Undeserved

I know the news is terrible, and our political system is garbage, and the climate is changing, and our leaders are inept,

…but my GOD, it is a lovely cool morning. The last straggling hummingbird is drinking from the feeder. He just checked in by my ear to see what I was writing. (Actually, he didn’t care. He was just being polite).

I’d say we don’t deserve such beauty, but that’s kind of the point of it, right? “Deserving” is such a long con. The world is here to remind us of the truth: absolutely none of this beauty and terror is about deserving. Every last bit of it is a gift.

Mental Health Sunday 2: Trauma and Healing

(This is an order of worship for a devotional service based on the format of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.)

Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer has helped many people understand Christ’s action in their own lives. He wrote: “The greatest complaint of the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross was that they lacked a spiritual guide to lead them along the right paths and enable them to distinguish between creative and destructive spirits. We hardly need emphasize how dangerous the experimentation with the interior life can be. Drugs as well as different concentration practices and withdrawal into the self often do more harm than good. On the other hand it also is becoming obvious that those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a supercilious, boring and superficial life.”

O Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you
as the day rises to meet the sun.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Come, let us bow down and bend the knee; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker

Heal the brokenhearted, God, and bandage all their wounds.

Psalm 147

Praise the Lord! Because it is good to sing praise to our God!
Because it is a pleasure to make beautiful praise!
The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, gathering up Israel’s exiles.
God heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.
God counts the stars by number, giving each one a name.
Our Lord is great and so strong! God’s knowledge can’t be grasped!
The Lord helps the poor,
but throws the wicked down on the dirt!

Heal the brokenhearted, God, and bandage all their wounds.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “experience tells us that we can only love because we are born out of love, that we can only give because our life is a gift, and that we can only make others free because we are set free by Him whose heart is greater than ours. When we have found the anchor places for our lives in our own center, we can be free to let others enter into the space created for them and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear.”

Scripture 1: Genesis 22:9-22
Scripture 2: Revelation 22:1-5

Heal the brokenhearted, God, and bandage all their wounds.

Prayers for Others
Lord’s Prayer
Message and Discussion

Wounded Healer, we neither long for suffering nor reject it entirely. Frequently we manufacture it for ourselves, yet we cannot seem to stop. Help us to embrace our woundedness so that you may heal us through it, and to acknowledge our brokenness in a way that allows us to move beyond it.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing, at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.

How God Prays

What does it sound like when God prays?

“Let there be light. Let the earth give forth vegetation. Let there be life.”

Creation is God’s prayer, no less a prayer than when Jesus says “Let your name be revered. Let your kingdom come.”

That’s what we often say in prayer: “Let it be so.”

We are living in God’s prayer.

And as we face climate change, I believe God is still praying the creation prayer. And we are the answer to God’s prayer.

Mental Health Sunday 1: Changing our Attitudes Toward Mental Health

(This is an order of worship for a devotional service based on the format of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.)

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna who specialized in treating anxiety and depression. Because of his success in radically lowering the suicide rate among high school students, he became head of the suicide prevention department at the General Hospital in Vienna. In 1942 German authorities sent him and his wife, parents, and brother to concentration camps. In the camps, he focused on helping his colleagues overcome their despair. When the camps were liberated, he learned that all of his immediate family were dead, except his sister who had fled the country. Reflecting on his own experiences and dealing with his own trauma, Frankl wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning, developed a form of therapy called logotherapy, and began what came to be known as existential therapy. He spent the rest of his life making the case that humans are not primarily motivate by sex or power, but by meaning. He helped the field of mental health studies take love and spirituality seriously.

O Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you
as the day rises to meet the sun.
Glory to the Creator, and to the Redeemer, and to the Sustainer,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Come, let us bow down and bend the knee; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.

Help us to seek and know you, God, so that we may also know ourselves.

Psalm 139:1-6 (CEB)
Lord, you have examined me. You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it.

Help us to seek and know you, God, so that we may also know ourselves.

Hebrew Bible Reading: 1 Samuel 16:14-23

New Testament Reading: Philippians 4:2-13

Help us to seek and know you, God, so that we may also know ourselves.

Viktor Frankl said: “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Prayers for Others
Lord’s Prayer

God of Life and Source of Meaning, in both the peace and the storm of life, you are there. Place within us a peace that passes understanding, so that we find meaning and strength to do what needs to be done. Turn our minds to your goodness, so that in all circumstances we may find purpose and hope.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing, at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.

