The question is, was he ever?
Even Jesus said that he didn’t come for the people who already claimed to have found the way, but for those who were lost, wandering, without the great shelter and shield of the religious institution.
Even though I’ve had a “sketchy” relationship with religion, (some would say that’s healthy) I became a pastor of a Christian church. Somehow, because of all my searching, I discerned that religion, at its core, held a mystery within that defied the human desire to control everything unknown. I discovered that religion shared some of the same snares as politics or patriarchy or any system that has a hi-er-archy. Religion can be used, just like any other system, as an avenue for greed, power and corruption. I just got caught up in that net.
In my own long, circuitous journey of healing from religion-induced pain, I learned that God is pretty wild and untamed, regardless of how we feel about it, and very often defies any container that religion (or anyone– agnostic, spiritualist, new age, etc.) seeks to squeeze God into or out of. That makes the pastorate quite adventurous and also quite freeing to know that (on my best days) I get to play in the field of this wild and untamed God.
The other thing I have learned recently in my travels is that we live in a Christ haunted world. As Richard Rohr says: “Christ is just another word for everything.”
I ended up in United Methodism, not that it’s better or worse than any other brand, it certainly has it’s faults, but we do have a unique relationship with Native Americans. We have an entire Native American division devoted to exploring that unique kinship between our faiths. Last fall, this curiosity led me, by way of invitation, to a Lakota Sundance ceremony in New Mexico. On the side of a very high mountain in the “Blood of Christ” mountain range, wearing my long skirt and arms covered, I danced to the songs of the singers. In Lakota, they sang out “Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila” around a cotton wood tree. I felt like an eagle.
Early the next morning in the woods, feeling the chill of the air in that liminal space between sleep and waking, still in a half dream state, there came into my mind an image of Christ on a cross.
I continue to have similar experiences, always to my surprise, everywhere I go.
I visited Cherokee, NC, recently, doing some research for a book and was talking with some Cherokee women. It seems it is a common legend among various tribes that Jesus made an appearance around the time of his death over on this continent. The women told me about the Cherokee version. The legend goes that the “little people” (the spiritual beings of Cherokee lore that live in the woods) cried tears when Jesus died and these tears ended up in the form of little crosses at the bottom of Fontana Lake, hundreds have been found. Of course, there’s a scientific explanation for this but the legend is much more interesting. There are various versions of this story in other tribes.
An African woman in my church tells me that in Sierra Leone where she is from, the Muslims and the Christians all consider themselves part of the same family. The Muslims pray to be with Jesus in death, the keeper of eternal life. There is also a legend that Jesus and Mohammed had an actual conversation.
Jesus has been out in the world for a very long time, doing lots of things Christians may not even approve of very much. Alongside the mother struggling with addiction, with the young man feeling compelled to join Isis, the refugee, the immigrant, the homeless person, the rejected war veteran, the traumatized Native American. Jesus is, in fact, right there beside them, having been hung on the same cross.
We miss the whole point of Jesus when we try to pin him down and make him exclusive. Jesus simply belongs to everyone. “In him, all things hold together,” and he is the “image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1)
The goal of religion, in its purest form, religio, is to bind the spiritual “word made flesh,” Christ presence on earth into a form we can participate in with one another. Divine love needs not only the human vessel but the vessel of the beloved community that doesn’t exist just for itself alone, but for God. With rituals and practices that make it safe for us to experience, to bind, what is unfathomable, God, if only for a brief hour or two.
I’m glad I didn’t abandon the path, because I would have missed out on all of this, the sweetness of communion, the chance to help the homeless find homes, all of us wanderers. I would have missed out on my very own healing, and the opportunity to be part of this massive healing that is taking place in the world around the hurts done in the name of God.
What would happen to a faith, or wonder of wonders, even a religion, that understood Christ as another word for everything? It might shift our understanding of the work of Christ in the world from dominance to infusion, from conformity to love, from rules and laws to simply presence and being. From scarcity to enough, from certainty to curiosity, from death to life. What if Christ really is in all and through all and another word for everything? What then?
