Sunday, August 26, 2007

08/26/07, Sermon

Here is your life’s task, the meaning of life, the whole point, what it’s all about: Be who you are, without denying who you also are, while assisting, enhancing, everyone else’s ability to be who they are. That’s about it as far as I can see. What else could there be? Self-realization, self-determination, self-expression, while helping others to achieve the same ends. That’s it as I see it. Being who we are, within the context and circumstances of our lives. Being true to ourselves while enabling others to be true to themselves. How’re you going to beat that?

The problem is, of course, that we try to be true to ourselves at the expense of other people. We can define ourselves, most days, fairly well. But defining ourselves while “staying in touch” with one another is tricky, and doing it while “staying in touch” with those who are opposite from us in every way is out of the question. What do we have in common with them? In relationship with those who aren’t like us, it is “every person for herself, for himself.” Self-interest above all interests is our motto. It’s gotten us where we are today. But, it all begins to change with self-awareness. Awareness is the solution to all of our problems today. And tomorrow. And all the way down the road.

Awareness. Awareness. Awareness. It’s the avenue to all that is worth our time. Eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that understands are predicated upon, and flow from, awareness. There is nothing beyond being awake, aware, and alive to have, or do, or achieve, or be. All we have to do is wake up. How hard could that be?

How much can you see, before you have to stop looking? There is no pain quite like the pain of awareness. What keeps us going, once we know what we are up against and what our chances are? When we can no longer fool ourselves, or kid ourselves, or pretend that things are different than they are—what do we do then?

Then, everything hangs on our belief in the innate value of self-realization, self-determination, and self-expression within the context and circumstances of our lives. We may never have what we need. There may be no paper in the home of the poet. No paints and brushes in the life of the artist. No piano for the young Mozart, the old Beethoven. Then what? Then, we have to deal with what is ours to deal with, and find a way. Awareness. Awareness. Awareness.

We are always up against something. We always have to find a way. We always have to be who we are with the resources available to us in the time and place of our living. We cannot abandon the work of self-realization, self-determination, self-expression just because we have the gifts of Michael Jordan and basketball hasn’t been invented.

We have to be who we are, within the context and circumstances of our lives. That is the divine imperative. We have to bring to life the gift that is ours. We have to serve the genius within. It may not look like much to those who are watching, but it is our gift to give and we have to bestow it upon the world to the best of our ability.

In Batesville, Mississippi I discovered my gift of raking earth smooth and level. We bought a house there with nearly an acre of land attached, which had drainage problems and holes and depressions which made it impossible to mow. Over our six years there, I spread eight dump truck loads of top soil with a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a rake. I found God in the dirt.

When you discover your gift, there is God. Don’t know where your gift lies? Here are some questions to point you in the general direction: Where is the harmony? The peace? The pleasure? The satisfaction? What brings you joy? Where do you come alive? What do you love? Don’t discount or dismiss what is there in favor of what you think ought to be there, or of what you wish were there, or hope will be there. We are always looking past our gift, thinking it has to be something on the order of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to count. We think if we can’t compose a Sonata in E-flat, it doesn’t count for a gift. If we aren’t being paid 8 million dollars a year to hit home runs, we are shamefully un-gifted and should not be seen in public.

Let me explain something to you fine people: Raking Dirt! My gift is Raking Dirt! So, don’t disparage your gift! How could your gift be less significant than raking dirt? So, recognize and embrace your gift. That’s the first rule. Your gift is your gift! If your gift is hitting home runs, hit home runs. If it is raking dirt, rake dirt. It is all about you and your gift. Self-realization, self-determination, self-expression. You can’t find God without finding your gift. You can’t serve God without serving your gift. If you think you are too good for your gift, you are too good for God. But, here’s the second rule: Don’t think your gift is your actual gift. It’s all metaphorical. Don’t forget that.

What do you think the Promised Land is all about? Latitude and longitude? Political boundaries? Standing armies, and sewage treatment, and garbage pickup? I guess you think the Holy Grail is about the actual vessel Jesus used to hold the wine when he served the Last Supper! You’re wearing me out. What am I to do with you people?

