Archive for April, 2010

How Not To Talk About God

April 24, 2010 - 3:18 pm 13 Comments

How not to talk about God: An interview with Karen Armstrong

The current debates about God’s existence hardly lift us up to transcendence. Karen Armstrong shares a vision of faith that is less about proofs than practice.

Karen Armstrong has met atheist Richard Dawkins a number of times. “He doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him much, but we are British, so we smile politely and exchange pleasantries,” she says. “We have been on panels together, but it’s absolutely pointless.”
Indeed it’s difficult to argue with the ideas she’s put forth in her new book, The Case for God. While her critics may say that she never “proved” her case, this is her point God isn’t a concept to be proved. She’s come to her understanding-or acknowledgment of her lack of understanding-of God over a lifetime of religious experiences. As a young Catholic desiring to experience God, she joined the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and spent seven years in the convent. She left disappointed and sick, and rejected faith. “I never thought I’d come back to religion, but what brought me back was the study of other faith traditions,” she says.

The author of more than 20 books, Armstrong says her spiritual practice is now study, which she likens to the practices of Benedictine monks. “When I’m sitting at my desk, I will get moments of awe and wonder and transcendence,” she says. But that experience doesn’t stop at her desk. Her study led her to launch The Charter for Compassion in November. Her goal, she says, is “to restore compassion to the central place of religious life.”

How do people understand God in Western culture today?

The idea of God is treated as fact today. A lot of people see God as a discrete personality; God is a creator in the same way as you or I create something. ¨In the 17th century in the West and during the Enlightenment, scientists and philosophers such as Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes believed that they could prove God’s existence scientifically. They said science was the best path to all truth. The other ways of coming to truth, such as art or mysticism or ritual, were downplayed. God became a fact, pure and simple.

What’s wrong with seeing God as fact?
Theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas have said that God doesn’t exist like you or me or this chair. They said you couldn’t say God exists because exist is too limited a word.
¨That wasn’t meant to just put the kibosh on all discussion, but to acknowledge the inadequacy of speech about God and to make room for a sense of transcendence. One Catholic British theologian has defined theology as speech that’s segues into silence, rather than worthy statements and definitions asThe scientific “proofs” of God are being disproved. That could be a good thing because it could shock people out of this literal thinking, but they don’t always get much help from clergy on this. Clergy fell in love with science, too. We have developed a kind of lust for unsustainable certainty.

Science and religion are often cast as opponents today. How has the relationship between them changed?
Science and religion once were best friends. Seeking absolute certainty, churchmen and theologians made Newton’s God the original cause and all-powerful being that controlled creation through Newton’s theory of universal mechanics-central to their mission, later adding naturalist William Paley’s understanding of God as an “intelligent designer.” In the 19th century the one Enlightenment thought that evangelicals seized upon was Newton’s scientific proof of God.

Then Charles Darwin found a natural explanation for life itself, and this threw religious people for a loop. They had no other resource to understand God except as creator so they developed defensive fundamentalism with a growing antagonism toward science that hadn’t been there before.

In the fourth century St. Augustine said that if a biblical text contradicted science, believers had to find a new interpretation of that text. That was the practice right through to the 17th century. Even at the dawn of the scientific revolution, a witty Vatican cardinal said that in the Bible the Holy Spirit is telling us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
In the past people knew that science and religion had different goals; they were complementary. Science can help you diagnose and treat your cancer, but it cannot touch the despair and dismay and terror you feel when you get the diagnosis, nor can it help you die well. For that people turn to religion, or more broadly speaking, to myth, the stories and beliefs that, when put into practice, answer our deeper questions about the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of our human predicament.

What happens to religion when you mix science and faith?

People thought that science would absolutely refute atheism, but once you have domesticated God and reduced God to a mere fact, atheism is only a matter of time. Religious language must always point beyond itself into the silence of transcendence. If it becomes an end in itself, religion becomes idolatry. ¨You can see that in the early modern scientists. Newton says he found proof for an omniscient, all-powerful, dominant force, who is, Newton claims, “very well skilled in mechanics and geometry.” This is clearly a projection of Newton himself. Mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler is said to have cried aloud in joy while doing his research, “O God, I think thy thoughts after thee.” That’s idolatry.

What was the Catholic reaction to this perspective?
Catholic theology goes for the modern, scientific God, too. The 16th century was a time of turmoil. Society was changing so much that people couldn’t be religious as they were before the Middle Ages. The Reformation split Europe just as the first modern nation-states were forming. The so-called wars of religion were tremendously aggressive on all sides. Italy was overtaken by Spain, and Rome got sacked.
It was a jolly bad century, and the Council of Trent and especially the Vatican reflect a very defensive, hard-line church. Everything becomes more streamlined than it was before, more hierarchical and more hard-valued. They took Thomas Aquinas and turned his theology into a rigid system of thought that he would have found absolutely repugnant.

