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I’ve had a number of requests to start offering audio and podcasts. Being a book person far more than I am a computer person, I’m not entirely sure how this works, but here goes! For the first MP3, here’s a sermon I gave at St. Patrick’s Episcopal a few years back. For context, the readings are included. Enjoy and God’s Peace.
Now that we have expanded our basic images of God through Father, Mother, Child and Sibling, let us turn now to a far more intimate image. It is an image that runs counter to the very Puritan and Neo-Platonist/Augustinian views of God that we have inherited as American Christians. But if we are to find God in every moment and experience God in all that we do, then it is essential that we tackle this very fundamental role in our life. This week, we will contemplate God as Lover.
By lover, I mean a husband, wife, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend. One with whom you are emotionally and physically intimate. There are certain aspects of a lover that are shared with the previous images we’ve discussed. For instance, a lover can be nurturing like our mother image, or a provider like the father image. A lover is also a peer like a sibling and can be a similar confidant. But the role of a lover is specific and unique in its qualities. We may have siblings that are confidants, true; but the intimate sharing we experience with a lover goes far deeper. Because of the emotional and physical sharing of a lover, despite other similarities, it is intrinsically different and unique in its own way.
Before we delve too far into the roles of the lover, we must first take into account our own religious heritage. As mentioned before, American culture and religion is the product of the Neo-Platonism of St. Augustine’s theology and the moral strictness of our Puritan foundations. The repressive stance from both these parties has left us with a less than healthy view of physical intimacy. When God’s own creation was seen as “fallen” and a distraction from God, then the most basic of animal attractions and passions was deemed dirty and sinful. Sex was only acceptable when performed by a man and woman in marriage and only for the purpose of making children – never for the actual pleasure or growth of intimacy between two people. Because of this, sex, even when practiced by the most committed of couples, if often overshadowed by guilt.
Here, Christianity has created a terrible dichotomy. On the one hand, we recognize that God created us with human urges and pleasures; then on the other hand, God frowns upon us enjoying the very act that we are hardwired to enjoy. The intellectual discomfort with sex goes back well before Christianity. Indeed the prejudice is apparent in language itself. After all, the French term for orgasm is la petite morte or “the little death.” It is the moment when the rational mind is completely lost to the sensations of the body. They viewed this momentary loss of rational control as the devil’s playground.
To further the dichotomy, Christianity has vilified sex so much, that we are ashamed to talk about it, and could never even conceive of talking about in church. We believe God is everywhere…except in the bedroom. And here we see the main problem. We have somehow constructed a theology that makes us ashamed of our natural acts before God. To illustrate it simply, very traditional Christians still believe that we should be completely covered when in church. That short sleeves are an affront to God. As such, they try desperately to ignore that God is just as present when you’re standing in the shower. You can bet that the God who “knew [you] while still in [your] mother’s womb” knows what you look like in your birthday suit.
As contemplatives, we are called to experience God in every moment. We believe that every moment is sacred with God’s presence. To that end, even in the most intimate moments of our lives, we should be able to connect with God and find God in that moment.
As we have with our other lessons, I want you to imagine God before you as a Lover. Whatever physical form you would find most desirable, that is the image of God we will work with for right now. So consider, what would a relationship with God as Lover be like? Can you imagine the physical aspects with God? And the physical is not just sexual. Can you imagine God coming up behind you as you’re concentrating on cooking in the kitchen and suddenly feeling God’s arms wrap around you? Would you cry on the shoulder of your Lover?
Imagine the emotional intimacy that is shared exclusively with one’s lover. When you have a hard day at work and come home, what would your prayer be like to God if it was like unburdening to a Lover?
I know many people who have told me that they pray as they go to sleep. As the Psalms say, we wait for God in silence upon our beds. But what would prayer be like as you lay in bed if it came in the form of pillow talk with your Lover?
What of the less than shining moments of the relationship between two lovers? In a marital spat, when you’re living and sleeping with someone, you eventually have to makeup. When love of another is valued more than being angry or being right, then reconciliation has to come. If God were your Lover, and you reach those points when you’re too frustrated with life to even think straight, how would that prayer then begin?
And what about falling in love? That period when everything is right and nothing the other does can bother you. Have you ever really fallen in love with God? Can you believe that God is always falling in love you every moment of every day?
