the city are not intertwined, but it's amazingly simplistic thinking perpetuated by those outside the city who never venture into it. Then again, our gang culture has decayed to the point where people and places previously off limits are not fair game and so we see children, the elderly, schools and playgrounds with children on them are now the victims of violence on a regular basis.

It would be easy (but ineffective) to say that we need to ramp up police patrols, or to increase incarceration, or any of a number of other knee jerk reactions to tragedies such as Bob's murder. The truth is that we have tried those solutions and they have failed miserably. There are no quick fixes. The only thing that will begin to address the violence that is so rampant in our society is to address the causes and conditions of it: lack of economic opportunity and lack of valid rites of passage. To accomplish the first will require all of us to abandon the perverted notion that greed is a virtue. To accomplish the second will require us to develop spiritual and religious systems that speak to people and offer meaningful rites of passage. Neither of these will happen overnight, which means we need to get started right away.

As hard as it may be to hear, the first step toward developing meaningful spiritualities is to recognize that Bob was not the only tragedy in the events of yesterday. Somewhere in the city there is a fifteen year old child whose life has also been lost. Perhaps it can be reclaimed, but we can be certain that none of the systems currently in place will help him reclaim it. As a soon to be convicted felon, we can be fairly certain that he will be unemployable until this country changes the unjust requirement that applicants for employment reveal felony convictions to their perspective employers. As it is, this requirement means that the only way he will be able to make money will be through illegal activities. For a country supposedly founded on Judeo-Christian values, we are a singularly unforgiving lot. Who among us does not have a mistake in their past they would rather forget? Who among us would not rather forget our biggest mistake? What makes us think this young man is any different? Can we see the irony in the fact that our condemning this young man to a life where he cannot move beyond this horrific mistake creates more Bobs rather than leading to justice?

We need to wake up. Sadly, most of us don't start down the path to awakening until some tragedy strikes our lives. If we wait for the numbers game to cause tragedy to strike in enough people's lives to make a change then it will never occur because people are constantly being born and dying, leaving us a new generation to convince. I believe this is where engaged spirituality comes into play. We simply must speak out. We must lovingly yet firmly challenge the status quo and not stop until justice is achieved. Both Bob and his killer deserve our best efforts.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Finding Meaning in Work

There are times I wish that I was one of those people who just didn't care what they did for work. I know people who would do almost anything that didn't violate their sense of right and wrong to make money, and I admire them. I have also read all of the admonitions by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other esteemed spiritual teachers and religious leaders that it doesn't matter what you do for a living (within the boundaries of ethical propriety, of course), as long as you put your self into your work with right effort it can even be a path to awakening. I believe them, I really do - but it's just not my experience.

Don't  misunderstand, if you are just fine with doing anything that pays a decent wage because you see it as a way to pay your bills and provide for your family I have no problem with that. In fact, I wish I could be like you. I wish I could toddle off to a place where something was made that nobody would ever buy, that wouldn't negatively impact anything or anyone but wouldn't positively impact them, either, and be perfectly content. I just can't do it. I certainly have tried - more than once.

I can be very creative in seeing some of the things I have done for work as meaningful. When I was doing field inspections on homes in foreclosure and vacant homes I was able to see value in being kind and compassionate to the people I encountered as I went about my business. In the case of the vacant properties, I realized that by checking on them and making sure they weren't being used as drug houses I was doing a small part to keep neighborhoods a little bit safer. Even when I encountered people being displaced by banks that had essentially stolen their homes from them in the mortgage scandals of the last five years I could listen to their stories with a sympathetic ear and treat them with dignity and respect. I don't really think I need much of a window to see some good in most work, but I do need something. Right now, in the middle of a job hunt, I am having trouble finding it.

For me, "making money" is not reason enough to take a job if the job involves little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic or - even worse - throwing people overboard. I recognize that from a Buddhist perspective there are very few jobs that aren't considered right livelihood, but I'd be hard pressed to work at a many place that in the strictest sense of the term does offer right livelihood. I suppose it's in part due to my complete rejection of most everything that caused my father to be absent during my childhood. He was a workaholic who during my teen years was an executive in the paper converting industry, the industry which makes the equipment that makes cartons and boxes for everything from cigarettes to McDonald's French fries. To him, I was less important than a French fry box. I suppose that's a message I never wanted to send to anyone, and I can live with that.

The problem is that our employment options narrow as we age. I don't consider myself old, but employers do. I also have some physical limitations that make some employment options unrealistic. That being said, I don't need a position with benefits, I just need a position in which I can feel of benefit. That's turning out to be harder than you might think.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Wash Me, and I Shall Be Clean?