How were Aquinas’ ideas changed?
In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas starts out by saying we cannot define God. Then he gives five ways, as he calls them, to think about God, all variations on the fact that nothing can come out of nothing: the intelligent designer, the first cause that must have started the universe, and so forth. He ends each way by saying this is what everybody means when they say “God.”
Then he immediately pulls the rug out from under our feet, saying that we have no idea what such a being is or how it can exist. We can’t even say it exists. All we’ve proved is the existence of a mystery. If he were here today, Aquinas would be asking us to try and think of life before the big bang. He was doing cutting-edge science in his day, pushing reason as far as it could go.
But the Vatican later presented his ways as factual proofs and made people believe that you had to sign on the dotted line. It was a new hard-line orthodoxy. People were put to death over this.

How did this development in theology affect people’s belief?
Belief started to be about ideas instead of practice after the scientific revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and the Council of Trent. Catholics never went quite as far as the Protestants in this because Trent was still very concerned with ritual-tidying up the liturgy and telling people to go to Mass.
Religion is a practical form of knowledge. You learn by doing it, like dancing or driving or swimming. You can’t learn to swim by reading a text; you just have to get into the pool and flap around until you acquire the knack. It takes years of disciplined, dedicated hard work before a dancer can move with grace, but if she works at it, she can take human movement into a new sphere.
Religion does the same, and in all the traditions you adopt a disciplined way of life and take part in rituals that teach the mind to go deeper than the rational level. Praying five times a day helps Muslims get beyond the preening, prancing ego. When you interrupt your work and point yourself in the orientation of Mecca, you’re reminding yourself of your true priorities.
In the ancient Benedictine tradition, you don’t just get it all in one go. It requires a monk to develop very slowly over years of practice. St. Ignatius, on the other hand, embraced the new efficiency of modernity. Ignatian spirituality is a crash course in mysticism. One 30-day retreat, and you’re set.
Religion is hard work. Above all it demands a compassionate lifestyle. This is the test of religiosity in every single one of the major world traditions. Most of our doctrines were originally calls to action.

How so?
Incarnation is a call to action. St. Paul says that Jesus was in the image of God, but he didn’t cling to that; he emptied himself of ego and took on the likeness of a servant and even accepted death on the cross, for which reason God exalted him. Paul introduces this concept by saying you must have the same mind as Christ Jesus: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).
Religious truth makes no sense unless you put it into action. It remains as dry and abstract as the rules of a board game, which sound incredibly dull and incomprehensible until you pick up the dice and play.

Are there other doctrines that could help us recover the sense of religion as practice?
We never really got Trinity in the West, but it was also a spiritual practice. In the early Greek church, the Trinity would be imparted not just as a jingle– “Three in one and one in three, oh, the noble Trinity”– but as a meditation after the transformative initiation of Baptism.
You swing your mind back from the three manifestations of God that we can sense, to the ousia of God, the one that we can never know, backward and forward. The doctrine is simply the end of the meditation.
You have to go through the meditation and keep doing it all your life to understand Trinity. It’s described very much as a transcendent experience. Ancient theologians were trying to remind Christians that it was impossible to think about God as a simple personality.

But Christians do think of God as having distinct personalities, including that Jesus is God.
To say Jesus is God is a partial expression of the divine. God is unnamable. You can never know the essence of the divine. But God has adapted this ineffable transcendence to our limited understanding and has come to meet us. So Christians have experienced God as Father, a sort of brooding, sort of caring presence; as Spirit immanent within us; and as Word, which is spoken in Jesus and in creation.
These are the external, like my gestures and my clothes and my words are me. But they don’t exactly define what “me” is. We know God’s external qualities, but we can never know his ousia or inner nature.

How is the experience of transcendence connected to compassionate action?

You won’t get transcendence unless you are compassionate. To be compassionate is to dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put another there, to transcend yourself. You go beyond the selfishness and hatred that imprisons us and limits our vision.
Today we concentrate so much on defining what we’re transcending to– God –whereas in the past they concentrated more what we’re transcending from: selfishness, greed, hatred, all of which springs from ego.

But isn’t the goal of faith to get to heaven, “to meet our Maker”?
I’m not interested in the afterlife. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he means something very earthbound. The kingdom, the reign of God on earth, is a Jewish concept, and Jews don’t go much for afterlife.
Paul says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). That is, he doesn’t know. If that’s good enough for St. Paul, it’s good enough for me.
If all religious life is reduced to getting into heaven, and all your good deeds are about getting up there, as it was for me as a child, this is no more religious than paying into a retirement annuity. Heaven is supposed to be about the loss of ego, not about preoccupation with its eternal survival in optimum conditions.
Also, if we do not experience a bit of the eternal now by hard, dedicated practice, it’s no good thinking we’ll get anything like that after we die.