For this exercise, I encourage you to journal on this one image many times. There are numerous aspects of a relationship to a lover. When you consider God as Lover, contemplate the many connections in that kind of relationship: emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual. The healthiest form of a romantic relationship between two people is when all four of these aspects are mutually complimented. Now imagine what it would be like for God to fulfill all those aspects for you. God’s Peace.
My younger brother Addison and I are six years apart. As it turned out, that seems to have been the perfect age difference for us. When he was born I was old enough to think that he was the coolest thing in the world. I didn’t feel jealous when we got attention because I was right there along with everyone else giving him the same attention. My mother often recounts how I was the only one that could understand him and decipher his baby gurgles. But I’ve heard many older siblings can do that with infant and toddler brothers and sisters. It’s just that natural connection we share.
As he grew older, we were still close enough in age that we would play together. Where I grew up with He-Man, he grew up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Our den was a testament to the great capacity of childhood imagination as Shredder took on He-Man and Beastman got whooped by Leonardo and Donatello. We picked on each other and wrestled together, all the while I was always looking out for him and he was looking up to me. When he started school, I was there to protect him from bullies on the bus ride. I remembered what it was like when I was his age and I was the bookish kid that always got picked on. We were both skinny, which made for instant ridicule. I remembered what that was like and so I tried to shield him from it. Whereas I grew a thick skin from all that teasing, Addison wore his emotions on his sleeve which egged on the bullies all the more. How many times did he come home crying? So I looked out for him as best I could, because that’s what a good big brother does.
That’s how it was until I turned 18 and then it was off to college. I was still very active with Scouts back in Atlanta, so I was often driving back and forth between UGA in Athens and my parents’ home in back in the city. There was one Sunday evening I remember in particular when I was getting ready to head back to school. Addison kept asking me to play this or that video game, or show me this new toy; whatever he could to keep me there just a little bit longer. But I was the young freshman – anxious to return to college and my new found freedom. I was so drunk on my new independence, that it wasn’t until later that week when I was talking to my mother that she pointed out how touching it was what he had been trying to do. As she filled me in, I discovered Addison was having the hardest time with me leaving home for college.
The weight of it hit me all at once. My dear little brother just lost his best friend, and that best friend was so preoccupied with his new life that he hadn’t even noticed. While I was off enjoying my independence, he was home missing me. Even with my parents at home, I can only imagine how empty the house must have felt like to him with me no longer there to play with. Suddenly there was no one there to drive him around to do cool things. He had his toys, but how much fun are toys when your ubiquitous co-writer of imagination is no longer there to share them with you?
As terrible as it all made me feel, I knew there was little I could do. I was in college and it was time for him to grow up on his own. Granted, over the years to come, he did finally grow into his own. For the first time he wasn’t under my shadow. Nonetheless, I know it wasn’t easy. Growing up hardly ever is. In the end, I still remember that evening. And now when I look back, I can’t help but feel sorry for having to leave, and feel guilty for not even noticing his cry for attention for his big brother whom he loved so much.
God, my Brother, how many times have I wandered off to do my own thing and left You behind, longing for my attention? How many times have I been preoccupied with my own little world and forgotten to include You in it? Have you been heart broken and despondent when Your love went ignored? My Brother, let me never forget You again. But when I do, know that I’ll always come back for You. And Lord, thank you for my own precious little brother. He still means all the world to me. Amen.
Contemplative spirituality did not spring from Christianity as an isolated and independent event. Nor is it just a recent fad borrowed from the Far East as many fundamentalist would try to report. Contemplative spirituality has been rooted in Christianity from the very beginning. First, let us look at the setting in which Christianity was born.
Hopefully we can all agree that Christianity was born out of Judaism. The teachings of Jesus were in relation to Jewish Law. Jesus was a practicing Jew. His Apostles were all Jewish. For that reason we must take a close look at the array of Judaism during New Testament times. For the majority of Christians, when asked “what were the sects of Judaism when Jesus was teaching?” they can provide the usual suspects: the Pharisees (those bound to the Law above all else) and the Saducees (those bound to the Temple). Granted, those are fairly over simplified summations, but they are not actually our focus here. Beyond these two groups so often mentioned in the Bible, there were other sects of Judaism that were scattered across the deserts of the Middle East. Significant to our discussion, there were ascetics and mystics.
