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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Douchebag by Any Other Name

Here's a charming little piece from the website of the United Church of Christ. A so-called daily devotional, if you will...

"In the beginning was the Word." - John 1:1
Here's a middle-aged complaint: a bumper sticker offends me. It isn't "Vehicle Insured by Smith and Wesson" (I don't like that one either, but given the forum, it probably goes without saying).
It says "COEXIST." The "C" is a crescent moon, symbolizing Islam. The "x" is the Star of David representing Judaism, and the "t" is a cross representing Christianity.
When I see the cross I see my faith in an ordered universe shot to hell. The world I thought I lived in, and the God I thought I lived with are exposed as an illusion. We live in a senseless, treacherous world. That's what the cross says.
And then I blink and I see the cross again and it says Easter; it sings God's victory over all despair, including my own. And then I blink again and I see the Word through which all that is came into being.
That's what I see when I see the cross. I don't see a consonant letter.

I assume Muslims and Jews have similarly wonderful feelings when they behold the symbols of their religions.
Of course we ought to coexist, but employing the symbols of different religions to spell out a bland appeal for tolerance does damage to the religions themselves. You can't subsume the funky particularities of different faiths into a larger whole without silencing them. I wish I could fit this onto a bumper sticker: "Stop playing with the cross. Stop assuming you can get on top of all these different religions. Quit moralizing from the sidelines. Either get in the game or get out."
Dear God, give me patience. Amen.

First of all, Matt, a bit of stylistic advice. If you can manage to string related thoughts together before the very end of your article, you might write something called a paragraph. Of course, that requires well developed thought, and that may be asking a lot. Also, the construction "consonant letter" [sic] is redundant, and presumably as a pastor you are a professional communicator. Of course, I understand that you are an angry white liberal and so may not be able to calm down long enough to write effective prose. Also, it's a good idea not to undercut your thesis in the one paragraph you do actually construct by admitting you realize the bumper sticker is about religious tolerance - something of which you demonstrate you are in very short supply - rather than syncretism and so not seeking to "do serious harm" to your religion.

All of that notwithstanding, I do have a few questions:

  1. What kind of an effete religion can be seriously harmed by a bumper sticker?
  2. The cross says we live in a senseless, treacherous world? Funny, I thought the cross was about Jesus having overcome the world...
  3. Since you assume Muslim and Jews feel the way you do but don't mention actually having checked with any real, living Muslim or Jewish people, may I assume you don't know any? Or does your bigotry and Christian Triumphalism prevent you from speaking with any?
  4. Regarding your "get in the game or get out," instruction, have you looked in the pews lately? People are getting out of your Christianity at a frightening pace. More than eighty percent of America is gone, and by 2024 projections are that ninety percent will be gone. Ironically, they didn't wait for people like you to tell them to go - they smelled you at a distance and left on their own. What's more, they don't miss you, and they don't miss either God or Jesus because - and this may come as a surprise to you - you don't have either of them tied up in your church, unable to escape.

I'm always amazed at this kind of piece, which comes out of all denominations from time to time. Do people really believe this is an effective evangelization tool? Do they expect people to say, "Holy cow, this guy with an anger problem says we need to get with the program! We'd better see where his church is and get out butts in the pews next week?" Of course they don't. This is the sort of piece that is supposed to make those who are still clinging to the insane hope that doing the same thing over and over will have different results this time feel less foolish about their choices. This is the result of denominational leadership that is too damn scared to try anything new for fear of alienating the handful of people left in the pews, even if doing something new would bring hundreds of people back into their echoing, empty sanctuaries.

One last point, Matt. You do realize that the symbol below, which admittedly uses "consonant letters" [sic], is part of the great heritage of Christianity. Should we ban it, too?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Change Happens

Change happens as a result of committed spiritual practice, and I honestly don't believe it matters what tradition you happen to practice in. A second truth is related to the first - that you don't notice the change until some time has elapsed after it has occurred. This means that it's rather pointless to keep checking for change. It may even be like the child who continues to uproot a carrot planted in the garden to check it's growth - the monitoring itself all but guarantees the desired outcome won't occur. That may be because the purpose of engaging in spiritual practice must be solely to engage in spiritual practice. Any other benefits that accrue are great, but they much be seen as incidental and not the goal of the practice.

The truth of it is that when I was younger I wasn't a very nice guy. I was filled with anger. For the most part, I pretty much repressed that anger. Every once in a while, though, it came out in full blown rage. Fortunately, I'm not much for physical confrontations and so I never got myself in legal trouble. The anger came out primarily through my mouth, and I could verbally eviscerate just about anyone with very little effort. I had to be pushed pretty hard, and I cannot remember ever directing my rage at a woman, but if you were a man who got in my face it wouldn't be long before I handed you your dignity on a platter. I'm not proud of that, and there are good reasons for that, but that doesn't make my behavior either right or admirable.