The Case for God responds to today’s militant atheism, like that of Richard Dawkins, but you also say in the book that you would welcome “an informed atheistic critique.”
I would, but Dawkins’ critique is not informed. Richard Dawkins on theology is frankly painful to read. As British literary critic Terry Eagleton said in his review, “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

I don’t like the regression of the dialogue on either side. It is uncompassionate, counterproductive, and all about ego. But an informed critique could help us rid religion of idolatry and see the ineffability of the divine. But now people are defensively hanging on to a concrete image of God, and once people get defensive, they can get aggressive, too.

How should we respond to atheism?
We need a rethink. We can’t reproduce the spiritualities of the past because we are 21st-century people, but we can learn from history and make the huge creative effort to translate its wisdom into our own time.
That’s going to be hard work, and people have gotten lazy about religion. They think it should be easy. They go in and sing a couple of hymns once a week at Mass and then return to their normal lives unscathed by the demands of the tradition. I think we need to reinstate the idea of religion as primarily practice.

What do you think of Pope Benedict XVI’s attempt to respond to the wider culture where Catholicism and religion in general is losing influence?
If he thinks all Europeans are going to become Catholic, this is just not going to happen. He has not been good with other faiths, either. I’d tell him, let’s go into dialogue prepared to be changed. That’s the only way dialogue works.

Go into dialogue as you did in Socrates’ day, prepared in the end to realize that you knew nothing, to realize transcendence. No one can have the last word on God, and we can learn so much from other people’s insights.

What about the fear that this will lead to relativism? Is there value in each community pursuing its own path?
I think that’s the best way, even though I can’t do it.
Catholics in England have been so vile to me over the years that I don’t feel like I can go back to the church. I can’t become Anglican, though, because in England Catholics never feel quite English, and Anglicanism is a celebration of being English as far as I can see. Islam and Buddhism are out of my culture, too.
I don’t recommend my course to anybody else. This is just the result of my own personal, troubled religious history, and I healed myself by studying other faiths.
I think it’s best to stay with your own because all the religions teach the same thing — compassion. Stress those aspects of tradition that speak of compassion and practice and humility and openness.
I was with the Dalai Lama at an interfaith conference once when he told a woman that converting from Christianity to Buddhism was a complete waste of her time. All faiths teach kindness. My religion is kindness, he said, and as for the highest states of meditation, he said, don’t even go there.

The religions are not all the same. They each have their distinct genius, each their distinctive flavor, and each their particular flaws and failings. It’s best, I think, if you can, to remain with one but learn from others.

What do you make of those who say they are “spiritual, but not religious”?
I can’t stand that. Spiritual often just means some kind of wishy-washy me-ism, where I’m having a lovely experience without much discipline. You know, designer Kabbalah in Hollywood or designer yoga.
Yoga is not about aerobic exercise or finding the lovely oceanic peacefulness about yourself; it’s about dismantling the ego. It demands hours of practice every day, not just a yoga class once a week. We’ve watered it down to be some kind of feel-good thing.
Some of the late medieval, early modern mystics who threw out all intellect in favor of spirituality were criticized for sitting around looking as if they had a bug in their ear because they only looked within themselves.
Spiritual can mean, “I feel very spiritual when I look at the sunset, but I’m quite happy to slag off Islam, and not to give any money to charity. I’m quite OK with the fact that we’ve messed up the Middle East and people are dying every day in Iraq- not just our soldiers but others who are dying as a result of our mistakes. I’m quite happy with the inequality of our social system.” That is not proper spirituality. ¨Feeling is neither here nor there. You’ve got to get deeper than feeling. We know in our own lives that feelings come and go. Like Aquinas said, you can’t feel God any more than you can know God.

If believe, feel, and know are out, what verb do you think best captures your relationship with God? Seek.
I seek and will seek forever without possibility of finding the clinching moment.

This interview appeared in the January 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75. No. 1, pp. 24-28).