Hopefully a greater majority of Christians today are familiar or have at least heard of the Essenes. This group of Jewish ascetics followed communal practices, voluntary poverty, and celibacy by some. If we follow the various accounts by Josephus, Philo and Eusebius, there were actually several groups that fell under the title Essene; the Qumran community being only one of them. The best estimates put this movement as lasting for several hundred years, and specifically during the time of Jesus.Another group of Jewish ascetics were the Nazarites. Nazarites were qualified by certain ascetic vows that they took as a form of personal sacrifice to God and renewal/purification. Some of these vows included not going near corpses, avoiding grape derivatives and not cutting one’s hair. Samson, for instance, was a Nazarite of sorts. The shortest term for Nazarite vows was thirty days. There were also those who took Nazarite vows as lifelong vows and even infants that were dedicated to the Nazarite path before birth. Nazarite influence is far more closely linked to Jesus’ formation and ministry than many Christians would acknowledge today. Nonetheless, the influence is there and plain to see. John the Baptist, for instance, lived a life of an ascetic Nazarite. Then when Jesus is baptized by John, the first thing he does is run off into the wilderness for 40 days for fasting and interior discipline – a typical period of time for Nazarite vows.
We even find a hint of this in the Gospel of Matthew. Granted there is some interesting exegesis out there surrounding this passage, but I’ll let you google it and see the other interpretations. The particular passage I’m referencing is when the author of Mathew says that Jesus “came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matt. 2:23). First off, there is no mention of prophecy in the Old Testament about the city of Nazareth or a Nazarene. There is, however, prophecy about a redeemer of Israel being a Nazarite. Is it possible that the author of Matthew, being one of the later gospels written, confused the terminology of the prophecy?
(For the “sola scriptora” and “biblical infallibility” camps out there, I’ll be happy to discuss the foundation to that claim, but I’ll allow for that in the comment field rather than taking up that tangent here.)Suffice it to say, this is one interpretation, but even without it, the ascetic influence and practice of Jesus is still evident in his life and in those around him.
To head off some of the more ardent claims against Jewish asceticism, I’ll go ahead and point out that a great number of Jewish scholars today and over the centuries are highly adverse to the idea of any form of asceticism in Judaism. Most often, they claim that it is in fact a complete antithesis to being a good practicing Jew. They say that Jews only fast a few times a year, with Yom Kippur being the most accepted time to fast.
I have difficulty swallowing the idea that fasting has always had such a minor part in Jewish tradition. Considering it is mentioned a number of time throughout Hebrew scripture, from the prophets to the Book of Jonah and scattered throughout the Psalms to say the least, I would said that the ascetic practice was certainly not condemned across the board during the time of Jesus as some scholars have tried to posit. The fact that even the most observant Jew who would seek to follow all of the 613 mitzvot can only do so if they include the 10 vows specifically intended for Nazarites shows how rooted ascetic practice actually is in Judaism. It may not be a central quality, but it is an aspect of it nonetheless.
Beyond the ascetic practitioners in ancient Judaism, we also have classes of mystics. The most often mentioned would be the prophets. Prior to the fall of the second temple, the prophets were key figures who served to balance the religious interpretation of the king or high priests. These prophets encountered God on a very personal level and relayed what they gathered in that to the Jewish people. The priests recognized the legitimacy of an individual’s sometimes unique understanding and experience of God and allowed for their message. Often these prophets were calling the Jewish people back to a more religious and God centered life, while other times their message was directed specifically at the hierarchy who had fallen from God’s plan.
Let me stress this again. The prophets were a fundamental part of Judaism in this role and the priests and kings recognized the legitimacy of an individual’s experience of God even if it was not necessarily Orthodox or in the accepted fashion. After the fall of the second Temple, the role of prophets was down played by the rabbis as much as possible. Without the Temple, the rabbis and the Law became the cohesive force of Judaism in Diaspora. It did not serve their purpose of unity to have prophets with their own experience of God saying anything contrary to the solidifying orthodoxy of rabbinical Judaism. Here history repeats itself as the hierarchy and an institutionalized religion fears and subsequently represses the personal ecstatic experience of God.