Are You Religious?

I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.

This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.

On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.  

There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.

This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.

If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.

In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.

I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.

But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.

So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.

Carrying Water for Pontius Pilate

Église de Saint-Thégonnec, Notre-Dame. Photo by Weglinde, from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written and deleted so many words about Jacob Blake and the young murderer who shot protesters in Kenosha. I don’t know how to address the toxic stew of vigilante fantasy, aggrieved whiteness, and domination theology that afflicts our culture. As tired as I am of preaching about state violence against black people, I know it is not nearly enough, nor am I nearly as tired as people who live under this threat every single damned day.

While I am particularly angry at racist man-boys who like to play soldier, while I am generally angry at the pundits who stoke the vigilante fantasies of snobbish white couples defending their gated communities against nonviolent protesters, while I am furious at Hoover citizens who advocate running over my protesting friends with their cars, I recognize that they are living out the Dirty Harry and Batman stories that I have also eagerly devoured my whole life. They honestly think they are the good guys.

That’s no excuse.

White clergy often feel like they have to thread the needle when addressing these major issues, because many in their congregations will latch on to some irrelevant detail in order to justify the criminalization and vigilante execution of black men and women: “He had a knife. He didn’t comply. He had a record.” When some of us clergy posted a video two years ago in which we said, “Black lives matter,” I even had clergy colleagues who said that I was advocating or inciting violence.

In order to make peace, too many Christians reach for “both sides” rhetoric. “Jesus transcends politics,” they say, ignoring the fact that Jesus’s incarnation was itself a political act, God’s own statement that bodily life matters, that how we wound or heal bodies, how we incarcerate or set them free, how we neglect them or provide them with food and water matters. How we subject them to manufactured poverty and affect them with policy matters. Jesus doesn’t transcend politics. He gets his hands and feet dirty with it when he becomes human, when he heals, eats, hurts, rests, and dies.

When he marches into Jerusalem with his followers on Palm Sunday, with the religious leaders scoffing and admonishing him to be quiet, with the Roman and temple riot police looking for an excuse to crack some heads, he shows us that God takes to the streets even when God knows the outcome is failure.

Preachers who proclaim “third way” politics from the safety of air-conditioned pulpits, who avoid protests and have never marched for anything that might put their bodies or reputations at risk, are lying to themselves and their congregations when they scorn politics and speak of the “revolutionary love” of Jesus. You can only proclaim a “third way” from the streets with the people whose lives are being threatened. That’s where the credibility of what you preach will actually be tested.

Black lives matter. Black bodies, health, dignity, votes, and mental health matter. Black political, economic, and social power matters. Black children matter. Black education matters. Black gay and trans and queer rights matter. The whole of black lives, mental, spiritual, and physical—matters.

The white church, and white clergy in particular, need to stop carrying water for Pontius Pilate. He’ll just wash his hands and dry them on your robes.

Theology and Kink in the News

Today’s reporting from CNN. Click for story.

The unfortunate thing about the salacious sex lives of our so-called-conservative leaders is that not only are they unsurprising, but when they are outed it simply reinforces the stigma associated with being honest about sexuality.

None of us believes Falwell’s particular kink is unusual, right? Or that “cuck” is a term loaded with contempt precisely because *so many* manly men sense that their jealousy is an aphrodisiac, and they are secretly embarrassed about it, right? Just like so many virulently anti-gay pundits are in the closet. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves. We are masters at projection.

I have to admit feeling some schadenfreude, because Falwell is a cruel and hypocritical person.

But y’all, it’s also so, so sad. We cause so much misery in our own lives by refusing to be curious about *why* something appeals to us that is socially taboo.

For example: there is a reason the woman in the Song of Songs teases her lover by saying,

Tell me, you whom I love with all my heart—
where do you pasture your flock,
where do you rest them at noon?—
so I don’t wander around with the flocks of your companions. (Song of Songs 1:7)

She teases him by saying she will give her affections to his friends. She says this BECAUSE jealousy evolved to create this very response, a mixture of anger and arousal that is highly stimulating. White conservative men, many (but not all) of whom are perpetually angry, are particularly attracted to this brew of emotion. They are also highly defensive about it. That (and misogyny) is why “cuckold” is their epithet of choice.

(FTR, I think it’s pretty obvious that what we’ve heard in the media is only the surface-level stuff. Also, I don’t really need to hear any more.)