Bishop John Spong on Social Justice

April 19, 2010 - 7:49 pm 2 Comments

Bishop Spong and The Church;

A Question about The Prophetic/Justice Imperative contrasted to the Motives of the Institutional Church; The Love of God vs. Love of the Neighbor

Dr. Wallace from Pennsylvania writes:
“Our diocese has a linked relationship with one of the dioceses in southern Sudan. Terrible conditions. Our bishop and his wife visited the area (Kajo Keji) for three weeks several months ago. Our diocese has responded generously to pleas for food and other assistance. As it often happens, once caring people become personally exposed to conditions of millions upon millions in the developing world and have an opportunity to compare and contrast, the result – certainly by most Christians I have known – is a strong motivation to respond. In Swaziland in January, I guided our rector through a nine-day tour of conditions and the AIDS situation in Swaziland – same response. My bias as a Christian has been for many years that many faith groups place a significant emphasis and focus on the importance of belief as compared with the importance of behavior.

I recall a number of passages in the New Testament that cite Christ’s focus on loving God and our neighbors. From my personal perspective, love of a neighbor and all of its critical interpretations receives much less focus and emphasis in the Church than love of God. What usually occurs after a meaningful experience with poverty, loss of hope and inequity, there is a brief flash of sympathy, often action of some sort – some of which is indeed useful. But sooner or later there seems to be a return for our church leaders to fall back on what appears to me to be some fuzzy interpretations that occurred many centuries ago and would never stand active interpretation.

So, as I challenge church leaders, clergy and congregations, my question relates to how I can encourage them to review one of the essential mandates from Christ – his clear and emphatic emphasis on our responsibilities toward our fellow human beings.”

Dear Dr. Wallace,
You touch the ultimate question that always hampers the Christian Church. I am not sure Christianity would have survived for 2000 years had it not been institutionalized. I am not sure if it will survive the next 100 years because it is institutionalized.

Every institution places its ultimate weight on preserving its own life. That is why the Church emphasizes loving God over loving one’s neighbor. Loving God can be expressed through worship and liturgy, building stone monuments and in filling them with music as well as mystery. These are the emotions that build great cathedrals, vest clergy elaborately, decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, create chorales and oratorios, all of which shroud God in mystery and wonder and draw people, who are always seeking relationship with the holy, into the Church’s orbit engaging them in worship. This serves the Church’s need for power that has always been its highest priority.

The push for justice on the other hand might be at the center of the Gospel but it also attacks the balance of power in the society. Since the rich always exploit the poor, to give the poor power, dignity and humanity makes them less pliable, less cooperative. Prejudices also cover human insecurities and so they always receive religious sanctions. The Bible portrays God justifying the hatred of the Hebrews for their overlords, the Egyptians. Otherwise, the story of the divine plagues aimed at the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus makes no sense.

White people cover their fear and insecurity against people of color by subjugating them as either slaves (later segregation and dehumanizing prejudice) or as vassal states to a colonial empire. Males cover their masculine sense of inadequacy by treating women as second-class citizens. Heterosexuals reveal their sexual insecurity by oppressing homosexual persons. It is interesting to me to see how throughout history we blessed our prejudices with sanctified quotations from Holy Scriptures as if to say God shares our prejudices with us.

The great biblical tradition says that loving God and loving one’s neighbor are not two separate actions but two sides of the same action. It was the prophet Amos who bore witness to the fact that divine worship is nothing but human justice being offered to God and human justice is nothing but divine worship being lived out. It was the First Epistle of John that warned us that one cannot love God without loving one’s neighbor and to suggest otherwise is to be “a liar.” It was Jesus himself to whom the words are attributed that his purpose is to bring life and to bring it abundantly. To be a disciple of Jesus means a dedication to being a life giver, a life enhancer to all people at all times and under all circumstances. Finally, in the parable of the Judgment in Matthew 25, the entire basis of salvation is said to be not the way one believes, that is to creeds, doctrines and dogma but whether or not one serves the Christ who is to be seen in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned and the sick.

The task of people like you, Ned, is to call institutional Christianity daily to accept its vocation to follow its Lord by giving its life in the service of others. But lest you be disillusioned, you need always to be aware that the people who will hear the call of Christ and the call that you have so often heard and to which you have given yourself so courageously will always be a minority,

a saving remnant within the body of believers. However, that witness is essential to the life and health of the whole body. It is a fact that the great reformers of Christian history were generally regarded as troublemakers in their own generation. Only history applauds the prophet. The vast majority of those who share your generation, Ned, will be forgotten in a generation or two. But your work will be enshrined in the memory of the people you have served so deeply that it will finally enter the mythology of their culture. That is no insignificant contribution.

New Book From Bishop Spong Available Now!
Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love
“The Sins of Scripture challenges Christians to look beyond the myths of their faith into the heart of the matter.”
-Bill O’Reilly, anchor, Fox News Channel

The Tides and Times of Life- Readings & Reflection

April 19, 2010 - 7:39 pm 12 Comments

On the Times and Tides of Life

Opening Statement: The Temple of Majesty

The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet none of us truly sees it… You will never enjoy the world aright until the sea itself flows through your veins, until you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars…. Until your spirit fills the whole world and that you remember how recently you were made , how wonderful that you came into this world, and that you are to rejoice in each morning as your place for today’s glory….