One of the many changes I have noticed in myself over the last several years is that the more time I spend in meditation the less the old liturgical language I used to love resonates with me. In fact, some of it is simply repulsive. This morning I saw a post on the Internet that had a verse from Psalm 51 that is often used in confessions of sin in worship services. The Psalmist pleads with God to, "wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." The implication is that our sin, the things we do wrong, have so befouled us that we need serious cleansing, something like a spiritual version of fecal incontinence that needs power washing.

I've often wondered how often such language has stopped people from even trying something new and challenging. I wonder how many people, filled with religious fervor, simply avoid challenging and uncertain situations for fear of spiritually pooping their pants. I wonder what possible good such imagery could accomplish other than keeping people under control and on the farm - and if that's good, I am not so sure good is very good at all!

Back when I was an enthusiastic institutional Christian I relished the group confession in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church. In those days I attended Mass three days a week - as often as it was offered in my parish. There was great comfort in the words of absolution, and for those who still find those kinds of rituals comforting I have no desire to take their comfort away. All of us, even me, need reassurance that we are okay every now and then. Now, however, that I have come to see that we are all bearers of what Buddhists call Buddha Nature and what Christians sometimes call Christ Consciousness, or what I just like to call God, I see the consequences of sin (those times when we know better but take the easy way out anyway) not so much as spiritual sharting but rather an obscuration of our essential basic goodness. It's less a matter of a soiled diaper than it is a matter of needing to clean our glasses. To be sure when our glasses are dirty we don't see the world or ourselves accurately, and that is a problem - but there is a difference between being so profoundly flawed we need someone else to sandblast our diaper and reaching into our pocket for a cloth to clean our lenses.

In the Upper Room before the Last Supper Jesus washed his disciples' feet. Peter, ever speaking before thinking, first asked Jesus to not wash his feet and then asked him to wash his whole body. Jesus responded that people who are clean need only to have their feet washed, a reference to the fact that in a culture where people walked everywhere in sandals their feet got dirty. If Jesus were here today I suspect he would wash his disciples' hands, but I digress. So if Jesus is telling Peter he is clean, and at this point in his life Peter certainly got it wrong more often than he got it right, what in the world makes us think we need to be washed and purified? The answer is the thought and behavior control mechanism of the Church has led us to believe that for seventeen hundred years, and it's time to claim our freedom.

We all make mistakes, we all take the easy way out sometimes, and we all unintentionally hurt people at times - but every one of those behaviors originates in our own pain and brokenness. At those times we don't need to be reminded of our brokenness - it's all too apparent - but rather of our goodness. Rather than being kicked when we are down, we need to be lifted up. Wash me an I shall be clean? You are clean already! Rejoice!

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Need to Police Belief

I don't know how many people are aware that there are people in various religious and spiritual belief systems who spend a great deal of time monitoring the behavior of others - especially that of clergy and other leaders - and then blogging about those who fail to conform to their notion of orthodoxy. The "offenses" of these "heretics" are most often benign, ranging from things like daring to join a mutual support group for clergy to stumbling over words during a worship service to being suspected of being "light in the loafers," a delightful [sic] phrase that hasn't been used in about forty years to describe gay men. It's an expression that is about as timely as the views of those who use it.

It seems that every tradition (including Buddhism) has these trolls lingering in dark corners and waiting to disparage the reputation of good people in the name of orthodoxy and other questions of "validity." The problem is that nothing they do every builds anything or anyone up, it only tears down and destroys. There is no faith is the universe evolving just as it should, and even less faith in the human mind to detect nonsense when it is presented. Worse, there is no productive outcome of heretic hunting. In fact, it is completely life-denying. This view holds that human beings are for the most part ignorant fools, unable to judge whether what they are hearing rings true or not. Could these bloggers simply be generalizing from their own audience to the spiritual community at large? It's certainly a possibility.

Every new teaching, regardless of the tradition in which it occurs, begins as a heresy - which might be defined as a teaching outside of or contrary to the accepted collection of teachings. Within Christianity, the idea that women could be ordained was at one time a heresy. In some dark corners of Christendom it still is a heresy. It took someone with courage who understood the error of a male only clergy to stand up and proclaim the "heresy" as truth for the wheels of change to begin their slow, gradual grind toward the inclusion of women. In this way, those who "teach heresy" actually provide a very valuable service in opening the windows to allow fresh air to blow through the stale climate of religious and spiritual traditionalism. (We dare not forget that burning witches at the stake was once orthodox!) Of course not every heresy brings about change, and that is as it should be. There are such things as bad ideas, and just because someone has a new idea doesn't mean they have a good idea. Recall the Yugo GV.