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Shame. It’s a feeling in the pit of the stomach, a burning sensation. A rupture in the belly, a spiraling inward, shrinking, feeling inferior at the core. Shame makes us feel that our very identity is under threat of erasure.
At one point or another, shame takes us all hostage and calls the shots. Under extreme shame, we may even feel as if we are not the ones running our lives. Shame is a hostile dictator, suffocating us from any sense of freedom. Without realizing it, we often hire shame as the micro-manager of our lives.
We may feel paralyzed by shame because we live in a shame culture. It’s a force that is very real. Since we are enculturated to locate our self-worth in performance, this sets us up for an extreme sense of shame when we are not able to perform according to the (perceived) expectations of our peers or superiors.
But, we need to realize that we are not primarily performers, we are people. As the Native Americans say, “we are real human beings,” and this is our core identity. We have good days and bad days, good years and bad years. What is often missing and what it means to be a “real human being” is to have a sense of continuity between the ups and downs. A feeling that we are simply the same person regardless of what successes and failures come our way.
But the state of shame is often exacerbated by a lack of intimate and honest friendships. Without this shield of human love, shame can isolate you. It is often hard to find a community of friends that will love you no matter what. We are often judged so harshly by our performance that even our friendships are based on status and prestige. If you have ever lost a job, significant relationship or marriage and witnessed most of your “friend” community drift away from you, then you understand this. But, we have to look at our own choices here. We often become friends with the people we think can get us to the next level in our lives. If we crave authentic friendships, then we need to become willing to examine our own motivations. When we are able to get shame out of the equation, we tend to make better choices.
But swimming out of shame, I’ve found, at least, begins with acceptance, self-acceptance. Because shame will continue to send messages such as “you’re not good enough, worthy enough, smart enough, beautiful enough,” simply, “you’re not enough.” This leads to an inner conflict. The authentic self wants to love, cherish, express joy, compassion and empathy for the self and others. But shame is like a stun gun, sealing us off from access to the authentic self. When we can accept how things are, where we are in our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our bodies, then we can begin the long journey of leaving shame behind. One day, we just say to shame, simply, “I don’t need you anymore.” We break up from our long, sordid, dysfunctional relationship with shame.
Becoming real to yourself, learning to love yourself today, where you are, how you are, this is respect. This is what authentic women and men model in the world for one another. This is what Jesus brought out in all of those who believed, freedom from living in the paralysis of shame and a restoration to living life from the true self. This often restored people to a sense of community as well. The Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene and her seven demons, Peter in his constant self-doubt. Jesus even loved Judas, the betrayer himself. Jesus knew the great power of shame, that it belonged to the realm of the shadow, it was a tool of separation from God, from the Divine image of the Creator. With love, Jesus created a bridge to the sacred, the realm of God and gave people the power to walk away from shame. He did this through love.
When our stomachs are burning with shame, it makes it difficult to focus on the heart. In fact, as we receive shame into our bodies, it is so strong and has such a grip on us that we usually over react in anger, binging, compulsive behaviors or isolating. We live life in the extremes, vacillating from anger to feelings of self-doubt, shame keeps us running the spectrum of emotional intoxication, cranking down on the lever of control all the while feeling completely out of control. Insanity. If we are to be done with shame, we need a power greater than ourselves to lift us out.
In the image of Jesus on the cross, we see an open and vulnerable heart, a Spirit that even the cruelest enactment of shame could not kill. Focusing on this image in meditation can often bring us to a ground zero where we can accept ourselves and begin the long journey of walking away from a shame culture, a resurrection, a healing.
Letting go of shame can be scary, because it has often been the driving force of our lives for so long that we have come to rely upon it as our primary motivator. But it is possible to live life from a different center. A Divine love can stabilize us as we become willing to be done with shame.
We find a true identity, a wholeness we never knew before is waiting for us at the core. As the poet Rumi says, “beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” In this field, we meet our true selves, beyond the fighting and the wronging and righting, we meet the joy given to us from the beginning of time. We take the hand of our Creator and begin the long journey home.