Reading: from ” Gifts from the Sea”

Is there not a hint of deeper understanding in the acceptance of the eternal ebb and flow of life? … For the life of our emotions and of our relationships are intermittent. When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility …. We seem to have such little faith in the ebb and flow of life, love, of all our relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide, and we resist the ebb. We are afraid that love will be lost and never return. We try to insist on permanency… But only continuity that is truly possible in life, as in love, is found in freedom.
How can one learn to live through the ebb tides of one’s existence? It is easier to understand here, on the beach, where the breathlessly still reveal another life below the level which we mortals can reach; … That each cycle of the tide is valid; whatever recedes will eternally return.”

Alan Watt’s Journal
“[Ever since I could remember, the smell, the sound, and the motion of the sea has been pure magic… Even in those times when I need to ‘get away from it all,’ and as the Chinese poets puts it, ” wash all the wrongs of life from my pores,” there was nothing better than to find a rock, or walk, or just sit with the seas and the skies… Although the rhythm of the seas beats out a certain kind of time, it is neither clock time nor is it calendar time. It has none of that kind of urgency. It is timeless time. It in concert with the time of the universe, and that every lapping wave can be synchronized with each in breath and out breath, breathing as we do, the waves into our very being.]”

There are times in our lives where the ebb and flow of our feelings and experiences ungulate like the rhythmic coming and going of the seas, sometimes bringing peace to our souls, and other times being the harbingers of a dramatic, life-altering experience.

Life flows…. And never stops…. Even when death is experienced on one level, it is but a change that the tides in their rhythmic graces supply to us; to teach us, to console, to inspire, to accompany us throughout all the motions and movements of our hearts….
Life flows onward and its capacity for teaching us about love and life never stops… While it might seem to pause or even freeze in our hearts and minds, it is always flowing in us … While we can build dams, barriers, and try to place obstacles in our hearts and minds, there is no place that can sustain, no way to resist the surges and tides of life, and because it is relentlessly gracious, it is those same rhythms that connect us and put us into each others arms, the same waves of emotions and sensitivities that flow through us and outward to every person we see and meet….

We all come from the womb of life, the ocean, and our connections to it are primal, often unconscious, and yet never less than real and there is always a part of our being that will affirm that connection and how being in touch with the ebb and flow of those waves gives us endurance, hope….
We all flow from the same source- the same oceanic feeling, the same fluid soul …. the oceans do not know human differences, nor will the waves accept human vanities and peculiar ways we seek to separate or distance ourselves…. The salt, the sand, the winds, and the feel are universal…. Gracious…. Even holy for us….

As John Muir put it, “[ God does not appear in a random world, or flow through sometimes narrow chinks or is present only to chosen places, races, and situations…. But God flows in a grand, universal and undivided currents and it saturates us all….]”

The times when the ocean has meant a lot in my life are quite diverse, and yet, I feel they are instructive because they give me a map of human experience and emotion that I would have never designed, yet, strangely, have experienced as a deep part of my soul….
They are poignant moments and there are tragic ones…. Times when I knew that my life felt lost, and times when I almost lost my life…. Tides when my emotions were filled and overflowing with optimism, and times and tides when I was more empty than a small tide pool at lowest tide ….
Among the memories that stand out I have chosen two….. For their contrast and for their intensity, to share with you the depth of emotion that the oceans of the heart can contain….

