Monday, August 24, 2015

Thoughts on the Emergent Church and the Sacred Mystery of the Religious Nones

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I attended a very intellectually stimulating discussion about the Religious Nones and the Emergent Church movement last Sunday and decided to add my own voice to the discussion!

As I listened yesterday, I began to realize that too often, these connected but also wildly discrete topics miss some subtle but also foundational elements.  For instance, we are learning a great deal of statistical information about the “nones”—they are not politically active (often they do not vote, in part because of the shift in this country that has led to politics and religious affiliation becoming more visible bed-partners); they are not comfortable with labeling of any kind; they are as likely to come from conservative as liberal, Orthodox or Catholic backgrounds; they are connected socially through technology; they have probably been there for a very long time (Gallup polls and the like only added the category “None” on their religious affiliation questions in 2007! It simply was not an option to check before that.) In general, it is simply more socially comfortable to say “none” than it was back in the 1950’s and even then, specifying church affiliation did not equate with church participation.  As interesting as all this is, we folks who are “churched” tend to see this group as those we can “bring back into the fold” without understanding that this stance is equivalent to a missionary going overseas to bring Christianity to the natives—we would rather make strategies and impose our way on this population instead of stepping back and listening to what the fringes are finding out there on the borders and wild lands of what has gone before.

I once asked a church I was working with to seriously open their pulpit to religious “nones” once a quarter and just honestly listen to why folks opt out of any church (and in many cases, ANY religious affiliation or practice). The congregation was horrified, in part, because they could not control what might be said to them. That is a very telling sign of what current writers might call “first half of life” reactions—the stage when we are concerned with the “bowl” of our religious lives.  That bowl is made up of tradition, authority issues, identity issues, boundaries and laws (doing it “right”).  If we are to meet the religious “nones” on their own turf, it must be in a spirit of second half of life theology and practice: inclusion; boundary-breaking; community service without sense of reward and taking many unusual shapes; selflessness and with a lack of tribalism; and a firm and mature experiential and even contemplative acumen. 

Christianity has always been about the fringes, as Richar Rohr so beautifully points out time and time again.  It has indeed been the fringe-folk and marginalized that have actually determined the new shape and theology that Christianity has and will take over time, not the established tradition and its heavily invested professional staff. Ministers and other “churched” folks will have to take seriously the injunction to become as “little children” or as Suzuki-Roshi once said, “put on the beginner’s mind” to sit at the knee of the “nones” and allow them to lead us, not the other way around! There is precious little evidence that this is being done, perhaps in part because it leads to a much more difficult question:  what is church actually for?

And, ironically, this is perhaps the central question driving the Emergent Church movement as well.

At different times in history and in different theological veins, this question has shifted and changed.  Each generation must ask it again, for their time and place in the development of humankind.  Certainly, for some, it was the primary way to insure a safe and happy afterlife and stay out of hell.  In other times and places, it was primarily an agent for social aid and action (once churches were the cornerstone of healthcare, education, the arts, public assistance and what have you—all elements taken over by our governments now to ensure a broader and more fair and equal delivery of such services). Sometimes, it was a membership card for an active citizen in a community—and unless you were churched, you suffered very real economic oppression and social shunning. Another face the church has worn is the tool or partner of a given political system, a trend we are currently experiencing again as American government tries to identify itself as Christian alone.

So I ask again: what is church for today, here and now, in America?

I hope you will notice the “reasons” for church above are all first half of life constructions—identity, safety, authority, “doing it right”, boundaries and laws.  In any given population, these will usually be the main driving force behind most organized religion, but currently, many people are actively challenging and calling into question these old “reasons to be” religious. And in this time of change, both church members and those on the outside are asking, in essence, “is this all religion is?”  For some, the clear answer is yes—this is all religion is--and they opt out of the entire enterprise.  But many of those who are choosing to stay in the faith (if not necessarily under a given Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic label) have one very important thing in common that most people scratching their head at the externals of the Emergent Church movement miss when they try to understand or even implement the ideas of the Emergent Church in their own pre-existing systems and buildings: It will not matter how much you change the externals of worship, participation, music delivery and membership! First and primarily, you must change the theology of the faith from first half of life concerns to those of the second half of life realizations!