Don’t let shame take you off your path today. Who you are is enough, find the center of you and begin living life from that center. You can ask God for the courage to break up with shame and help you find a community to sustain and nourish you in the journey.
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We all have choices about who we will be in this world. It may not feel like it sometimes, we may feel suffocated by a job, a lack of finanical resources, a relationship or a system in which we feel trapped. But even in these situations in which we may feel trapped, we have choice. In making choices, we find our way forward. Sometimes to more freedom, and sometimes to more entrapment. It’s all about buillding discernment, the ability to make better choices.
But we live in a world in which “better” is not always true to form. Where the news is written primarily for “click bait” headlines and self worth is often defined by how famous you are or how many people are following you on social media. How do we know what is truly authentic anymore? How do we learn to tell the difference between what is truly good and what might just be posing as good? Both in ourselves and in the world?
When problems seem really big in the world, we can always return to something small to find the way. Stories point the way forward. We can examine stories to build discernment in a crazy time.
A big theme throughout stories is discernment. Just because we live in a technologically advanced society, the themes of humanity really haven’t changed much. We just have more of everything now. But some stories really hit on a nerve in our world.
So it is with the Eden story of the serpent who tricked Adam and Eve, and the story of Jesus being tempted by the Devil at the very end of his forty day fast in the wilderness.
In the first story, the characters take the offer, the offer that is always on the table. Be big, be famous, be legendary, be powerful, be the master of your own destiny.
The offer always comes at a time when the character is doubting themselves and/or God. This seems to be the time when the trickster comes, at a time when the character is vulnerable. The trickster plays on the character’s internal doubt: God? Where is your God, anyway?. Why does he have so many rules? Oh yeah, he doesn’t want you to be like him, knowing everything, having God power. He’s kind of selfish, don’t you think? If he’s so powerful, why doesn’t he solve all these problems here on earth? You really should take matters into your own hands. You really have nothing to lose.
And we see Eve and Adam fall for it. And of course, the serpent can’t deliver on the promise of “God power,” at least in the terms he presented, because, after all, it wasn’t a promise, it was just a sale, a trick. Instead, this “God Power” delivers some pretty awful realities. Adam and Eve enter into the great human saga of suffering and are shut out of paradise. Homeless, they have to make their own way in the world without all the resources of Eden. So they experience shame, guilt, vulnerability, all of those things we know so well from our experience of being human in the world. We can relate to them and the feelings of entrapment that come with these very real emotions.
But it’s tricky, really, to tell the difference between snakes and devils. In the ancient world, the snake was considered wise, a symbol of healing, renewal and fertility. It wasn’t odd for Adam and Eve to have trusted a snake’s wisdom. How do we tell the difference between snakes and devils?
In another story, with another trickster, we have Jesus, on the other hand, who resists a similar offer. Not once, or twice, but three times.
Even though many people were going hungry in Jesus’ community, he resisted the temptation to create enough food to feed them all in order to prove his power. He resisted proving the power of God just so the Devil would believe that Jesus is the real deal. He resisted inheriting all the wealth, fame and power the world had to offer so that he might become a legend in his own time. Why? Because all of these things, while it is arguable that he could have done a great deal of good, would have taken him away from his true mission.
He was on a journey of resurrection. A soul journey. He was focused on the choices that would enable him to complete his mission. And resisted the ones that would take him further away. From his choices, we learn his true character.
We are all on a soul journey, we each have a soul story. It’s difficult, much of the time, to figure out what brings us closer to or further away from our spiritual path. It is tricky to know how or when or even why to resist the offers before us. The offer comes in many disguises, this offer to become masters of our own destiny.
Jesus’ path helps to point the way forward, especially when things get confusing. The One who resisted the offer can point the way, a way we can trust, because it is always primarily concerned with genuine love, not tricks or sales. Jesus simply has nothing to sell, he is only peddling hope. By studying his path and meditating on that internal garden, that “kingdom of Heaven within” as Jesus said, we build faith in something substantial. We build discernment and learn to the art of making better choices. We learn to tell the difference between snakes and devils.