When I was married, I lived along the Atlantic ocean, first near Plymouth, MA., and then later near Glouscester up on the North Shore….
Often, my wife and I would take a break from ministry and art to take a walk on the beach- time to reflect, pray, discuss the mundane and the metaphysical, and just keep company with each other’s spirits….
Those times of respite and relationship are times that I sorely miss,
but as I reflect back on them, I am filled with a little remorse, and much gratitude… So even though I am now alone, I feel that it is important to have those kinds of time together… Too often we can be too busy, or not see that just because there is not a screaming need to response, that we are in need of one another’s company…. And yes, I hope that I will find another partner …. Someone to walk the beaches with me again….
The second was a turning point in my ministry where I realized how important churches and clergy can be to its city or community. I realized from this experience that my mission is to be an open, available resource for people who did not think or feel along the ordinary or status quo lines, but that a liberal church exists to serve the entire community of the unchurched, who, for reasons easy to understand, have not either found us, or know that we exist…. And it is not until there is a need for celebration, or in this case, a time of profound crisis and sadness, that they discover the importance of a community like ours.
About fifteen years ago, I was the minister for a bereaved family. It was a high profile murder case where I had to not only minister to the family but act as a protective screen from the national media that was covering the tragedy. I walking along a dock near my home, when my eyes focused on a poster stapled to dock pillion…. It had the face of a young woman on it and the request that if anyone had seen her to notify the police or the family…. I had an instant flash of recognition that somehow I would be directly involved with this person, yet I did not know how or why…..
When I returned home, I received a call from my church sexton whose voice was quivering…. He said that a family had come to the church looking for a minister and could I come down to talk with them…. I said of course I would…. When I arrived the family members were already inside the church, and I went over to welcome them…. They began telling me the story of their wife/sister/daughter who was missing and that they had suspected was murdered two weeks before… Of course, it was the same women whose picture I saw on the pole earlier in the day….
It seems as if she was last seen accepting a boat ride from a work colleague…. Little did we know that this innocent act of trust would have such gruesome results.
I was asked to provide the family with two memorial services….
The first I more private one for the neighbors and friends of the woman…. The family lived in a little alcove of homes near the water in Salem Ma, and she was a well known person in community affairs from working with the children to environmental protection…. When I arrived, 300 people were there…. all crowding onto a little spit of beach to say good bye to a friend…
The personal irony for me was that just four hours before, I presided over a Sufi wedding in the church- a joyous almost raucous event of celebration, energy and love! What an emotional seesaw it was for me….
The memorial was a touching tribute to the impact of one life on a community… It had contained reflections from family and friends, which I concluded by finishing my remarks with passing a wreath of flowers around the crowd before I took it to the ocean and cast it into the sea…
Two days later, the public memorial was a dramatic gathering….
The church I served had seats for 400, but there was standing room only, and probably 700 in the sanctuary…. I felt compelled to keep the photographers out of the service, and to keep the cameras away from the family during the service…. Again, very poignant thoughts and words, some of which I have read for you this morning….
It was the turning point of the ocean, a turning point for my ministry… That I was called to be the minister to thousands who shared in this experience of loss, the betrayal of trust, and to be involved in trying to reconcile the worse and the best of human natures ….
From that time on,
I realized that my ministry has to be to everybody, and anybody…. And that the call to ministry was like the call of the oceans, to be there and to offer that solace and hope during all the times and tides of our lives….

The Crosses We Bear: Homily for Easter Sunday

April 1, 2010 - 8:20 pm 75 Comments

The Crosses We Bear; The Hope We Carry
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
How can a religious liberal understand the difficult parts of the Easter story, namely the awful punishment of crucifixion and the promise of resurrection from the tomb? Are they simply to be dismissed as legend, as a revered but unscientific fable, or can the Mythic metaphor of what the cross represents in our lives provide us with a heartfelt key to understanding the message of Easter? In contrast to traditional Christian theology where the historical sacrifice of Jesus as the Christ ransoms or saves us, liberal theology takes a more personal approach. As the mystical poet Angelius Silesius puts it, “The cross on Golgotha will never save you- the cross in your own heart alone can make you whole.”
When people describe a particularly challenging time in someone’s life where the burdens have been heavy, they often say that “he or she has a cross to bear in this life.” This is not just a sympathetic euphemism. It points to the universal human need to take on, and work through, whatever difficulties our lives contain, as best we can. When taken seriously, the cross stands for our inescapable human process, and our sincere hope for progress, that cannot be attained without perseverance. Each cross we bear deals in some real degree with our losses or suffering. Suffering- and our human capacity to create it, endure it, and overcome it, is an essential part of our humanness and our brokenness. People in our world are carrying a lot of pain with them this Easter… This brokeness extends from countries through communities, from broken homes to broken hearts. Easter can be a time of dealing with profound sense of loss and only through befriending our pain, which releases passion and cultivates compassion, do we find relief, find release, and enact our own resurrection. It is the facing and then overcoming this awful fact that makes the insights we get from the Easter story come alive for us, and offers us a deathless supernal message of healing and hope.
Another way to reframe this is that if it were not for hope, our hearts would surely break… and I believe that the hope that the human heart can contain, when aligned with good or God, is stronger than anything that can happen to us in life. In fact, such spiritual depth defines our life. Psychologist Carl Jung states “that there is only one essential measure of a person, and that is their relationship to the Infinite,” how well they listen to their soul or attend to the needs of the Spirit’s reality that is within them.
It is my conviction born from generous amounts of recent suffering and from hard won wisdom and my life’s soul-centered apprenticeship, that each of us has sufficient resources, adequate will, and enough strength to overcome the graves of fear, pride, addiction, and illness, or at least be given enough courage and hope to sustain us through our afflictions.
You see, to be whole is not to be free of problems. It is to be centered and secure, and when faced with a crisis, to be in touch with those values and virtues that inspire us enough to carry us through our personal Good Fridays.
Crosses appear in our lives in many different ways: chronic illness, addictions, difficult marriages, rebellious children, and career insecurities, just to name a few. They can scourge or hang us as individual tests or trials that seem to endure without let up…
So the question becomes, how does one take up their cross and make it into a source of hope? How can we take our obstacles, tests, and trials and turn them into a deeper sense of gratitude for the refinement of our character, and the sincere empathy we need to respect and care for others?
We hear the answers echoed in the choir’s music this morning: That we are to walk confidently through the valley of loss or loneliness with its tearful sorrows and lurking shadows in our lives, and we are bravely compelled to seek the light even when our hope and faith appear dim, and our lives seem to be at their darkest.