The need to be a heresy hunter is rooted in abusive religion itself. If your view of God is one of an unforgiving and abusive parent then you may well feel vindicated in acting in the same way, freely abusing others and accusing them of being inadequate in hopes of covering up your own feelings of inadequacy and hoping that God won't notice just how wretched you really are if you succeed in bringing forth enough heretical corpses. While we normally feel for the victims of such small minded nonsense, the perpetrators of it need our compassion as well because they live fear filled and ultimately unfulfilling lives. The fact that their dissatisfaction comes out sideways in witch hunts betrays their profound need for healing. It also speaks of the need for those of us creating new spiritual communities to pay close attention to the images and metaphors we choose.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Struggle to Leave

The statistics are clear, eighty percent of America isn't in church on a regular basis for reasons other than Weddings, Baptisms, and Funerals. That means that in one sense it's easy to leave church. It's easy to just stop attending, because you can tell a white lie about whether or not you go to church and nobody can really check up on you very easily. In fact, people tell the white lie to researchers all the time. If you believed people's self-reports you would think that forty percent of America is in church on a regular basis. When you compare those figures with actual church provided attendance numbers, however, the truth rears its head.

It's one thing to tell the white lie and respond to anyone who asks why they haven't seen us at church lately by saying that we have been busy, or started going to a church closer to home, or that we are shopping around for a better fit. It's quite another to say that we have been broadening our spiritual experience and including practices and teachings from outside Christianity. The more conservative our Christian background the harder it is to tell people about our new perspective - unless of course you are one of the three people in the world who actually enjoy the concerned looks, the warnings about losing your "salvation," and other similarly uncomfortable but generally ineffective methods used in an attempt to rope people back onto the ranch. Since those who ask have received the same misinformation we did it's a pretty good bet they know how to push our buttons. It becomes especially awkward when churches convince their members they are responsible for each other's "salvation." If you are one of those people, I need to tell you that such teachings are profound distortions of the biblical record that usually use the book of Ezekiel as their very shaky foundation. It's a shaky foundation because Ezekiel (like Daniel, Revelation, and parts of other biblical books) is Apocalyptic literature, and to take such highly symbolic writings and literalize them is to pervert them beyond recognition - and certainly beyond the intent of the author.

The truth is that the only person whose choices you are responsible for is, well, you. A little bit of reason and a short time away from the propaganda machine will help you to realize that it is absolutely impossible to control other people. God knows the church in all its forms has certainly tried to control people through threats of hellfire and damnation, but if those tactics worked then we would be seeing more than twenty percent of America in church, wouldn't we? At one time in history those tactics worked because people simply didn't know any better, but in the twenty-first century they are a thing of the past. Today, at least in the developed world, we do know better. We also have the ability to set boundaries, so when our well meaning friends express their concern we can thank them for their concern and say that we are either looking for or have found a new spiritual home. We don't need to say more if we aren't comfortable, and if our questioners are persistent we can say that we choose not to talk about it with them at this time. They don't have to like it, but they do have to respect it.

Of course, there will be those people we do want to share more with and those with whom we want to avoid the subject altogether. Both choices are perfectly fine, and we can expect our choices to change over time as well. The day really does come when we feel perfectly fine saying that we are Buddhist-Christian (if that's true), or Interspiritual, or whatever words more accurately express what we wish to communicate. I have found the best rule is to trust my own instincts. There are still days I don't want to get into an in depth discussion at the grocery store, so I ask the person if we could schedule a time to have coffee and discuss it. What I do know is that this walk makes sense to me, much more sense that the way institutional religion presents the teachings of Jesus. And, after hearing a discussion decrying the "watering down" of the teachings of the Buddha by the contemporary mindfulness movement recently I have come to the conclusion that Christianity isn't the only control-nut bearing tree in town!


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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hell and Rumors of Hell

Whenever considering the role of spirituality and religion, it seems to me we have to address a primary question about the role of spirituality and religion before beginning in earnest. The question is this: Do spiritual and religious systems describe the way the universe (and by extension God) works, or do they determine the way the world (and God) works?