Take a deep breath and think of all you know about the Bible and let me ask you this one: When, throughout all the Bible, was God present and known in the lives of the people? Let me just cut to the chase. It was only when the people were wrestling themselves into alignment with, and living out the expression of, their gift, their genius, their calling. God is never known to, or by, anyone for the simple joy of paling around with God. We lost this bit of insight with the invention of doctrine, which became a substitute for God. Once thinking about God became confused with knowing God, we just sat around talking about God, thinking we were doing something. If you want to know God, you have to walk away from the sermons and the Sunday school discussions, and the Bible studies, and take up your life. The realness of God is simultaneous with, and contingent upon, self-realization, self-determination, and self-expression. God, gentle people, is in the dirt!

But—and here it gets tricky—the literal is always disappearing into the metaphorical. The Promised Land, the Holy Grail, Dirt were all literal, actual, tangible, concrete, physical realities at one point, but their literal and physical truth is nothing compared to their metaphorical and spiritual truth. There is more to your gift, your genius, your calling—there is more to you—than meets the eye. Much more. The depth of you, you might say, is the boundless joy of God. The physical expression of your gift, of you, is just the doorway to the depth and breadth of you. Heraclitus said, “You would not find the boundaries of the soul, even by traveling along every path, so deep a measure does it have.” He is talking about you and me. Our depth is as boundless and God’s.

We wake up to ourselves in the dirt, but it isn’t about the dirt, or the rake, or the wheelbarrow, or the shovel. Those babies are just the mechanism by which you discover you, through which you stumble into your gift, your genius, your calling, you. And, remember that your gift is not yours, but the gift you are to the world. And, don’t think your gift is actually working with dirt, smoothing dirt, raking dirt! Not any more than your gift is the actual, physical, geographical and political boundaries of the Promised Land!

Think about the Bible once more, and take yourselves back to the early days of the realization of the Land of Promise, and the failure of the people to understand that it really wasn’t about the land. The prophet knew, but was unable to convince the people, that their gift, their genius, their calling had nothing to do with having a king. Ah, but, the people were on a literal track, and could not be dissuaded. And the king (that would be David) knew that the truth of God had nothing to do with the construction of a temple. Ah, but, all the other lands had capital cities and capital temples, central places of commerce and worship. That must be how it is done. And so, the concretizing began.

The literalization of religion is the death of religion. God is in the dirt, but God is not the dirt. The dirt has nothing to do with God. How’s that for double talk? Well. Here’s the deal. The straightest talk is crooked. Bent. Gnarled and knotted. Nonsense. I wouldn’t lie to you about this. Here’s the deal: You have to dive into the darkness and hope you pop out on the other side. You can’t figure it out first. You have to live your way to the answers which just open the way to more questions. There are no answers in the sense of an explanation that ties everything off and wraps everything up and leaves nothing more to be known. So, when you pop out on the other side, you pop out in mystery and wonder, awe and laughter, and giggle a lot for no apparent reason. In the darkness, however, there is a lot of groping around in frustration, fear, anxiety and anger. It takes a while to understand that answers don’t save us, and information is useless. By the time you understand what the information means, you don’t need it. So, there is no point in my saying anything more, or in you listening to it. You either know it already, or you can’t use it. One of the 10,000 spiritual laws is “You have to know what I mean before you can understand what I’m saying.” That’s one of the things you’ll giggle about when you pop up on the other side.

Here’s some more of the deal (he said, still talking, to those who are still listening, in spite of what he just said and they heard): We wake up to God in the dirt, but we move on, we move on. When we arrive at the Promised Land, we may put down roots and set up shop, but we keep moving. We don’t need kings, and temples, and standing armies and nuclear warheads, because what we have cannot be kept safe, or taken from us.