The Bible also tells the story of an explicit BDSM relationship between Samson and Delilah. Pastors have often preached that Delilah “tricks” Samson, but she doesn’t. She asks directly, “Tell me how to tie you up.” He tells her, and then submits to being tied up. THREE TIMES.

You think *modern* people invented bondage play? Like human beings only *recently* learned about kink? (And that’s not all that’s in the Bible, BTW).

Why does Samson eventually reveal his secret? Because even the strongest man in the world needs to feel vulnerable sometimes. The burden of being strong is exhausting. Samson was tired of performing all the time. So it’s particularly bitter that he ends his life performing! (Judges 16)

All that to say: so much of religious conservatism is about performing. Most of these preachers and pundits who have such loud voices in our society are performing. When Falwell says he was depressed, I believe him—but not for the reasons he gives. It is sad that their comeuppance creates *more* incentive for people performing conservative religiosity to be incurious about their own brains, their own sexuality, and their own spiritual lives. Seeing their colleague publicly humiliated, they bury their secrets deeper.

And no, admitting, “We’re all sinners” is not helpful. Sin isn’t even the point. The point is if you’re afraid of your own internal life, you will never be at peace. You are at constant enmity with the world and God because your theology of sin sucks. It is our own incuriosity about our inner life and our binary view of good and evil that creates such manufactured suffering.

When you live your whole life under a giant SHOULD, you develop a “worm” theology. “You are not worthy, and you never will be, you pervert, you miserable worm.” It does not shame one into being a virtuous person. It makes one into a hypocrite.

Hypocrite literally means “actor.” A performer.

In our society, we are lousy with them. And this kind of religion is killing our planet.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 60: Final Words

The Delivery of the Bhagavad Gita, from Wikimedia Commons

In the larger epic that contains the Bhagavad-Gita (the Mahabharata), blind king Dhritarashtra is the head of the royal family that opposes Arjuna. The whole dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna is being reported to him by his charioteer.

As Krishna draws his dialogue with Arjuna to a close, he says,

Make every act an offering to me; regard me as your only protector. Relying on interior discipline, meditate on me always. Remembering me, you shall overcome all difficulties through my grace. But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. (BG18:57-58)

This last line has a particular poignancy in the context of the epic. We’ll get to that in a minute.

When Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, he offers a similar warning: Those who listen to his words and put them into practice will be like a wise builder who puts the foundation of a house on rock. In the storm, such a building will stand firm. But a foolish builder builds a house on sand, which collapses in a strong wind (Matthew 7:24-27).

But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. Remember, according to the story, we are “overhearing” this dialogue in the back of a chariot, but this is only a literary device. The phrase hints that Krishna’s words are directed to the reader, not just to Arjuna. Krishna has repeatedly told Arjuna that he is precious, that he is on the right path, and so on. While he could be speaking generally (because any young prince might be overcome by self-will), it’s written as though Krishna is gazing beyond Arjuna’s shoulder and addressing all of us who are eavesdropping.

The chapter—and the Gita—concludes in Sanjaya’s voice, the character reporting to Dhritarashtra. This whole dialogue is being reported to Arjuna’s enemies by one who has overheard. He says that hearing the conversation made his hair stand on end, and filled him with wonder and joy. Imagine if, in the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount were reported by Judas to High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate! Would we read it differently?

I think it gives a little twist to the whole work. Your enemies are hearing this same wisdom; they have the same access to it that you do. It awes and inspires them. Does it change their hearts? Does it change the way you think of your relationship? Does it change your approach to wisdom? Does rivalry make you desire it more? Or would you reject it because someone you hate is putting it into practice?

Krishna goes on to tell Arjuna not to share these words with the unworthy and immature (which sounds like “do not throw your pearls before swine,” (Matthew 7:6). He also says that anyone who hears them with faith, “will find a happier world where good people dwell” (BG 18:71) So as this dialogue is being reported to the blind king, he is being offered a kind of peace. (And this is not the first time Krishna has offered him peace).

I think this is a particular aspect of wisdom in both Christianity and Hinduism: those who are pursuing wisdom have fewer reasons to be enemies. Those who are wise have sympathy even for their rivals. I think of David grieving over Saul, or Joseph reconciling with his brothers. If we are free of attachment to our actions, if we do not lust after wealth or temporary pleasures that cannot satisfy, what do we have to fight over? It’s not as if wisdom is “owned” by one party or tribe more than another. It is freely available to those who humble themselves enough to ask for it and its rewards are for any who diligently put it into practice.   