“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside dreams, who looks inside awakens.” –C.G. Jung
Love is the bridge between you and everything. -Rumi
Click here If you’d like to hear my homily, “The Difference Between Snakes & Devils” (13 minutes) from this week’s Tuesdays in the Chapel at Scarritt Bennett, Nashville.
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We live in a dysfunctional world, can I get an witness? We seem to swim in a stew of wrong and right, bubbling in the shame, blame and guilt that are the end result of the failure to meet impossible standards. Out of this human predicament, we have created a lethal brew known as perfectionism.
Our culture is built around an unattainable ideal of perfectionism, what is morally right and wrong. The extreme pressure to live up to these standards seems to rule us more than the spirit behind them. Even though no one seems to be able to live up to the impossible standards, we still crank down even harder, it usually comes out as hateful words or actions, shaming, blaming and guilting everywhere. But there is an alternative way to live.
As far back as the 13th century (and even long before that) humans have been obsessed with perfectionism as a method for keeping anxiety at bay. One of my favorite poets from this period, Rumi, a theologian and scholar, made this statement in response:
“There is a field out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, I will meet you there.”
Ahh, what a relief, there is a space for love to flourish somewhere. He is talking about love, of course, as a revolutionary alternative to perfectionism. Not necessarily romantic love, but Divine, unconditional love, what we call Agape. It is the kind of love we are learning in our spiritual process as we meet the God within, as Christ has said, “the kingdom of Heaven (is) within you.” We go within to find the love we need to flourish in difficult times.
Religion is supposed to be a container for this process of love and loving, but these days, it seems some of our religious environment is functioning out of rigid perfectionism. And this “some” has the loudest voice in the world. But that is not the Way, at least, of true faith.
Perfectionism is simply another attempt at control. Making religion and God into something we can control and bend to our own will is classically known as idolatry. The odd thing is that when we engage in trying to control God or love or anything, or the reverse, trying to keep God out of the equation of life, we are the ones that become frozen! It is as if we are trying to freeze time or stop the madness, control the chaos. This always makes for craziness in the world and it seems to happen most when things become unstable.
In uncertain times, people crank down hard on control. But it is not just religious communities that are prone to this, we all do it, it is part of the human condition. As Paul Tillich said, “we are anxious unto our death.” And we all look for ways to manage the anxiety.
But faith interjects a different way, surrender. Surrendering to a higher Love causes us to let go of all the other ways. As Paul said, “in my weakness is my strength.” He was talking about surrender. Over time, in this faith process, as we surrender our control, we become stabilized by our true power, our soul life within, our true nature. Love teaches us how to be natural in an artificial culture.
Rumi’s statement gets at the core of the human condition. It is an invitation to let go of control, let go of rigid moralism and perfectionism and surrender to Love.
The field out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing is a place where we meet ourselves out beyond the shame, blame and guilt of wrongdoing, beyond trying so hard to get it “right.” We try to get at the exact nature of our harmful actions rather than focusing on controlling the actions themselves. We do not try and get “right,” or stop being “wrong,” rather, we become attuned with the Sacred in us and surrender to its work in us. We focus on Love itself and the nature of love and we allow God to do the work in us.
Love, our tradition states, “keeps no record of wrong and does not insist on its own way.” For the early church, the focus was transforming from a litigious religious practice into the heart of relationship with the Divine, the God within, whom Jesus represented and left as the special presence of God on earth, the Holy Spirit. This is the basic root of all Christian theology.
Becoming attuned to Love re-routes us on a new path. Instead of choosing to live in the stew of shame, blame and guilt, we choose other methods for dealing with the pain of living in a dysfunctional world. We surrender to God in us. We walk in the woods, getting re-grounded with creation; or write or paint or do yoga or volunteer for service. We learn that there are many alternatives for dealing with pain and that we have the power to choose them because we are giving up control over our pain and we are letting go of perfectionist behavior.This is the moment when we begin to take true responsibility for our own lives and become actors rather than reactors in the world.