Traditional religious institutions often behave as if they believe they determine the way the world and God works. One of the more absurd examples of this fallacy occurred when Galileo discovered that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the galaxy. The Church informed him he was wrong and promptly excommunicated him, only to "apologize" some five hundred years later. The fact that the Church held that the Earth was the center of the galaxy did not make it so, all their efforts to prove otherwise (including consigning Galileo to exclusion from the Church and therefore heaven) notwithstanding. The Church also tends to believe it determines what God does as well. Look at the elaborate system of indulgences that were held to shorten the time one spent in purgatory - the sale of which led in part to the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church doesn't have the market on arrogance exclusively to itself, however. How many Protestant Churches have taken it upon themselves to determine what behaviors and personal qualities with disqualify you from heaven? Let's not forget it was the Protestants who ran the Salem witch trials, a charming period in history wherein women were thrown into rivers. If they sank they were not witches, but they were dead, and if they floated they were witches and therefore executed.

It can be easy for those of us raised in institutional religion to believe that the more or less exhaustive (and certainly exhausting) lists of doctrine and dogma do in fact determine the way the universe works. The truth is, however, that they represent the best that human beings have been able to do at different points in history to describe the way the universe works. Let's not forget that the Psalmist's description of the Earth as being flat and supported by four pillars made more than a few people certain that Christopher Columbus would said his Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria right off the edge of the world and into oblivion - or worse, the fires of hell. Of course, he didn't, and what he and those who followed him did when he arrived in the West made Indigenous people wish that the Earth was indeed flat and supported by four pillars. Countless people have been threatened with hell fire and damnation and throughout much of history it has often been an effective thought and behavior control technique. Many who step away from institutional religion struggle with also stepping away from the threats of their former Church. Religious abuse is difficult to overcome, and we need to be clear that such threats are religious abuse and not valid spirituality.

Spirituality, and some religious people as well, understands that spiritual and religious teachings are attempts to describe the world and how it works but does not have the power to force the universe to do anything. If there is a hell, and I don't believe there is, it most certainly wouldn't be the case that St. Peter would meet someone at the pearly gates and tell them that God didn't want to send them to hell but the Church said God had to and God had no choice to obey. I suspect this may be news to more than a few Church types who feel fairly certain they can consign people to eternal damnation through their doctrine and dogma. What's more, since our understanding of how the universe works is growing all the time our spirituality must be fluid and evolving or it will become little more than a museum piece.

Of course there will always be people whose need for certainly outweighs their need for common sense and solid reasoning. They will counter with certain passages from scripture that seem to say that scriptures were written by God and therefore cannot be in error. Holding consistently to that view requires ignoring some pretty glaring inconsistencies that simply wouldn't be present in a book written by any God worthy of worship. That being said, we cannot force anxiety laden people to enter reality because they simply aren't yet equipped to cope with it. Attempts to do so are bound to fail, and leave both sides frustrated. That's no reason for those of us who are ready for the next step in our spiritual evolution to voluntarily pretend otherwise. In fact, doing so creates an uncomfortable level of cognitive dissonance that will compel us to leave institutions we have moved beyond. That doesn't mean we cannot behave with compassion toward those left behind, but it does mean that honesty compels us to move on - and valid spirituality must be grounded in both compassion and honesty!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ultimate and Temporal Reality, and the Ultimate Fiction

Buddhists talk about ultimate and relative reality, but I find it more helpful when speaking with folks raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition and/or culture to speak instead of ultimate and temporal reality. It's not quite the same as the Buddhist concept, but it's certainly informed by it.

Ultimately, our lives are driven by fictions that we agree are facts - which doesn't change the fact that they are nothing other than agreed upon fictions. Take diamonds and gold, for example. Long ago people arbitrarily decided that diamonds and gold were valuable. In the case of gold, people decided it was valuable enough to base a monetary system on it. If we examine that decision we can see that it was arbitrary because people could just as easily have chosen another somewhat rare commodity and infused it with great, albeit arbitrary, value. What if gold hadn't been discovered until last week? Surely something different would have been chosen. What else is arbitrary?

National boundaries are arbitrary. I have written at other times about the experience of the first orbiting astronauts, who they looked at our planet from orbit and were moved by how beautiful it was without the boundaries arbitrarily inscribed on maps and globes. I can remember as a child being confused that the countries on the globe all were depicted in different colors, because the ground in America wasn't the color that was depicted on the globe. To compound my confusion, when I looked at a map of the United States each State was a different color - and the ground in Wisconsin wasn't orange! What's more, many of the names on the globe when I was a child - and some of the boundaries - have changed. What seemed ultimate was really only temporal.

