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Posts Tagged ‘Religion and Spirituality’

I regret that my early excitement about Jesus  was extended as if I were a split and live wire.

Stretched if not reaching in order to zap comforting practices among those living intense realities.

As if  to shock people with the value of the Jesus who would not….should not be contained.

That Jesus no longer human and, in fact, uncontainable….an eternal flow more powerful than any shock.

I regret that I did not value being a conduit earlier.

 

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The Christian tradition has, like other religious traditions, succumb to a temptation.  The temptation is to provide proof texts and answers in defense of itself.  In fact, what gave rise to the Christian faith were, I think, powerful holding environments (to borrow a term from Ronald Heifetz) where questions could be imagined, discussed and celebrated.  Whether they were Jesus’ questions, the questions of disciples or questions from the crowd, it makes little difference.  The questions of the gospel rarely get a straight or simple answer and those who pursue answers are often characterized as rigid fools.    The gospel response to questions is often more mysterious and there is some sort of invitation to understanding.  It is portrayed as frustrating and confusing to those within the gospel narrative and we know how they feel.

What is the difference between understanding and answers?   It may be helpful to return to the etymology of the word understanding.  To understand has been confused with “knowing” something or someone.  The etymology of understand indicates “a standing between or in the midst of”.  This suggests that understanding is an act.  Understanding holds a tension between  things.   Perhaps in it we are held between our past experiences and our future hopes.   Perhaps understanding puts us between significant individuals of our lives.  But to just be between things seems a pansy-sort of stance.  Why do I want to just stand between, in the midst of.   Isn’t it more powerful to decide and stand on one side o or another?  Aren’t we declared “willy-nilly” or worse, “non-committal” with such a definition of understanding?  “I understand” can be such an impotent response to those in crisis, after all.

The spiritual discipline of asking questions seems to shed new light on understanding.  Questioning moves understanding from a passive observation toward and active engagement with the world.  In our questions to one another, we assist in the exploration of life.  Offering our questions into our relationship with God, according to the gospel record, illumines the human being’s journey.    Too often, I have been out of touch with the most significant questions of my life.  I think this happens to me because those original questions have given rise to very meaningful relationships and experiences that define my life and its purpose.  I don’t want to insult life’s meaning, my experiences, God’s gifts to me by seeming to second guess what has already been considered….at least in part.

As I consider John 3:1-10, this week’s lectionary text, it occurs to me that to return to significant questions (like “Who am i?”) does not mean that I don’t value the experiences that have risen from that question thus far.  On the contrary, returning to the essential questions may be  something like a miner who returns to a stable and robust mine.  This mine promises so many gems, they cannot be carried out in one journey.  And if the mine is the question….each gem is not a complete answer but part of what built the question.  The question is the joy and the purpose and each portion of the question catches a divine light….that light illumines a chosen path.

When Nicodemus asks his question, “How can one be born again?” it seems to me that he is trying to understand his desire to return to questions without shame.  He wants to keep their adventure at the fore front of his living.  And Jesus, for his part, responds with understanding.  He offers not another question nor an answer, but he offers modes of investigation for the adventure.  After all, water and wind have always been masterful at finding their way into the spacious depths of earth and humanity’s geography.

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David Kelsey’s chapter “Sin as Living Death in a Distorted Personal Identity” from his larger work, Eccentric Existence:  A Theological Anthropology provides a helpful anthropological assessment for approaching forgiveness.  As fundamental as forgiveness is for the Christian faith, it can be difficult to orient ourselves to think critically about it.  Too often we feel we “should forgive”.  Therein, we realize that forgiveness is a Christian fundamental that faces profound challenges.  In Kelsey’s larger work, he explicates God’s reconciling energy toward humanity and also formulates an ultimate question for the human community who is challenged to respond appropriately to the reconciling energy.

Appropriate response to reconciling God is a humanity that can engage forgiveness.  But there are things about our anthropology that challenge our ability to be forgiving or to forgive. Thus, we find ourselves living alienated from the only appropriate response to a reconciling God…. forgiveness.  And Kelsey defines forgiveness as “the interhuman reconciliation that is the necessary social context of acts seeking the rectification of unjust patterns of human action.” (878)

I will crudely summarize his three scenarios in which human beings are unable to approach forgiveness:

Humanity so ordered by culture that there is no room for forgiveness.