Control is an illusion. Control of fear, behavior, others, the world. When you give up control, what you are really giving up is living life from the artificial energy of your illusions. When you give this up, pain doesn’t stick around as long, it simply doesn’t have much to attach itself to anymore.
For some, religious experience has become a painful place and religion simply is not an alternative. But a loving community is not the same thing. Religion is a system, a container, a loving community is working out faith together. I encourage you to ask God to help you find a loving and safe community for you to practice your true faith.
Here are some helpful questions you might use as criteria:
- Am I a part of a religious or faith experience that sees Love as its highest goal? If so, am I learning that true love seeks to be unconditional? How do I feel about unconditional love? Does my community make me feel unworthy? Less than?
- Is the community I am a part of confused about love? Do they confuse love with perfectionism? Do they confuse love with pity? How do I feel about love?
- Do I feel empowered by my community to pursue what I feel are the dreams God has given to me as the story written on the walls of my soul? Does my community talk about the soul’s life in some way?
- Does my community teach me to take responsibility for my own life, empowering and educating me to make my own decisions about my faith journey?
True faith is coming to the field, coming aside to the feet of the great Healer and taking some deep breaths of unconditional love. In the field, we learn to love more deeply than we ever thought we could, because we are learning to love from our souls, where God lives.
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None of us likes to feel broken. We like to feel put together, whole, complete. Yet, if we were to look back on our lives, we would see that some of the most important growth seems to take place whenever we have felt our most broken.
The poet Rumi said, “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” It is often in our woundedness where our most honest prayers are born.
We may feel as if we are living in a broken time in a broken world, but each day, there is something to remind us of beauty even in the brokenness. Yesterday, someone who brought a great deal of beauty and honesty into the world through his songs passed away, Leonard Cohen. One of his songs is a long time favorite of mine, “Hallelujah,” I think of it as one of the most honest prayer songs around today. He speaks of our prayer as a broken hallelujah.
Every Sunday we break bread and call it Christ’ body. In order to be shared, a complete and whole loaf of bread must be broken into many parts. It is a paradox that through brokenness, we are made whole again. Only to be broken and shared with others somewhere along the way. This is the cycle of love. The poet David Whyte said that anything you love will eventually break your heart, it’s the nature of the heart to break.
You may be familiar with the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, fixing broken pottery with gold. Each crack in a broken vessel is accentuated by gold to celebrate the brokenness rather than disguise it.
From the Bible’s sequence of prayers, the Psalms, we learn that prayer is for the broken, it is language from the depths of despair. It is through our broken hallelujah prayers that we find the true gold of God in us, through us and among us. It is through prayer that we mend.
I want to encourage you that prayer is nothing more than speaking to God, some choose to call Higher Power, from the honest brokenness of your heart. All you need to do is open up your heart and pray your broken hallelujah. There is gold in you waiting to be discovered.
During joys and concerns on Sunday, a man shared he could hardly contain his excitement as this would be his first time to vote as a new American citizen. He came here from war, hunger and turmoil and now feels that he can finally begin living the story written on the walls of his soul. A story he was cut off from most of his adult life due to simply having to survive day to day.
This election season, there’s been a huge debate over what makes us great. We often think it’s something or someone in the outside world that can make us great, that greatness is a thing waiting for us on the horizon somewhere, if only we could pull the right levers, meet the right people, get the right education, etc. But we are confused about greatness. It is not something we can do for ourselves, rather, greatness is something planted in us by a Divine hand, it is love.
We are all born with greatness in our hearts, it is just part of our DNA, our innate ability to love and receive love. But we are also cut off from it in many, many ways in our world. Our ability to access this deep love already within us and connect with it is what makes greatness grow.
As we exercise our freedom today to choose a new leader for our nation, let’s remember what makes us truly great. It is connecting with our deep reserves of love within and building bridges with others. We make a refuge for one another in our hearts as great love grows in us.
I’ve shared a few thoughts here and a song from the old hymn book that was co-written by one of my heroes, theologian and poet, Georgia Harkness.
Grace and Peace,