Religions are arbitrary, too. Somewhere along the way people decided to follow this person while others decided to follow that person, and still others yet another person, while those people over there decided not to follow a person at all! After some time elapsed, new religions emerged. In some cases old religions disappeared, even though while they existed they gave hope to their adherents. One could argue (and I often do) that ultimately they were all pointing at the same point, but the arbitrarily chosen names, leaders, and founders made them appear to be different - or, to use another term, they are different temporally.

Human beings are all homo sapiens. Despite that, we find ways to make temporal distinctions that we believe are important - and sometimes, at least for a time, they may be. Problems arise when we set those decisions in concrete. One person is an American and so doesn't like Canadians, another is a Presbyterian and doesn't like Methodists, one is from the South and even more than a hundred years after the Civil War doesn't like "carpetbaggers" from the North. The truth is that every ethnic group newly immigrating to the United States took its place at the bottom of the social heap and was persecuted. In Milwaukee, where I grew up, German Americans told jokes about Polish Americans who returned the favor. When I moved to Boston in my twenties I was surprised to find the jokes I heard growing up about Polish people told instead about Irish people! In this century we have so come to equate ethnicity with skin color that we forget that ethnic discord is as old as human history - and a temporal, arbitrary choice.

The ultimate fiction is that separation exists at all.

In America our food gets to our table because someone in the Middle East drilled for the oil that was transported by a ship piloted by a captain from who knows where to a refinery in the US where people of different religions, ethnicities, and from disparate parts of the country worked to turn it into gasoline so that a truck driven by someone else could pick up produce harvested by migrant farm workers. The trucker delivered it to a food processing plant where still more people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs processed and packaged it for pickup by a different trucker for delivery to a warehouse where still other people from still different backgrounds shipped it off to the local store where employees readied it for purchase. Meanwhile a dairy farmer was milking a cow and oranges were being grown in a field to go through similar processes and end up at your store. Grain is grown in Nebraska that also gets processed and delivered to the store. We sit down to our morning cereal with strawberries and a glass of orange juice while fashioning ourselves quite independent. Temporal fictions may be romantic, but they are fictions nonetheless.

I believe that until we see the ultimate truth that everything and everybody are inseparably interconnected we don't have much chance of solving the world's problems. As long as we choose to buy into temporal fictions of disunity we will continue to perpetuate our own misery. Until we come to really internalize the truth that every species of plant, animal, and even mineral are all interconnected and so interact in a complex web that constitutes ultimate reality we will continue to shuffle deck chairs on the Titanic of temporal reality, believing that the son of a bitch over there is the source of our problems. Of course, he isn't our problem at all - we are our own problems. Black and browns and yellows and reds and whites and greens and blues all blame each other, but the truth is the distinctions we make that appear to justify our disdain for one another are arbitrary and temporal, not ultimate.

We blame one another for everything, failing to see that ultimately our habit of blame only piles yet another layer of obscuration over our ability to see our interconnectedness. We fail to see the truth of how governments and corporations manipulate and control culture because we are busy blaming one another, when in truth if we would see our deep connections we would never allow ourselves to be manipulated in that way. The truth is that we love our fictions more than we love the truth, because fictions require a lot less energy to perpetuate. A handy fiction is simply subscribed to and we are off to the races. Ultimate reality is only apprehended through spiritual practice, taking time for meditation, and looking deeply. It's much easier to have another beer and find another scapegoat.

Our future depends on seeing ultimate reality and living from it. Nothing less will do. To spread the word we need to practice and lead by example, not be evangelizing. Won't you join me?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Walls of Our Own Construction

I confess that I am not a scientist. The so-called "hard sciences" have never held much interest for me, I suspect because I have never believed that I would find a reason to use them in my daily life. I have never had to factor an equation at the grocery store, I never have been called upon to recite anything contained in the periodic table of elements, I haven't peered into a microscope since leaving school, and I don't fix my own car so I don't need to know much about mechanics, either. Of course, I value people who are excited by science - I am married to one. It's just not my thing. The result is that when I read about what physicists (and other scientists) have discovered I pretty much have to take it at face value. I'm not in any position to say, "Excuse me, Mr. Physicist, but I believe your methodology is faulty!"

Physicists say that everything on our planet is moving, that in actuality nothing is solid at the molecular level. It's all vibrating very quickly. That's not a new idea, it's been around for several years, but it's an idea I am still trying to come to terms with. Certainly, as far as my eye can see there are solid things and plenty of them. As one who has fallen down more than his share of times, the ground certainly does seem solid to me! You probably have stubbed your toes or hit your elbow on something that sure felt solid to you, too! Anyone who has been in a car accident would most likely attest to cars being solid objects. Of course, when we are talking about very small things like molecules that are packed very closely together and vibrating, larger things won't pass through them, which explains why things that are not solid leave bruises behind!