Personal identities that find their worth in power (the ability to command) or adherence to a moral order leave no real room for forgiveness.  Because one is only worthy insomuch as one is able to continue to exert power or adherence to a moral order, there is a cyclical need to return to power initiatives or rules of the moral order in order to find oneself as an individual of power.  This cyclical need puts us on a treadmill of spiritual righteousness.  We understand ourselves to be superior to those who cannot behave to the moral order or command an influence over their environment.   Kelsey asserts that identity in power and moral order provide no space for forgiveness. We cannot forgive others for not adhering to a moral order, nor can we forgive them for not exercising more power and influence in their own lives.  Because we understand our worth as coming from a perpetual cycle of power and order (inequality), forgiveness becomes a nuance-like interruption or inconvenience.

Waiting for the best time to forgiven.

As limited as power and moral order end up being, they do begin as best intents within the human heart.  In the second option, Kelsey reminds us that sinful behavior also obstructs our approach to the Christian essential of forgiveness.  While this seems obvious, Kelsey describes the dual-blockade of sinful behavior that is at once interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Not only do we find ourselves in relationships where we diminish others and they diminish us, additionally, we find (intrapersonal) a cognitive function  that denies our existence in such diminishing relationships.  Because we are involved in a structural bind, forgiveness is not an option. Kelsey draws upon the scriptural use of the word Hypocrite as one who is self-deceived.  Abiding in insulated armor, we imagine that when the world straightens up, we will then forgive.

Inability to forgive within the self:

Whereas the previous two options are interpersonal, this third option is really an intrapersonal experience.    Whereas the two previous options have human beings primarily concerned with social order or relational complexities, in the third option, human beings want to avoid “discovering themselves inwardly guilty of failure to do their duty and live consistently across time”.   While forgiving others may be an option or an interest they pursue, Kelsey notes that individuals are unable to forgive themselves.  They are unable to forgive themselves because they have a sense that they have fallen short of living consistently and to the standard of what is their duty.  This duty may be social constructed, humanistically defined or divinely ordained.  In any case, it is a standard that is never satisfied and the human being lives a partial life, guilt ridden.

Kelsey goes to great pains to explicate why forgiveness is so difficult. I think brilliantly.  However, in the end, we are in despair.  What Kelsey does not seem to acknowledge are brief moments in which forgiveness is attempted, respected and hoped for as sufficient responses by human beings to a reconciling God.  What if within adherence to power, moral order, complexities of relationships and our own intrapersonal world, our spiritual discipline of forgiveness is a ripple, sparkle or flash that leads or lights the way to our next significant moment wherein we behave with increasing faithfulness?

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My indoor cat is a window warrior.

Her confidence is unshakable.

Daily she stalks her prey

And dissuades would be trespassers.  (Never mind the window is there).

Her throne window might even have the dogs persuaded.

I am not unlike my indoor cat.

So much of my life is as a window warrior.

But some say that God, at times, opens windows as if they were doors.

Who does the window warrior become when there is no window to protect them?

 

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I am no expert yogini…but I do love yoga.  I love yoga because it is slow and gentle on my 42-year-old body.  I love yoga because as I perform the stretches and breathing I acquire flexibility.  I love yoga because it is fundamentally an act of mindfulness.  When I practice yoga no matter how I try to stay focus on my breathing….my mind always stretches itself into my relationships.  Yoga moves me  from the deepest place of my human body to the farthest recesses of my relationships.

When I engage my ashtanga yoga practice, I am primarily interested in places of resistance.  Muscles that have recoiled because of my length of time in an office chair or my sudden day-long cleaning frenzy.  My ashtanga yoga practice is influenced by Melanie Fawer who was a student of the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  In her DVD Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga, Melanie will calmly encourage careful and daily practice.  She explains that while many believe they will never attain certain poses or positions, that if one practices each and every time they are given the opportunity the pose and position will come.

The physiology of the body is the foundation of her promise.  There are two types of muscles, extrafusal and intrafusal.  The extrafusal muscles are what we most often imagine as muscle fibers.  The  intrafusal are also called muscle spindles and they run parallel to the extrafusal fibers .  Intrafusal are also called stretch receptors.  These receptors are the primary pathways for how we perceive our body’s position and movement.  If muscles are jerked and stretched quickly, it is the stretch receptors that cause the muscle to contract or recoil in response.  However, stretches that are held for prolonged periods allow the stretch receptors to adjust and decrease their signals to recoil.  The result for the faithful practitioner is greater flexibility.