Another class of Jews that responded to a personal mystical experience of God were the Merkabah mystics. Drawing from the Prophet Ezekiel and his description of God’s chariot (represented in Hebrew by the three consonants m-k-b), the Merkabah mystics taught that one could ascend spiritually to stand before the presence of God. These practices were strictly guarded and highly restricted. The horror stories and lore around unprepared individuals that experienced God before they were ready was used to scare away any mediocre inquirers.
The basics of it were this: through specific practices and acquired knowledge (gnosis), one could ascend the heavenly realms to stand before the throne of God. This ecstatic experience was not for the feeble spirit. Stories were passed down of individuals who were spiritually unprepared but, regardless, ascended to God’s presence and went insane because of it.
The practice of Jewish mysticism would remain restricted but still continue through the centuries. Its later evolution would take the name of Kabalah. Until the mid 20th century, it was still primarily a teaching that was passed on orally. It is a tremendous loss that the majority of that oral tradition which was strongest in Eastern Europe was all by exterminated by the Holocaust in the 1930s and ‘40s. As Judaism today tries to reclaim this esoteric piece of its heritage, the old restrictions are being cast away as women and younger adults are being allowed to study what remains of the Kabalistic tradition in the hopes of saving it.
All of this was present in Judaism during the time of Jesus. And much of this was present and of great influence in his teachings and practice. This is what we will discuss next.
Our next lesson is of God as Sibling. This image can be the most fertile for thought and also the most difficult to relate God to. The relationship between two siblings is extremely dynamic, running the full gambit of emotions. Because a sibling is usually a peer, then the relationship is far more intimate than with one’s parents. The relationship is also one of the longest that you would have. As we have before, begin journalling the roles that a sibling plays in your life. Whether brother or sister, older or younger, each brings to mind a plethora of relational aspects.
Was your sibling your mentor? Or were they under your wing? Did they annoy the hell out of you? Or did you pick on them?
If you have a blood sibling, imagine them in your mind, whether it’s a positive or negative image, then imagine that image being God. If you were an only child, then either imagine a friend that was “like a brother/sister to you” or contemplate what you think the ideal sibling role would be. Were you able to be far more open with your sibling growing up than with your parents? Can you see God knowing you that well? Or was there ever a rift between you and your sibling? Remember, unlike with friends or even partners, siblings are blood and they’re a part of you your whole life whether you like it or not. I know of siblings that have had rifts last for 30 years, but in the end they still resolved. The relationship may have been different by that point, but because they were siblings, reconciliation was inevitable. Can you see that with God? Despite the rifts we may have with God, we know that eventually we’ll have to come back. God’s always there. And even if we turn our backs on God, that space that God’s Love fills in us will always long to be complete again.
For this exercise, I will limit my usual promptings. I want you to just explore the image of sibling. Because our relationships with our siblings are so dynamic, there is no way I can direct you in this very accurately. Each of your sibling images can be very different. So explore that relationship in your journalling, imagine God as a sibling to you, and see what comes of that. What do you like about and dislike about it. What you like, try to explore that more with God. What you dislike in that image, explore why and see where you may need to grow in your view of God.
When we say we are “brothers and sisters in Christ” or that humanity should be a full “brotherhood” or “sisterhood,” are we really aware of what that means? Brothers and sisters can get along or fight like cats and dogs. But in the end, they are still family. What does it mean if God can be a brother or sister to us? What does it mean if we are all family as God’s creation? What does it mean to see everyone you meet as a brother or sister as God resides in them just as God resides in us?
In the 10 years that I served as a camp counselor at a BSA summer camp, I taught hundreds of kids. Each week was a new batch. And each new batch was full of surprises. Though I have no children of my own, having worked with so many of these kids over the years, I’ve had my fair share of glimpses of what it takes to raise children. I recall once instance when I was serving as Chaplain and we had a lost camper drill. Now, when you’re a staffer and you get the call to gather up and search for a lost camper, two things typically go through your mind. One, the annoyance that 9 times out of 10, the kid is skipping class and is asleep in his tent and the scoutmaster just didn’t bother checking. Two, the fear that comes from that 1 time out of 10 when the child has wandered off and is actually lost. In this case, it was the latter.