The theology of the best examples of the Emergent Church tends to reflect selfless service not done for God or the Church but because it simply needs to be done; a more interactive, constantly evolving and thinking/feeling theology versus a pat set of answers based on church creed, doctrine and dogmas; a willingness to step back from tradition and open one’s self to new “breaths of the Spirit”; and a commitment to deep inclusion where none are rejected or outcast. This lead to some very real changes—taking the experiences of people of other faiths seriously and even joyfully without losing the touchstone of one’s own spiritual journey; union and walking with the way of Jesus and the consciousness icon of Christ (the Wisdom Jesus movement for example), not merely worshiping or thinking one’s self “less than” or “beholden to” or "glorifying" a savior figure; taking seriously the arts, new media forms and music as avenues more powerful than words and abstract verbal ideas; dispensing more and more with the cult of the personality—the minister up front and exerting control and influence over his or her flock; children as active participants in all the parts of church and not relegated to Sunday school; taking seriously the personal practices and disciplines of a life of faith such as meditation, body prayers, art and journaling; on and on.  This emphasizes the importance of a looser ego structure, silence (rather than doing all the talking “to” God), inclusion and boundary breaking.  In a sense, this is the deep call of “standing” that is such a critical part of the Gospels and works of a more ancient Christianity like the Gospel of Thomas.  It is not about membership, social and political correctness, tribalism and law or personal identity building.  The Emergent Church is, I think answering the great question of “what is religion for” with a resounding and exciting idea: just as it is said that the Sabbath is made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath, religion is for humankind, not humankind for religion.  Religion is for the experiential framing of a mature thinking and feeling life, lived in communion with God and others, so it once again becomes true to its roots: Religio: To Bind Back.  Bind back this fragmentation, alienation and the tender fears of a new Axial Age people to a center that holds, always and forever, far beyond the vagaries of this building, this tradition, this label, this denomination, this pastor, this nation, this political system, this race, this dogma and creed. 


Monday, August 17, 2015

A Maturing Faith: Two Analogies

Image result for public domain image of preparing soup 

Faith is like preparing a soup in the fall, adding all the vegetables that comprehend the dark like dusty potatoes and hairy carrots and papery onions as well as those that kiss the sun like fat red tomatoes and bounding little peas and the swoosh of yellow bean curves.  I crush in dried and fresh herbs, splash in the water that has seeped over centuries into my well, stir with wooden spoon that once nodded and bobbed in the wind as part of a tree. It all flows into my pot and I turn up the heat of life until everything is bouncing and boiling together, and if I am patient, I then let it simmer for a very long time. The moist and savory smell is the very breath of the soup, and my dog’s nose trembles as she reaches up cautiously to the stove.  I have a choice when I serve this beautiful moment in time as a meal.  I can sit it on the table and worship that bowl until time decays everything and dries it all out or I can take it in, mouthful by mouthful, savoring, making it part of me, and understanding that it will also mean a trip to the bathroom to get rid of what will poison this body, mind and spirit. Either way, the bowl of soup will participate in the on-going transformation of all things, including me—how could it not?-- that is the great constant of reality.  Is this not communion?

Faith is also the camera lens I favor, that which frames and clarifies the picture of the world I alone see. This is not selfishness or conceit. Give a thousand people the same camera and lens and have them shoot the same still life and not one picture will be the same.  Discerning each object my eye falls upon, I can also change lenses, from one focused on the microcosm to one taking in wide angles and sweeping vistas.  It is not that reality changes, it is how I see it that is altered and captured and preserved for a moment in time.  I could lay all my pictures out, and say this is reality.  But already the light has shifted, the objects moved, and the “I” who discerned what was beautiful and clear and logical and right cannot be found either. Yet the scene is set anew, flowing on, ripe for creative participation. Is this not grace?

I have spent my life trading in the theology of words, but such things are only camera lenses and soup ingredients.  Who I am God, and who are You?  Come, your meal is ready and afterwards, I will share my pictures with you and we can giggle, our heads inclined to one another.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Nothing grows in straight lines

Image result for public domain image of a small mouth bass

Today, I wish for you
A clear morning on the lake--
the waves wandering into ripples,
the fish hanging in the water,
their tails slow undulations
holding their space in motion.
Light bends through breeze-woven weeds,
while the music of the dam rises and falls,
Jazz cords of rock voice.

Yes, I know.
This day is pressed on all sides with memories

But remember--
Nothing grows in truly straight lines;
Nothing that speaks
can ever be perfectly still--
the rain-scented wind carved these words for me.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Audio Version of The Hidden Message of the Lost Gospel of Thomas Available NOW!

Click on the link below to order your copy of the audio version of my newest book.  Previously published as Yeshua's Yoga, this work explores the message of non-dual awareness that permeated this widely read Early Christian text.  Original responsive poetry, textual exegesis, Eastern literature cognates and important supporting essays by the late Rev, Dr. Tom Thresher, Rev. Sue Sutherland-Hanson and theologian Lynn Bauman contribute to a fascinating and exciting introduction to this important and ancient document.  Be prepared to meet the man we call Jesus in a way that is fresh, relevant, compassion-filled and at times brimming with humor.  Blessings on your journey!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Seeded in Snow

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Have you walked the upper pasture in the wind,
And counted the nodding clover there,
Each head, a handful of seeds sipping light?
I remember wading through spring snow to cast
Little dark flecks, laughing
As we plunged through the deeper drifts.
How absurd, planting flowers in grayness and cold.
But that is how I trust all things, Love—
Purple and green and sugary scents burst
From the darkest and plainest of nudges,
And the ridiculously joyful act
Of simply beginning.