What we have is who we are. What do we need to be who we are? Upon what does our who-we-are-ness depend? I smooth dirt! YOU CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME!!! No one can. I cannot lose it, or keep it safe. It is who I am. It is what I do. I can do it anywhere, any time. I can do it without rakes, and wheelbarrows, and shovels. I can do it, get this, pay attention now, this is crucial, it is the heart of the whole entire thing, I can do it WITHOUT DIRT!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

08/19/07, Sermon

The more we see, the more it hurts to look. And so, we have to bear the pain of knowing how things are, and how they also are. We do not belong in this world. We are the “strangers in a strange (and inhospitable) land.” We have been locked in an adversarial relationship with our environment from the beginning. It is the plight of the living to have to fight for life, for life is not the natural way of things.

The natural way of things is to be inert, disinterested, un-invested, uncaring. Like water flowing around a rock, or a rock being eroded by flowing water. Who cares about time if you are a river? You can carve out the Grand Canyon over lifetimes past counting, because no one is counting. Time becomes important only if you don’t have long to live. Then, you have to get things done, if they are going to be done, now. Then, you have to push, or resist, or force, or compel, or demand and insist because you can’t wait for things to take their natural course. Besides, you may not like their natural course. Their natural course may not be in your best interest, or that of the tribe, or that of all living things. But, rocks and rivers don’t care about these things, so the natural course of a river is nothing to a rock, even though the river clearly does not have the rock’s best interest at heart.

The natural course of the Yellowstone Caldera is to destroy life as we know it. It would be smart for us to stop it if we could, to alter the natural course. Or to stop forest fires, or to irrigate crops during droughts, or kill the tiger that is preying on the people of the village, or inoculate the children of the village against polio and whooping cough. To stand aside and let nature take its course is not always prudent, even rarely so, and thus, the fight for life is always against some natural course. Life, then, is always artificial, at odds with the world that was here long before life. Life is an after-thought of sorts, and self-interest is the most un-natural of things in the annuls of things.

But, here we are. Stuck on a world, in a universe, that doesn’t care if we live or die. That being the case, we better learn to enjoy the ride. Don’t be expecting life to be different than it is, that’s my best advice. Don’t be surprised if it’s difficult, if we don’t get enough, or any, cooperation, if there is opposition, and adversity, and resistance, and contentiousness, and hostility. When has it ever been otherwise? When has the world ever moved over and made room for us and asked what it could do to make us comfortable? It’s been hell here from the start. THAT is the nature of things. Living will take the life right out of you, and heart is the easiest thing to lose. So, we better have what it takes. We better know what it takes. We better do what it takes. Because, we are up against it, and the world is not on our side.

So the question: What does it take? Or, to phrase it a bit differently, What is the bottom line? What is the legitimate “ultimate concern” of the species (And how can individuals within the species have a different ultimate concern than the species?)? Survival? Are we to survive at all costs, at any price? What is the absolute necessity that governs our choices and our actions? We serve what with our lives?

How about “The future!”? We serve the future with our lives, the future of our planet, the future of our—collective—children. We are to live here and now in ways that enable them to live then and there. In order to do that, we have to take everything into account. We have to foster eyes that see, ears that hear, hearts that understand. We have to proceed very slowly. It is a slippery path to a future worth having, and fraught with peril. And, we are walking it for everyone, not just for ourselves and those like us.

Taking everyone into account pretty well erases the profit motive as the bottom line. No one benefits at the expense of everyone else. We are all in this together. The boon is shared in equal lots around the table, across the board. Hardly the American Way! Here is the bad news: The way into a worthy future is not the American Way! Or, to phrase it differently: Competition is not good for the soul.

There are two things wrong with competition. The first is the idea that “the winner takes all.” The second is the idea that the job goes to the lowest bidder (unless it’s a government job which then goes to your closest friend or family member). What’s wrong with the first idea is that the winner who takes all will do anything to win. And, we have the cheating scandals and the steroid scandals and the payola scandals, etc. to prove it. And, what’s wrong with the second idea is that in order to get the job, bidders will say anything and cut any corner and sign off on any piece of shoddy construction. You only have to live a little while with your eyes open to know that it is so.

We will not compete our way into a worthy future for everyone. Buying low and selling high will not do it. We come out on top when no one comes out on top. What do you think our chances are? How are we going to split the “future pie” so that everyone has an equal piece? It doesn’t matter what we think because the people who control the path to the future aren’t asking us for directions. We can only hang on and hate the ride.