On the other hand, what if Jesus really did pass through a "solid" wall in his resurrected form? This information certainly speaks to that, doesn't it? =Some years ago people I respect as sane, rational people told me of the time they invited a Jain monk to speak to their church education hour and really couldn't explain how he was standing next to the table one moment and then sitting cross legged on top of it the next without anyone having seen him get up there. What about the "healer" in South America who apparently shoves a scissors up his nose without ill effects (though we don't know how the scissors feels about the whole thing)? It would seem that things are not always what they appear.

As I was reflecting on all of this it occurred to me that we humans love to create walls. Some of us like to create literal walls with bricks and mortal or studs and drywall. Most if not all of us seem to like to divide and categorize things. I seem to remember one of the first astronauts to orbit the earth remarked how beautiful it was and how he was struck that the human made boundaries between nations were (of course) not visible from space, adding to the beauty of his orbiting perspective. Somewhere I have a globe from when my children were in grade school, and some of the lines have moved and some of the names have changed. A globe from when I was in school would be almost comical in its inaccuracy today.

We put up walls in our spiritual lives, too. Religions are comprised primarily of walls that say we can believe this but cannot believe that; these behaviors are acceptable but those are not; these things make you welcome and those make you an outcast; and hosts of other walls. Sometimes religions remodel their houses by moving the walls and declaring what was bad to now be good and what was good to now be bad. Sometimes what had been thought to be eternal truths delivered directly from God get shifted around, to the anguish of some and the joy of others. This kind of wall moving can be healthy or destructive depending on whether it is life giving or life denying.

There is a video going around the Internet of a pastor in Oklahoma attacking his congregation in what he probably believes is tough love but in actuality is religious abuse. You can view it here. There was a day this kind of behavior may have been acceptable, but today it is not. The wall has moved, and apparently Pastor Jim Standridge didn't get the memo - or he didn't care. At least two of his members did care. The couple who were going to be married by Standridge and were attacked as "members not worth fifteen cents" in the video have left Immanuel Baptist Church and plan to be married elsewhere. I guess Pastor Standridge isn't the "real deal" he proclaims himself after all!

Religion isn't the only place that walls get put up, however. In our own spiritual lives we construct walls around ourselves all the time. There are practices and beliefs that we believe we can participate in and those that we believe are beyond either our ability, our beliefs, or both. Very often, people stepping away from the unhealthy restrictions placed upon them in their religious settings unwittingly carry the walls with them. The result is a kind of voluntary imprisonment in the name of freedom.

If we really believe that God is good and kind and loving, then God simply must encourage human beings to explore, learn, achieve, and move toward their full potential. If God has even just a few of the attributes traditionally attributed to God, there is nothing we can possibly do that would threaten God. Despite that, when we walk away from a restrictive religious environment (not all religious environments are restrictive, by the way) we may find it hard to step out fully into our new freedom. At that point, walls that once were imposed upon us become walls of our own construction - and what we build, we have the power to take down or walk through because they aren't solid anyway.

It may be frightening at first, but every new experience brings with it uncertainty. In some people uncertainly brings a bit of fear with it. We should remember that living things can only thrive when they are free to experiment and grow. Spirituality can and should be a playful journey filled with new discoveries. Our life stands before us and invites us to live it fully. It may be that our biggest obstacles are self imposed walls - tear them down! They were nothing more than fictions anyway! Spirituality brings with it the freedom to move into the fullness of our potential. The only thing standing in the was is us!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why I am a Buddhist Christian

I  am a Buddhist Christian first and foremost because the teachings of Buddhism give me a way to work with my mind and my life that Christianity cannot.

I'm also a Buddhist Christian because Christianity in the America is dominated by loud mouthed, small minded bigots who make me want to scream. In fact, the imbalance in the public arena has become so severe that I am not sure the image of Christianity can be rescued. What dominates the bookshelves of the Barnes & Noble Christianity section gives me the dry heaves. "Christian" bookstores, aren't. When I encounter the Salvation Army food truck in the hood they are essentially telling people if they had prayed for food the Salvation Army could have saved gas money because it would have magically appeared. If you come across a Christian in public who is likely to be witnessing about his or her faith, you will soon discover you have encountered an obnoxious boor. Some of you are thinking, "well, Mr. Smarty Pants, write a book for moderate to progressive Christians so they have something to buy." Nice theory, but the problem is that most moderate to progressive Christians are rather passive creatures who are more likely to buy the latest piece of fluffy, ego-laden Eckhart Tolle nonsense than a substantial book about a meaningful, practice laden Christianity. Why? Because substantial books seldom make Oprah's Book Club.