Some have said that relationships are what a lot of  leaders think about when they are alone.   There is  rehearsal in the mind about how the leader or the other person behaved.  Leaders think about how individuals within relationships might have behaved or otherwise responded differently.  Some say that good leaders are different because they will think not about what the other person SHOULD have done to make the leaders life or job easier.   Rather good leaders think about how their own responses could have been modified.   In essence, good leaders take a situation or moment of their lives and imagine stretching, twisting and breathing into it as many different ways as they might imagine.  Suspending a voice of judgement, good leaders effectively  remain more open to even the most complicated and resistant of relationships.

If our physiology is of divine design….perhaps there are clues there for our spiritual lives as well.   I grow weary of feeling recoiled and tight against all that is complicated in my life.   I am at least the leader of my self. Can I be a good leader for myself?  Can I stretch my spirit through complicated resistance and enjoy an oxygenated, purposeful peace?

Otto Scharmer in a recent global classroom experience of  the Presencing Institute, reminded us that it has been said, ….if we wonder what our purpose is in life, we can find the answer by going to the places of greatest resistance.   I am sure this involves a stretch.

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At First Presbyterian of Osawatomie we have begun a small group program.  I am a part of one small group that is learning to knit.  Knitting is not easy because it involves just one strand of yarn and a complex series of wraps, tugs and dips to move that yarn into a weave that is plush and warm.   Knitting is not only a discipline of crafters, it is the discipline of theology itself.  For if a certain theological suggestion is to be valid, it must ultimately be practical and a tool for God’s people.

Whitsitt’s last chapter of The Open Source Church,  knits in the concept of the open source church back into the practical tasks of  congregational leadership.  I appreciated the chapters specificity suggesting that leaders should at least and essentially be proclaimers, facilitators and mentors for the congregations they serve.  While it is not my privilege to add a category or even a chapter to the book, I do believe any open source church will also need to be  a place where leaders model a multi-disciplinary approach to scripture and theology.   In a way,  modeling the multi-disciplinary could be easily subsumed into any of Landon’s three fundamental leadership tasks.   But in other ways, it needs to be considered a more fundamental knitting exercise for the leader that will affect proclamation, mentoring and facilitating.

By multi-disciplinary I mean a consistent integration (in pulpit,  classroom and idle conversation) of all the major disciplines of hard and soft sciences, local and global politics, literature and the arts into conversation with scripture.  If our people are really to arrive at church and appropriately use the church to realize God‘s call upon their lives, then that surely begins by allowing the world from which they come to be fully present in the classrooms and sanctuaries of our churches.   There has been, for too long, a battle in our sanctuaries and Sunday School rooms.  It is  a battle that we seemingly wage alone, arguing that the church is the ultimate authority.  Though the world is full of discoveries that rival focused attention to our authority, we pretend that we just need to talk louder about our ancient authority and that will be sufficient.

I think about it a bit differently.   Using the knitting metaphor, all the various disciplines of the world are like the individual fibers within the strand of yarn itself.  And it is the job of congregational leaders to allow the god-given yarn its full integrity.  We must refrain from pretending that our fiber is the only important one.   Folks we are not being invited to a battle as much as we are being invited to knit a bundle of fibers into a warmth that can move our people fully into their present moment.  This means that our task is to be constant learners outside of our own field of discipline in order to pay homage to our God that is fully in the present and is the source of all that is creative and novel. So we don’t try to discount or strip the fibers or disciplines of psychology, sociology, algebra, physics, astronomy, literature etc. from the congregational conversation.   Such integrated attention assures our people at the deepest level that God is present here and now and not lingering in just the past or future.

Lest you think that I am demoting the fiber of religion let me say that what I am suggesting is intended to be most respectful of Jesus’ life and ministry as well. Jesus, after all, made significant responses to the various disciplines of his day.  Politics, family structure, morality, laws of tradition, economics, ethics, religion etc.   I worry that our Christian community is becoming increasingly rigid and focusing more on the record of Jesus in scripture rather than the knitting method of Jesus’ living and loving, part of which is recorded for us and, thus, we hold sacred.  In order to cultivate an open source church leaders must model how it is that one takes the various disciplines of thought as examples of a living and revelatory God.    Examples of a living God then allow us to live non-anxiously into the method of Jesus in new and creative ways in the world.