This, too, is part of the process. We have always been carried to places we didn’t want to go by those who didn’t know what they were doing. Of all the kings, and princes, and presidents in charge of charting a course to the future for their country, how many made wise and prudent choices that benefited all people everywhere—or, even, their own? Let’s say you can come up with a name or two. Can you come up with a name or two whose wise choices weren’t eradicated by those of the next dufus in line? We can lament the mad meandering of history, but what can we do about it? Who are you going to talk to? Who is in charge here, or anywhere?

Here’s the plan: We do what we can in our sphere of influence and work to expand our influence. What are the common agreements? What is “the common good”? How homogeneous do we have to be? What are the sacrifices individuals must make for the sake of the whole? What are the sacrifices the whole must make for the sake of the individuals? How do we find the way forward together? How do we begin to serve a good beyond our own personal good?

The first common agreement is that we cannot do it alone. The second common agreement is that there are going to be significant disagreements. All the other common agreements will be worked out in light of the first two. That’s a problem, because we believe we CAN do it alone, and we walk away from significant disagreements. We have been forced to walk away from significant disagreements, and forced to do it alone, because of the presumption of agreement as the foundation of our life together. Somebody wins and somebody loses. We take a vote and do it the way the majority wants it done. It’s the majority’s way or the highway. How else would you ever make a decision?

The voice of dissent may well be over-ridden but must always be taken seriously. The minority opinion is honored and has a place at the table. Perspectives are respected and heard across the board. No one is pushed aside or required to abandon her, abandon his, position for the appearance of unanimity and agreement. Dissension is the seed of change and transformation. William Blake said it well: “Without contrary, there is no progression.” So, we honor all views, and find the way forward together. But that doesn’t mean stupid opinions carry the day. How to honor the opposition without being hamstrung by it is the cross conscious communities have to bear.

The work is to find what matters and build a life around that, and come alive its service, and save the world. The work is to save the world by being who we are in the world. The work is to be who we are—to be true to ourselves—within the context and circumstances—within the relationships, and the obligations, and the duties—of our lives. We do not get to be who we are in a perfect world that is built to recognize our genius and fall at our feet and ask how it can be of help and what it can do for us and would we like a pillow for our head and maybe a nice massage for our back. We get to be who we are in THIS world that doesn’t care a thing about us and our lives. We get to save THIS world that does not want to be saved and will not cooperate in the work of its salvation, and will even resist our efforts in its behalf, and punish us for daring to be who we are, for trying to bring our gift to life in the service of the world. And we need the right kind of community to help us with the work of being who we are in this world.

Here we enter the real wilderness, and become entangled in the paradox of the individual and the community, the collective. We are an “I” and a “We” at the same time. But, the “We” has to be more than a arbitrary grouping of “I’s.” The “We” has to be a true “We” if the “I’s” who compose the “We” are to have any chance at being true “I’s.” The search, then, is for true “We-ness,” true “I-ness,” and the search is an agony. The good of the group is always clashing with the good of the individual, and vice-versa. And the struggle for compromise is essential to the good of both.

True “We-ness” brings true “I-ness” to light, and to life. True “I-ness” finds itself in resisting conformity to the “We,” questioning authority, pushing against the limits and restrictions of the “We’s” way of thinking and being, and imagining alternative and creative ways to think and be—within the context of the “We.” The “We” has to be accommodating, and gracious, and receptive, and kind, knowing when to yield and when to hold the line. The “I” has to be iconoclastic, and persistent, and patient, and bold. Too much “We,” and there is no “I.” Too much “I” and there is no “We.” And so, the dance.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

08/12/07, Sermon

There are psychic realities that are as actual as gravity and the change of seasons. “A witness to violence is a victim of violence,” is a psychic law. We cannot live in this world without witnessing violence. Violence violates, brutalizes, traumatizes, shatters, fragments, destroys our world on a psychic level. After the encounter with violence, things might be put back in order on a physical level, but they may never be put back together on a psychic level. We have to understand the importance of healing the psyche, and engage in practices that restore harmony and balance to the soul—and “psyche” is the Greek word for “soul.”