More importantly, the real problem is that the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have deteriorated into "holy shit, I hope this keeps me out of trouble" belief systems that don't have much to say to a world where most people smart enough to tie their shoes unassisted have realized
that there isn't any heaven in the clouds or hell inside the earth to make threats of punishment a motivating force. On the other hand, those wearing bow biters are crowding the mega-churches saying a sinner's prayer. I want to hasten to say there's nothing wrong with wearing bow bites, if that's your preference (or limitation). After all, Barney needs love, too.

What's worse is the truth that moderate to progressive Christians have been banging the new ecology & new cosmology drums for so long (thirty years!) many people mistake it for a dead horse and want to drag it off to the dog food factory to earn a few bucks. Can you people buy a new idea? Have you no imagination? Or are you so scared of new adventures that you don't dare try something new once you latch on to something that seems to work, even if only once? I bet there is still a leisure suit in your closet, isn't there? There are mausoleums with more life in them that there is in your gatherings. Can Call to Action give up on the puppet Masses and just once invite a theologian to one of their gatherings who still has their own teeth? Of course, doing so might bring change including attendees at your conferences who can't be tracked by the telltale crunch of a Depends undergarment and I'd imagine that is terrifying.

You see, it doesn't really matter if we are talking about conservative, moderate, or progressive Christians, most of you are so scared of change you are likely to soil yourselves if it would happen. Of course, many of the attendees at a Call to Action conference soil themselves on a regular basis anyway - but I digress.

So while the western faiths are busily scurrying about trying to avert disaster and waiting for God to rescue them while blaming those who disaster catches in its grips for their calamity because obviously they are not beloved of God, what are the eastern faiths doing? Do you really want to know? They have looked around, realistically assessed life, and decided that shit happens to everybody. So, rather than trying to avoid life either through institutional denial, yearning for the bad old days, or hunkering down in the avoiding-change storm shelter, Buddhism takes an honest look at what happens in life and encourages us to take an honest look at our reactions. We explore our mind and our stories with an eye toward stripping away all of the layers of nonsense we have voluntarily cakes over them seeing them honestly. We are taught that we can and should control our feelings, thoughts and behavior, and the result is that we become a person whom we can actually live with. Our ability to respond with compassion increases at least in part because we aren't looking over our shoulder to see if Satan is sneaking up behind us with a dozen roses, breath mints, and an erection because we realize that Satan is a mythical being of our own creation.

Why am I still a Christian? I am still a Christian because I have encountered God present in Jesus Christ and in the Sacraments of the Church. I am still a Christian because when you cut through all the fear and bullshit of popular Christianity and look directly at the teachings of Jesus and the first three hundred years of Christianity, at the great Contemplative history of the Church and it's profound social justice teachings and ignore the assholes outside Pridefest and Planned Parenthood, what you find is rich beyond measure. What you find are the great meditative practices, very similar to what eastern religions call meditation - and what you find in those practices regardless of your tradition is the same - that which I (and not a few others) call God. Not Santa God, mind you, some old hairy white man we beg for mercy, but rather the very ground of being, the source of life and love that is found in the interconnectedness of all that is and most especially in relationship. That God of my experience doesn't want us to go out on the street and try to make bitching into a legitimate spiritual practice, doesn't want us to evangelize the world to any particular point of view, never wants us to "share Jesus" with anyone, but rather asks something much more difficult. It simply calls us to love, compassion, and relationship - something completely contrary to our instinctive drive to focus on the things that separate us and then conquer, kill, and pillage in God's Name. Could there be anything more obscene?

The short version (though it's far too late to really be brief) is that I am a Buddhist Christian because by being Buddhist I can come much closer to the essence of Christianity in which I encounter God. More importantly, I encounter God in Buddhism without having to tunnel through all the bullshit of the pseudo-Christianity of contemporary expression. One brings me alive, and the other has repeatedly tried to oppress the life out of me. Mama didn't raise no fool.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Split That Hair a Few More Times, Will Ya?

One of the things I have noticed over the years about Christianity - and I will absolutely say right up front that this tendency has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus - is its tendency to compartmentalize life. There are hints of that in the New Testament's expression of the Greek view that the body was a prison for the spirit. In its more extreme forms this philosophical position led to practices such as "mortification of the flesh," consisting of actual self-abuse as a vehicle for spiritual growth. If people went too far and actually did themselves in it wasn't altogether bad because the spirit had been released.