The cross we bear need not be a curse. As the poet and theologian Dorothy Soelle teaches, that God (or Spirit), is closest to us during our cross bearing times; That grace is most disclosed or revealed within our struggles, we are never closer to God than during our times of crisis and questioning. Just as it appears to be darkest before the dawn, Easter’s first light reminds us that within each human heart there lives a deathless hope, an eternal faith, an invincible love.
In that way, Soelle teaches that when we feel injured by life, wounded or slighted by certain life circumstances and situations, that passion and distress brings us closer to a spiritual approach that transforms pain, attachment, and suffering into wisdom, freedom, acceptance and release. However, this transformation is not for the faint-hearted or the timid- as Jungian analyst Edward Ettinger puts it, Living true to one’s soul will take all we have got- and all we have got is what it will truly take to be authentic, and loving. You see, just as we mirrored back our parents behavior, so too, do we live with the fact that our spouses and our children will mirror back to us all that is unresolved, fearful, or egotistical in us! And this is as it should be! For until we accept that we will be let down by those we love, let down by those we thought we could trust, does such disappointment lead us to finding our own truth. As we learn to stop carrying the crosses of false expectations, let go of our negative perceptions, our ego justifications, we can we become a healing, tranformative model for the people in our lives.
Easter is our yearly metaphor for this lifelong struggle for significance. It can become for us a gracious intersecting time when we discover the meaning behind William Butler Yeats words, “Birth and death hour meet, or as the great sages say, “men dance on deathless feet.”
The cross we bear need not be an outer physical one or even an interpersonal one: we can easily learn how to crucify ourselves. Whenever we accept indignities, practice personal cruelties, act with selfish desires, or hold on to our fears, we are just a short step from taking our place on Calvary’s hill. In the same way, we can easily crucify others whenever we become unfeeling and unsympathetic, whenever we turn our hearts from one another, we crucify them, and we can bury the best in ourselves whenever we choose against love, when we lose faith, or abandon hope.
Our first steps out of the grave come from admitting that we have hurt others and take responsibility for its effects, just as we have to eventually learn to forgive those who have slighted or trespassed against us. As the choir reading so forcefully reminded us, we cannot hide behind the lilies, or expect that Spring has enough warmth to thaw out hate or stop our pain and sorrow. In our world, in our hearts, peace is hard won, and healing often comes to us only after a personal sacrifice- and it comes gradually, for it takes courage, persistence, and the genuine support of others who will honestly care for us, so that we can rise from our emotional graves, and claim a new life of freedom, dignity, service and compassion.
The Unitarian Christian, Helen Keller, knew and endured suffering, and she gives us this piece of compassionate counsel concerning our crosses, and warns us not to define ourselves by our wounds. She said:
“Face your deficiencies and acknowledge them, but do not let them make decisions or let them master you. Let them teach you about what you most need to learn. … Let them teach you patience, and insight… Whenever we conscientiously do the best we can, we never know what miracle can be wrought, either in our lives, or in the lives of others.”

Because we share the earth and belong to the community of Earth, we have to find a sustaining sense of hope for our lives, and promote such hope among all humankind. We come together as churches and communities to lend each other support, strength and friendship for our individual battles.
It is in our communities and in our families that we learn to turn our extremities into opportunities, and our opportunities into victories that overcome the cross and rise up from the grave of doubt, fear, egotism and separateness. Our hope is found in community, in mutual trust and respect, in our commitment and our caring.
Hope, as I see it, might be the most powerful emotion we have or can hold… Hope sustains us when the light of our love for one another goes out… Hope makes our faith in the spirit of life possible, and our hope will not disappoint us, because within hope we find ourselves connected to the community of earth and the web of life itself.
May this day of days symbolize for you, a renewal of hope and the promise of healing that you can carry confidently in your heart, and be able to share it courageously with others. As our closing hymn puts it, “I am the life that will never die, and I’ll live in you, if you live in me…” May this Easter find you sharing in and living inspired by Jesus… That “All things are possible for those who believe; they are less difficult for those who have hope; They are easy for those who love, and a joy for those who understand that faith, hope and love overcome the crosses in your heart, and the cares of the world.” Amen