Part of our work in the physical world is to provide ourselves with safety and comfort, security and stability on a psychic level. We have to know that we are okay, psychically. In order to really be okay, we have to find the way to the world beyond the world of fear and desire, and live there consciously, intentionally. We have always been helpless, and we have always hated it. We have always been at the mercy of forces quite beyond us. The elements, animals, natural catastrophes, bullies, thugs, hooligans, raiding parties, warring nations, disease, debilitation, death… It’s all out there, arrayed against us, biding its time, what can we do?

Our lives consist of imagining ways of protecting ourselves against the inevitabilities of life in this place. We have invented insurance, and nuclear weapons, and certificates of deposit, and neighborhood watch as hedges against the encroaching realities in order to provide ourselves with a little peace of mind and breathing room, so that we might sleep at night and avoid the constant seizure of panic attacks.

Life, it seems, is out to get us. It is as though we don’t belong here with our dreams of convenience, and comfort, and cooperation, where we harvest what we plant, and reap what we sow, and live in what we build, and enjoy the endless pleasure of the fruit of our labor and the laughter of our children, and grand children, and great-grand-children through long generations into the far distant future. There is always the looming specter of the great loss of everything. Those who can afford it live behind high walls in gated, and guarded, communities. But, who can feel safe, even there? Once we get behind the fence, we are still in the world. In the world of fear and desire.

The Bush Administration has played to the fears, and insecurities, and uncertainties of the nation, but I don’t think it has been an intentional and deliberate strategy to fleece us of our freedom and burden us with national debt. I think it is because George Bush, and Dick Cheney, and Carl Rove are exceedingly afraid, and insecure, and uncertain themselves. Just as “the influence of a vital person vitalizes,” so the influence of a terrified person terrifies. We elected to office bullies who are terrified of bigger bullies, and who will die haunted by the uncontrollable possibilities of their lives.

It is important that we not go with them down that path. We avoid the descent into panic and dread by experiencing our experience and reflecting on it, thinking about it—experiencing it. When we experience our experience, we understand how grounded we are in the world of fear and desire, and how little we know of the world beyond fear and desire. There are two aspects of that world which are psychically healing, nourishing, and restorative: Being present to others and being present to ourselves.

Jesus practiced being present, and offered two guidelines to his followers, “the greatest commandment,” and a popular (in his day) version of “the Golden Rule.” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rumi says, “If you are not here faithfully with us, you are causing terrible damage.” From their standpoint, it isn’t about amassing a fortune, having it made, and being safe. It’s about being a positive, not a negative, force in the world. It’s about being a source of encouragement, not throwing a wet blanking over sputtering enthusiasm or stamping out sparks of optimism and joy.

We have all known people who can take the life out of a room just by walking into it. These are black holes of gloom and despair who devour happiness and well-being, and seem to delight in removing delight from the world. “If you are not here faithfully with us, you are causing terrible damage.”

From the standpoint of the world beyond fear and desire, which is also the world of having our own way, there is no reason to despair. The foundation of despair is the hopelessness of ever having our way. But, hope isn’t about having our way! Life isn’t about having our way! The quality of our lives, and the value of life, cannot be gauged according to the number of check marks on our wish list.

Life does not consist of buying, spending, amassing, consuming, acquiring, producing, accumulating, owning, having, controlling, achieving, accomplishing, gaining, getting, and raking it in. These things constitute the foundation of life-as-we-know it, and have served as the ground of civilization since the beginning of time, but they have nothing to do with being alive. Being alive comes down to eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that understands. Being alive is about being awake and aware and perceptive to the point of taking our own perception into account, so that we see ourselves seeing, think about our thinking, and realize what we are doing at every point in our lives, and know how what we are doing connects us to, or disconnects us from, the world of psychic reality.