More benign practices centered around idea that the world and its flesh were bad and the spiritual world was good started in the earliest days of the Church when the Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated from "the world" into the isolation of the desert in search of God. I don't believe they were trying to establish some kind of precedent or make a statement about everyday life being bad, but some people certainly saw it that way. During the Middle Ages monasteries became centers of education in addition to being, at least in their cloistered expressions, centers of withdraw from the world as well. The Protestant Reformation, especially those profoundly depressed individuals who developed the notion of the "total depravity of humankind" took the fragmenting of life at the hands of the Church to new lows. Contemporarily, evangelical fundamentalists have been waging a "culture war" for decades that characterizes everything from popular music and entertainment to free thought as "the work of the devil." This has led to a generation of home-schooled social misfits from that world, perhaps the most long term devastating effect of the narrow minded world of popular religion over the last one hundred fifty years. Many self-identified "Christians" now live in a world they are intensely afraid of and about which they are ill informed. Some have even advocated wanton disregard for the environment in the hopes that the world will end soon, which they see as a necessary preliminary event for Christ's return. Of course, that view is based on the most profoundly ignorant biblical scholarship available, but why should facts get in the way?

All of this goes on among people who believe they are following Jesus, who in fact was intensely involved in all corners of his world, from the mundane events of daily life to cutting edge political and religions action. His was a life of speaking truth to power and advocating for the full inclusion of all people in the Church of his day - and because the Church and State were part of the same entity in his day, that meant he was also advocating for the marginalized in the political arena. He attended to people's daily needs as well - their need for healing, for food, and for shelter in the storm. Extremely significant to me is the fact that although he did go away for periods of meditation and contemplation, he did not withdraw from the world.

From my first exposure to Buddhism on to today, one of the most impressive things to me about Buddhism has been its conviction that the material for spiritual practice not only draws from everyday life, but in fact is everyday life. From the Zen saying, "Chop wood, carry water," to the principles of Engaged Buddhism, to Chogyam Trungpa's assertion that "The path is the goal," daily life is the very stuff of practice. Its respect for the life of all sentient beings makes environmentalism not a problem but a requirement, and its emphasis on compassion precludes dismissing any part of our world. These values are a breath of fresh air in a world filled with anger and judgmental zeal, and they may be our best hope for the future. Rather than continuing to fragment reality into the good, the bad, and the ugly, Buddhism sees it all as necessary for practice. While there certainly are Buddhists who go to live in monasteries and similar settings, they go for intense spiritual practice rather than to avoid a defective world.

It is these kinds of contrasts that convince me that Interspirituality is essential for the future of our planet. Since different religious traditions developed in different cultural settings they are bound to have different emphases as well as different strengths and weaknesses. Looking across traditions provides a much needed corrective when an aspect of one tradition has been corrupted by well meaning but ill informed adherents. It's clear that Jesus would not have endorsed fracking, for example, even as many who purport to be his followers do so. A quick look across traditions leaves us hard put to justify a skillful spiritual person advocating poisoning our water for profit - and the truth is that looking across traditions counters the arguments of a vocal but misguided minority from any single tradition. It's much harder to hijack a very large, very diverse group of people from a diverse collection of spiritual traditions.

In the end, it's not who we follow that's important but rather that we follow them faithfully. As a mono-non-theist (to coin an awkward term), it is absolutely my belief that all of the historical traditions are trying to get to the same place and answer the same questions. The differences between traditions are for the most part cultural and historical while the essentials are commonly held. Theologians tend to see tremendous differences between traditions while the mystics - those who practice to encounter the essence of their tradition - find their experiences to be remarkably similar. Speaking just for myself, actually encountering Divinity is much more important than arguing about what official pronouncement we subsequently make about the encounter others have had - and the halls of theologians have never been heavy with mystics, in fact quite the opposite. Theologians tend to be very threatened by the mystics because they can't be controlled and so historically theologians have spent a significant amount of time trying to drive the mystics out. The results are clear to see, and it's long past time for a change!

Instead of listening to people who make pronouncements about people who have spiritual practices and achievements, imagine what would happen if we listened to those people directly? Instead of listening to self appointed theological press secretaries, why don't we look for ourselves? Instead of splitting hairs even further, why don't we admit that everything and everybody is inseparably interconnected? Imagine the revolutionary changes that would follow!