[” Jesus was a man, and not a god, and therein lies the wonder and our surprise.” These words of Kahlil Gibran express what most religious liberals believe: that if we make Jesus into a God, he has less significance for us as human beings. It is his humanity that causes us wonder and surprise. That this is what human life could be all about- loving, compassionate, just, unselfish, strong.
…Perhaps we cannot be exactly like he was… But as all the great spiritual traditions, East and West teach, we are “as holy and as good, as we have the will to be.” The importance of Jesus’ message is that if we are willing, then we are capable. The kingdom of God is at hand; it lives within and among each and everyone of us. It just takes you and me, discovering who we really are, and then believing in what we know as God, in ourselves, and in one another.”

Easter and Eco-Spirituality Readings

April 1, 2010 - 8:00 pm 32 Comments

The great Easter truth is NOT that we are to live newly after our deaths.. but that we are to live nobly, in the here and now- and that we live by the power of hope eternal, and by maintaining a faith in life and a love for others that resurrects us all…

Glory Be to God for dappled things- For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls;
flinch’s wings; Landscape plotted and pierced- fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things couter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle,freckled, (who knows how?)
With swift; slow; sweet; sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him!
Gerald Manly Hopkins

Easter is not a time to dwell on dusty, musty tombs of tradition and feeling… it is to be celebrated as a day that fans the flames of hope that rise out of the tombs of any despair- Easter is our day of days that proclaims unconditionally the glory and majesty of life-it proclaims that the Spirit of Life is eternal, and that She lives in us, among us and is forever a gracious Yes! Happy Easter!

Selected Reading: Easter Morning by Wallace Robbins (adapted)
In the Easter story according to St. John’s Gospel, at dawn, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone. She was reluctantly included among the people who surrounded Jesus or who were a part of his inner circle of believers. Yet, she was first; and it was to her, and not to the apostles, that Jesus first appeared.
Those who watched the crucifixion had hoped that Jesus would have demonstrated some divine power or holy wrath… But when he did not, some were disappointed… Others were relieved…. Mary Magdalene never asked for anything from Jesus; She just wanted only to give her thanks to a man- a man who lay dead either victorious or defeated- but a man when he was alive blessed her and released her from her enemies and exploiters.
Jesus might have been the only man she ever met who did not want something from her- the only one who saw into her heart, and then demonstrated to her that he believed in her goodness, and that she wasn’t beyond redemption or undeserving of his compassion. His ability to show mercy gave her the strength to believe that God could not be denied or wrestled out of existence by religious piety, moral indifference, or public apathy. Because of what he did while he was alive, she was simply grateful. Her darkness did not frighten him, and his dark death did not discourage her faith.
Until each of us is willing to face the tomb of our own deadly beliefs, the emptiness of limiting attitudes and belittling opinions, be willing to suspend our doubts to arrive with hope, and then acting courageous and compassionate toward others, acting in the unselfish power of love can do or achieve, only then will we ever begin to know how Mary felt on that first Easter morning….

From the writings of Miester Eckhart and the Creation Mystics

The day of my spiritual awakening, was the day when I saw God in all things, and all things in God….

When your personal Easter comes, know that I will be all around you, and that I shall move through and through you… and Then I will steal your body, and give it to your love… (alternative is: I will heal your body…)

When are we like God? I will tell you…
In so far as we are compassionate,and practice it steadfastly
In so far as we are just, and decide to live in accord with it
In so far as we are loving, and offer it freely

Then do we resemble the Creator/Creatrix who practices these things ceaselessly in us and for us…

What is the human soul? It is god with God.
This is why God says to the soul:
I am the God of gods, but you are the goddess of all creatures.
Stand by all the people ….
who bear my likeness for I am your soul….

How does God come to us?
Like dew on the flowers…
Like the song of birds!
Yes, God gives us beauty through all the creatures,
gives us God wholly to me! \
This is why I bless God in my heart without ceasing, and give thanks for every living thing…. And this is why God has given us a mouth- to offer praises, in common with all the creatures, with all that we do, and at all times….

I see humanity as one vast plant, needing for its highest fulfillment only love, the natural blessings of the great outdoors, and intelligent crossing and selection.

In the span of my own lifetime, I have observed such wonderous progress in plant evolution that I look forward optimisitcally to a healthy,happy world as soon as its children are taught the principles of simple and rational living.
We must return to nature, and nature’s god.
Luther Burbank