I've always been fascinated by prayer beads. It started with the traditional rosary not long after I became an Episcopalian way back in the 1980s. In the mid 1990s I was introduced to the Jesus Prayer and the prayer rope, or chotki, of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It suited me better, in that there was less to think about than in the traditional rosary and I could settle into my mantra. A few years later I discovered Buddhism and the mala used for mantra practice, and I was home. A couple of years later I met my wife, Erin, and she didn't mind that often as not I could be found with a mala in my hands. So I went blissfully along, at times practicing more than at other times and at times checking back in with earlier methods to see if I was on the right track.

One day I realized that I was not the same person I was when I met Erin. I became aware that things that would have sent me over the edge no longer did. None of this is to say that I have become perfect - far from it. It seems, though, that while I wasn't looking my practice had worked a change in me. I can't look back and pinpoint a moment that change happened, probably because change is most often gradual rather than a dramatic event that is not present one moment and then present the next. In the end, it doesn't really matter when change happens, does it? This nature of change may be why do many people become discouraged with their spiritual path - they are waiting for some kind of dramatic conversion experience, and that just isn't what happens for most people. If we make dramatic change our reason for practice, we are bound to be disappointed, then discouraged, and then stop practicing. If we believe our practice will make all of life a case of the giggles, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We need instead to let practice be practice, and let what happens along the way happen in its own good time. If we do we may just find, when we least expect it, that transformation has occurred.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What Makes One a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, or Whatever?

What makes us whatever it is we claim to be spiritually? Is it our self identification alone, or a certain set of beliefs, a certain practice, or something else entirely? Realistically, between subsets - what Christians call denominations - of a particular religious tradition there isn't agreement on belief or practice. Within my Christian tradition of self-identification (i.e., the first tradition I claimed for myself as an adult), Anglicanism, a meeting in the late 19th century produced the following four items as necessary for ecumenical dialogue, known as the Lambeth Quadrilateral:
  • The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
  • The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
  • The two Sacraments — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
  • The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.
As far as that goes, I guess I could still claim my Christian heritage as part of my spiritual self-labeling as long as we don't push the definitions too much. That isn't the only formulation out there, however. Consider the "fundamentals" of the Christian faith, written as a reaction to modernism. In fact, the first formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs - the so-called Five Fundamentals - can be traced to the Niagra Bible Conference and, in 1910, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. These originate from more or less the same time in history as the Lambeth Quadrilateral:  
  • Biblical inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture as a result of this
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus
I guess I am zero for five on that one, although I am willing to admit the historical reality of some of the miracles of Jesus. The truth is that you don't have to look too long or too hard to realize that there is no uniformity of belief across any tradition. What's more, you don't have to visit too many different worship services in any tradition to realize that there isn't much uniformity of practice, either. Whether we are looking at the Christian options of a fundamentalist mega-church, a Methodist worship service, and a Roman Catholic Mass or the Buddhist alternatives of Theravadan, Zen, and Tibetan, the primary gatherings are more than a little diverse. When we look between traditions, the diversity is even greater. So what is left? The truth is that what is left is self identification with a particular tradition.

I may only be able to claim I am a Methodist if I can show membership in a Methodist Church, but I can be a Christian (in the real sense of that term, rather than as it has been co-opted by Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Fundamentalists as if they were the only Christians in town) through self-identification alone. We can argue whether that self-identification alone constitutes a sufficient spiritual path or not, and I would say it doesn't, but that's a discussion for another time.

What, then, makes one Interspiritual? Self-identification with more that one of the great spiritual traditions makes one Interspiritual. It's not necessary to secure anyone's permission, or anyone's blessing, or even to be a member of communities in two traditions. In fact, some would find dual membership a wonderful blessing while others would feel fragmented if they had dual belonging and prefer to gather with a single group even as they identify with more than one. Perhaps more importantly, we may discover that at this point in the development of Interspirituality we may well be misunderstood and receive a lot of criticism and so a certain amount of self-confidence would serve us well. And, as with self-identification within a particular tradition, we should stress that self-identification alone does not constitute a sufficient spiritual path - but that's a discussion for another time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

My Hiatus from Blogging

You may, or may not, have noticed my absence from regular posting on this blog. The truth is that at the beginning of March I decided to take a break from regular posting to devote more time to spiritual practice and reading. I felt that I hadn't much left to say and that, between this blog and my shorter posts at, I was reaching to find something significant to write about. Of course, there is plenty to write about in the daily news, but that's usually not what I enjoy writing about. Even when the news is about something at least tangentially spiritual, such as gay wedding pizzas, I have to confess that I just can't get too excited about it. What is the point of writing about people stupid enough to believe that any Divine Being worthy of the name would give a rat's ass about them supplying a pizza to a gay wedding? Anyone with even a passing understanding of the Old Testament value of hospitality would realize it does not apply only to people we happen to agree with. People who can't see that but claim to be Christian or Jewish aren't worth the font wasted in writing about them.

More importantly, there are pressing issues that I am trying to resolve. I've never really tracked how often it happens, but I would guess that at least once or twice a year I come up against something trying to resolve itself in my subconscious, some issue of spirituality that has been percolating underneath the surface and now struggles to rise to consciousness. That in turn induces a fair amount of psychic discomfort within me, though in the early stages I know not why. Over the coming weeks I will be exploring those issues here, and I invite you to join me in that exploration. I will see you next week!