It is surely a rich part of our Christian tradition that much of how we move forward comes from overt and focused instruction.  Whitsitt recommends just that encouraging open source leaders to be intentional  proclaimers, facilitators and mentors.   However, overt instruction can be exhausting.  I want to suggest that for the sake of the system, the instruction can continue in some gentler ways as well.  Fred Craddock,  in his timeless work as one without authority, reminds us that because communication has grown increasingly complex, overt instruction (like preaching)  must be co-mingled with method in order to communicate fully.  There must be subtle but no less intentional opportunities to “observe” or “overhear” what it means to be an open source congregation. In my experience, an open source church must partly exemplify its values by being open to the world as a source.  

By taking in the current events, trends and discoveries of its world as conversation partners with the gospel,   the open source church practices  relevant meaning from various professional disciplines.  We allow the world to observe us doing this.  This communicates subtly, but powerfully,  the truth, that each individual Christian per their personal relationship with God is also an expert knitter who has a contribution to make to the Kingdom.   The stakes are high!  After yarn that does not get knit….begins to unravel.

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The Barna Group‘s latest research reveal indicates that most Americans want a customized religious experiencehttp://www.usatoday.com/NEWS/usaedition/2011-09-13-If-World-War-IIera-warbler-Kate_ST_U.htm   The research, as summarized in the USA Today article,  suggests that Americans shop for their religious believes like accessories to the self.  That is, Leslie’s religion reflects her preferences and is absent of the convictions or statements that make her uncomfortable.  For example, the article cites that there is an increased belief among individuals in Jesus as their personal savior as well as the conviction that they are going to heaven however none have attended church in the last 6 months other than for a special event such as wedding or funeral.

While their contribution to the conversation is helpful, it may be true that the Barna research is playing a tired chord within an over-played song.  That chord is that people are mindless without the church; clergy have lost their persuasive abilities and that the church is fractured because of both the previous points.    What if the chord was transposed just a note or two higher?   It might sound like this, people are still striving to be found faithful in an increasingly complex world;  Clergy have never been persuasive apart from their care to people by which their study of the gospel is fully informed; and the church has never been of one mind or expression about anything.  Such a higher note might allow us to honor gospel fundamentals without grasping at trendy straws in order to solve what is uncomfortable about the church’s life.  After all being the church means being fundamentally uncomfortable.

Quite contrary to Barna’s concerns, religious experience is fundamentally customized (that is the essence of believing in a personal God).   Customization is not something that people do artificially because clergy and the church have lost control.

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) we believe in the aggregate of experience that informs the entire Body of Christ.  So, my customized religious experience is put alongside others who have a distinct customized experience.  If there is the right spirit between us, I am interested not only in my experience but in the experience of my fellow worshiper and church-goer.  The shared life, then is a creative mix of the customized.

Research like Barna’s is the most recent arrival  in a long line of laments that mainline Christianity is on the way down and out.  This anxious cry is becoming increasingly impotent.  This is the cry that would have us all trying harder to keep up with insatiable expectations for the church.  Some of our expectations for Christianity in the United Stated of American cannot be satisfied.  We expect more and more.   Increasing demands include more attendance, more income, more members, more successful programs.    Perhaps these insatiable demands are what drive people from organized religion to find some relief.  It seems to me that there is a natural ebb and flow in the organized life of the church.   If we are truly in an ebb, perhaps it is a good time to dig down and serve those gathered with greater personal attention to their customized experience so that it can inform our shared life in creative ways that contribute to the next flow from an abundant God.

After all the fundamental expectation for Christ‘s church is not just rapid appeal and growth.  There is also the relational work that serves as scaffolding to the Body of Christ.  In this relational work, we taken on tough questions as we figure out the customized experience of “the other” person….specifically the person who seems miles from our own experience.    This work is not for those who believe they are going to heaven because they prefer to….this is the work of those who are wondering, hoping and working ….doubting that their customized faith is all there is.     This has always been the work of an inner circle of customized individuals who prepare to interact intensely with God’s wider world.

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