Joseph Campbell says, “Realize what you are doing when you’re giving a cocktail party (for instance). You are performing a social ritual. (Pay attention when sit down to eat a meal). When you are eating something (that once was alive, but now is dead so that you might live), this is something quite special to do. And you ought to have that thought when you eat a carrot as well as when you eat (a hamburger). But, you don’t know what you are doing unless you think about it. (That’s what attention does). You do things with intention (and awareness), and not just in the animal way, ravenously, without knowing what you are doing.”

Attention, and awareness, are the foundation of appreciation, and gratitude, and humility, and life. None of us is here by virtue of our own strength, and cunning, and skill. We owe it all to the help that we have been given along the way. For better or worse, we are at the mercy of the benevolence, or the malevolence, of the drift of our lives. Our contribution in making things as good as they can be is the way we think about what happens to us. To think properly about it, we have to think about our thinking, and evaluate the things we tell ourselves about “the human condition.”

Protection from “the slings and arrows of time” is found in perception. The value of any religion is in the quality of the perception it engenders among its adherents—in the way it structures the thinking of its followers to deal with what happens to them in their lives. The question of every religion is the very practical matter of “How well does it enable us to live day-to-day?” To what extent is it a boost, or a burden? To what extent does it enable us to be present with one another and to be present to ourselves.

To be present to ourselves is to be alert to, aware of, the genius, the gift, the knack, the passion we carry within, and nurturing that to life in the world, so that it becomes our gift to the world—in the sense that “as we do it unto one of the least of these” we do it unto all the world. We think life is the ultimate good, and make significant sacrifices for the sake of what we call “the good life,” but the way we live is a waste of life. “You call that living?”, comes the chastising scorn of God upon those of us who live in the service of our fear and desires. “Wake up, won’t you, to that which has need of you beyond all fear or desire?”

Speaking for myself, I must write, whether anyone reads it or not. I must take photographs, whether anyone views them or not. I must say what must be said, whether anyone hears it or not. It all has to do with apprehending and exploring the truth of experience, and I do it for its own sake, not to get anything out of it beyond the joy of doing it. Lance Armstrong had his bicycle and I have my words and images. “What I do is me, for that I came,” said Gerard Manly Hopkins. If we look closely enough at the life we have lived, and are living, we will see something of who we are.

The truth shines through. The essence cannot be completely hidden or denied. Our work is to get out of the way and let who we are be what we do. The hero’s journey and the search for the Holy Grail, and the spiritual quest come down to the same thing: the recognition and bestowal of our gift to the world. This is not about having our way, but about getting out of our way, so that we might take up the way of the True Human being.

The difference between this world of my-way-ness, fear and desire, and that world of the True Human Being is highlighted by our answer to the question, “What are we interested in?”. Money, right? In the world of my-way-ness, we are interested in money and the things money can buy. Well, money is not the primary concern in the world of the True Human Being. Money is not the goal of the spiritual quest. Money is not the Holy Grail, and the Hero’s Journey is not for booty, loot, and plunder. We have to consider who we are and what we are about apart from the question of how much money it’s going to make us, or what’s in it for us. Money is not the bottom line. Our work is to discover, to remember, what is.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


What should we care about? How should we express our caring? In light of what, toward what, should we live? The questions raise Hugh Macleod's inquiry: “Is it a tool or a prop?” Does it ground us in the heart of things, or keep us fluttering about in the shallows on the periphery of our lives? Eyes that see, ears that hear, a heart that understands seem to know shallow when they are in its presence, seem to recognize “it” and “not-it.” And so, the importance of seeing, and hearing, and understanding--of taking the time to look, and listen, and apprehend. And, that means stepping back from fear and desire.

Standing apart from our fears and desires, what do we need? What do we need for what--with no fear or desire to propel us? What governs our action, our direction, our needs, then? Then, perhaps, we are open to consider “What needs us?” The question enlarges to “What do we need to do what, what needs us to do?” Does the Grail serve us, or do we serve the Grail? I need a camera to serve the Seer, and I need to take the Seer to the places the Seer needs to see. Or, am I only kidding myself here? As the Seer is satisfied, I am certainly satisfied as well. As I fail the Seer, I fail myself as well. There is a point at which the Seer and I are one. But, then, I can wander off, on my own, seeking my own ends, my own advantage, my own profit. The Seer and I can part ways. I can live in the service of things the Seer doesn't need at all. We can co-opt our calling, and aim for the Big Time at any time. It is the story of the Lost Way of the species, and of each of us, as well. It could be called The Lost Calling.