Prayer:
Foundation of the Universe, let me build my life on nothing but you.

This concludes my regular devotionals on the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible. I’m going to take a short break and offer a reflective summary in a few days. I’m preparing to teach a class at UAB on America’s Religious Diversity, so this has been a helpful exercise for me in comparative religion. I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

I will start a new series in a week or two on mental health and religious practice. In the meantime, if you need a daily devotional, I recommend CAC’s and Richard Rohr’s here.

Permaculture Church

Permaculture design illustration, by Arthur Nanni, from Wikimedia Commons

As I’ve been reading about permaculture, I’m more aware of how the industrial-age church was conceived of as a factory farm. Like a factory farm, it applied pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide to keep out all the undesirables—(people, practices, and so-called heresies)—instead of intentionally cultivating diversity in order to strengthen the spiritual ecosystem.

And like a factory farm, it has left us with a fragile monoculture: great for shelf-life and for export all over the world, but not great for flavor. It is resource-intensive, and requires importing vast quantities of artificial fertilizer to replenish the depleted soil.

Its architects were inspired by the parables of the sower and seed, and the parable of the talents. Its goal has been to create high yields, and it has done that remarkably well. But it has done so at a great cost to the planet and to our physical and spiritual health.

The church needs a permaculture spiritual practice instead of a monoculture one. It requires more observation and less busy-work. It measures success not in bushels brought to market but in how well it balances life, increases resilience and diversity, and shares nature’s abundance with neighbors.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 59: Three Kinds of Knowledge

King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, 1430. from Wikimedia Commons

In the next chapter, Krishna continues to riff on the three gunas. He says,

Sattvic knowledge sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation. Rajasic knowledge sees all things and creatures as separate and distinct. Tamasic knowledge, lacking any sense of perspective, sees one small part and mistakes it for the whole. (BG 18:20-22).

Krishna has described a kind of dialectic: Tamasic thinking (superstition and magic) is the thesis. People who hastily create a worldview from their limited experience tend to assume their perspective is universally true. Its antithesis is rajasic analytical and scientific thinking. This is a cognitive leap, where people dismantle the old superstitions. The synthesis is sattvic thinking, which understands the union of spirit and matter, science and spirituality. One who is enlightened “sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation.”

I do not see this as three separate ways of knowing. I see it instead as normal human development. We all start off as children, trying to make sense of a world that makes little sense. We are taught concrete rules and concepts: Don’t touch a hot stove. Hard work is rewarded. These concepts are true for their context, and they shape a worldview. Some people get stuck in a childlike understanding of the world. They assume their experience is universally true, and that absolute truth is easy to grasp.

Generally, as we get older, we learn more scientific and relativistic ways of thinking. There are many different perspectives. To truly understand something, we must test it. Reality is complex. We have all kinds of “coming of age” stories where the protagonist goes through a lonely period of questioning and disillusionment. There is no longer any such thing as “absolute truth.”

As we get older still, many of us synthesize these two perspectives. There is a universality in our particularity. The distinctions between naiveté, cynicism, and wisdom become blurry. Part of our human task is to grow into deeper and richer forms of knowledge, where more than one thing can be true at a time, and where we transcend dualistic thinking. Light can be both a wave and a particle. Energy and matter can be the same thing. A human can be both a sinner and a saint, temporal and eternal. Life and death are no longer opposites, but part of an endlessly creative dance.  

In the Bible, scholars refer to two kinds of wisdom literature: conventional wisdom, and unconventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom represents the kind of knowledge you want to instill in children and young people so that they will be effective in life, like: “The faithless will be fully repaid for their ways, and the good rewarded for theirs” (Proverbs 14:14). But eventually we turn a skeptical eye on such simplistic wisdom. Job rails against injustice, asking, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 20:7). Ecclesiastes takes a more nuanced and personal view: “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not” (Ecclesiastes 9:2).

That’s part of why I think these three kinds of knowledge are not rigid categories. They are a looping progression. And the more we know, the more we realize what we do NOT know. As the Buddha said, “we do not speak of enlightenment.” This is not the kind of knowledge you can put into words.

Prayer:
Wisdom Beneath All Things, I already know you. Help me to know you better.