Luckily the young scout was found before evening. Another staffer who had gotten into their car and started driving the roads outside of camp was lucky enough to see a little red hat bobbing in the woods. Apparently this young scout had gotten it into his head that he was going to walk back home… to Florida. My initial reaction was irritation. Why on earth would this eleven year old kid think he’s going to walk home? Did the parents raise this child without any sense?
Once the boy was found, however, the story quickly began to unfold. A note was found that he had left in his tent, explaining how he understood that he was “worthless and not wanted” there, so he was going to go home so as not to be a continual bother to anyone else. As a chaplain and counselor, I saw red flags all over this. It didn’t take too long after talking to the boy and his other scout leaders to discover the real culprit in this mess. As it turned out, this troop had an assistant scoutmaster who was a former military man. In his mind, his troop was a little platoon and he treated these boys, from age 11 to 17, like soldiers that needed to be broken. This young scout in particular had been feeling home sick. It was his first time away from his parents for any great length of time. When he developed the usual stomachaches and sniffles, this assistant scoutmaster responded with insults. It was he that provided the young boy with the idea that if he was just going to whine all day then he was “worthless” and needed to be buck up or else he shouldn’t be there.
After the shock of this revelation wore off, I became furious. As chaplain, the emotional and spiritual care of every one of those boys at camp was my responsibility. When I found out about this terrible abuse of authority, the protective mother hen in me kicked in and I was out for blood. When I found out that this gentleman treated all the boys in this troop like that, I had him removed from the camp and sent home the next morning. Finding out that the other leaders in the troop had known this was going on but had done nothing to reign him in led to a very long talk and dressing down with these leaders about their responsibilities to the boys under their care.
I could never imagine treating a child like that. And my heart breaks to think of the countless children out there in abusive households and demoralizing classrooms that leave children hurt and broken at the end of everyday.
What would be my reaction if I saw God as that child being beaten or verbally abused? The same defenses would be just as automatic. But the real question is, should God be treated like a child in that way?
When I talk about experiencing God through contemplative prayer, or when I question the traditional interpretations of the Bible when it’s being used as a weapon, I am met with terrible attacks from fundamentalists and conservative Christians. They attack because I’m questioning their accepted view of God. The same protectiveness and defensiveness that I feel when I see adults physically or emotionally abusing defenseless children is the same quality that leads others to attack anyone who dares question their view of God, as though God were unable to withstand inspection. They have lost the distinction between their view of God and God in actuality. In this way, God should not be treated as a child.
But there is an aspect of children that we can relate to God. We should experience God with the same sense of wonder and exploration that children show towards the world around them. I can see God finding a beautiul flower and enjoying it just because it’s wonderful. I can see God picking me up or anyone else, holding us in His hand and enjoying us just because we are wonderful. Frank Herbert perhaps coined this idea best when he said “Creation is discovery. God discovered us because we moved against a back drop that was already known.” Can we enjoy the pleasure God finds in discovering us just as God creates us?
For our sakes, I pray we can. Amen.
This week let us explore the image of God as Child. Granted, this can be contemplated both through the image of a son or daughter, each offering different insight, but for the sake of explanation and preliminary exploration, let us dicuss the image of a child in general.
Just as we’ve done before, imagine in your mind the roles played out between a parent and child. When you think of child, what comes to mind? Dependant? Rebelious? Innocent? Does the image change as they grow from infant to toddler to adolescent? For those that have children, this is easy to imagine. For those that don’t, imagine what your relationship might be if you had a child. Have you ever worked with youth? The relationship between a teacher and young student can be similar to parent and child.
As Christianity is an incarnational faith, let us explore the Christmas story – the most vivid image of God as vulnerable child to a loving mother. On the one hand we have the image of God as all powerful. But in the nativity scene, we have a God in the most vulnerable and helpless form. What can we gain in our experience of God if we see God as needing us rather than us constantly needing God? Is there something in the love a parent for their child that we should explore as we love God? The deep compassion that a mother has for her child, that she would do anything to protect it – can this be a way we relate to God in our lives?
Children must have affection in their formative years. A child without physical nurturing dies. If we could relate to God as needing our love as much as we need God’s Love, would we be more aware when we are hateful towards others? “What you do for the least of these, you do for me…” Keep in mind, that the mother figure does not love her child out of obligation, but as a natural response. When we love others as we would love God, as Christ commanded, we cannot love out of obligation but only sincerely out of a natural response to recognizing God in those around us. The actions of love can be faked. The actual feeling of love cannot. Imagine an infant in your arms. The soft skin. A tiny hand barely able to wrapp around just one of your fingers. Do you feel compassion towards this innocent child? Imagine that God has chosen to appear to you as that child in your arms. What feelings arise in you at that thought?
You can of course take the child image farther and later in life. Imagine what it would be like if God where in the midst of the “terrible twos” and having a temper tantrum, screaming at the top his lungs to be the center of attention and to get his way. Difficult to imagine God like that? But how is that image any different from fundamentalist theology blaming huricanes, tornadoes and jet planes in skyscrapers as the punishment of God for the sins of societies? If you feel that a two year old’s temper tantrum is not appropriate for God, then be sure you’re making the same connection if you think a rathful God punishes when He doesn’t get His way. Here again, negative aspects of these roles we are imagining can show us just as much about our experience and expectations of God as the postive aspects.
So for the practice this week, contemplate the parent / child relationship. Where have you refused to see God needing your love? Where have you been exacting towards God instead of nurturing and compassionate? Journal away, and may you come to feel the tender presence of innocent Love in your arms. God’s Peace.
My mother is a nurturing and supportive woman. She cared and worried over my brother and me growing up and even still as we are adults. I could always far more easily talk to her than my father. Being an art history major in her college years, she was the one to understand and encourage my own artistic interests. It is for that encouragement of my interests that I am tremendously grateful. She did not try to set me on a professional course that she thought I should fulfill. She remembered and resented what it was like having parents that tried to control a child’s developing interests. She swore never to do that with her own children, and she fulfilled that promise gloriously. When I began studying music, I was drawn to one instrument after another. She was always supportive when I wanted to try something new as long as Icontinued to practice the others. Because of her, I entered college as a music education major with twenty instruments under my fingers. But my renaissance tendencies did not keep me solely in music.
She was the one that encouraged me to love reading. Because of an atrocious public school experience from the 1st through 6th grades, I had come to hate reading. But she was supportive whenever I saw a book that I thought might be interesting. And slowly but surely, once I entered a private school that allowed for more fruitful reading lists, I gradually got back into reading. All along the way, she would take me to bookstores when she was looking for more books of her own and would never let me leave without a book that caught my eye. Now I’m voracious when it comes to reading. “Never without a book” is my personal motto.
Whatever my interest was, she supported it and gave me room to discover it to my heart’s content. Sometimes the interest was brief – I’d have a taste and move on; other times it was more enduring – I would find a means of artistic expression that would last me for years. After all, I started calligraphy when I was in 6th grade because I thought calligraphy pens looked cool and she got me a set. What came of that was a fundamental aspect of my personal prayer life that has developed for over 17 years since then.
Growing up in the church and then going through the process of discernment, the main relationship to God that I was given was primarily following His calling for me. We should do as God says. Do what God wants. God said do this and do that. With all the emphasis on doing as God commands, and following that calling to earn God’s love and appreciation, that leaves little room to appreciate the God given interests we may have. A father image of God tells their child how to be and what to be. A mother image nurtures the child so they can discover what they can be. We spend so much of our time holding up what we do to God to see if it will meet God’s satisfaction. People are called to ministry because of God’s apparent desire, not their own. And if we take the time to delve into something that we truly enjoy, it’s seen as selfish. But a God as a Mother wouldn’t make that judgement. God as Mother would delight that we have found something that resonates within us.
There must be a balance in our relationship to God. There is God that directs us and teaches us. But there is also a God that delights when we discover the very God given interests we have. Lord, Mother, help me to know more fully, experience more deeply that You are there sharing in my delight when I have found something that captivates and fulfills me. Amen.
I’ve started a new blog that will serve to document the progress of our permaculture ministry within the Order. The Alleluia Garden
Two friends of the Order have volunteered a portion of their backyard to act as a testing ground for our work. Read more on the mission of our work in the garden on the “About” page. Enjoy!