What do we need to do what we are here to do? It depends, doesn’t it, on our vision of who and how we see ourselves, and what we think we are here for. All the questions stir, and our pulse rate increases, as we approach the point of transition, and wonder how different the future needs to be from the past.

Who ARE we? What ARE we about? What do we need to help us do what we are here to do? What are we here to do? If we were building the church over, from the ground up, what would we need to bring our idea of church into existence? There’s that word again, twice. Church. Do we see ourselves as the church, the ecclesia, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ? The Community of the Faithful? Faithful to whom, to what? Do we see ourselves carrying forward any of the things we have inherited from the church of our experience? The Sacraments? The rituals? The theology? Doctrines? What do we tell our children about the unknowns that shape our lives? About the values that are the foundation of our living?

How do we talk of grace, mercy, and peace? Of justice and compassion? Of the divine “ought-to-be-ness” that grips our hearts and carries us into the service of a good that is greater than our own good? How do we grapple with the mystery? How do we say what is meaningful, and why do we say that is meaningful and not something else instead? What stories do we tell to communicate what we believe? What do we believe? What do we believe about believing?
I believe it is important to do our believing within a context that governs, not the what of believing, but the how. In the past, doctrines have determined the content of belief. We have been told what to believe. Our faith consisted of specific body of belief. We could talk of “the Christian faith,” for instance as being different from “the Hindu faith” by virtue of the difference in the content of the beliefs of those perspectives. I believe we have to do our believing in a different context.

The first rule is that the process is always being defined—the process of believing is itself in process. The second rule is that the process of believing, or, you might say believing itself, does not rule out contradiction and paradox but rather engages them, even creates them. Believing is a balancing act whereby experience counterbalances and enlarges and deepens experience. We believe what makes sense at any point in our experience, but experience informs belief. Belief does not restrict or limit experience, but it shapes experience even as it is shaped by experience in the eternal dance of yin and yang. Believing is balancing, a way of balancing our experiences, and being balanced by them.

Something happens, and we believe this or that about what caused it to happen, why it happened, what the purpose of its happening was. And we formulate theories, and doctrines, and explanations which provide a framework for understanding the experience, and the theories can prevent us from examining the experience, and the doctrine can keep us from thinking about the experience. And superstition and religion and astrology are just different ways of thinking—or not thinking—about experience in ways that accommodate us to is and offer us a way of living in relationship with it. Religion needs to become much more scientific in its approach to experience, else we will be bound inextricably to the world views of the past, and persecute gay people because “the Bible says they are sinful,” and go to war with the infidel because they are a threat to “true belief.” Belief that is truly “true belief,” looks at what it believes and asks, “What makes me think this is true?”

Believing has to be done in a context that sets the ground-rules for believing, in a context that defines the process of believing. Essential to the process of belief is the practice of inquiry and investigation, of asking, seeking, and knocking, of pushing against the limits and challenging authority and questioning assumptions. “This means, of course, that we can never claim to have truth cornered, captured, and incarcerated, and that what we have to offer is not a stilted list of things to think and believe and do, but an atmosphere which encourages the examination of what is known and the exploration of what is unknown so that what is worth knowing might emerge”(Jim Dollar, “On Being Presbyterian” ca.1985 ).

There is always more to see than has been seen, to hear than has been heard, to understand than has been understood. And, our beliefs are always evolving to take new information into account. We are always believing our way into different ways of perceiving, and perceiving our way into different ways of believing. What we see is a function of how we see, and the challenge is always to see in ways which take what else there is to see into account.

So, I believe we tell our children things that open them to the truth of their own experience, that ground them in confidence to trust themselves unknowing to questions that are not quickly dismissed as improper or heretical, or blocked with answers. And we need to do that in a spirit of playfulness and easy-going-ness and good humor that, itself, calls into question the seriousness with which we are prone to take things, and asks, of itself, “Is the seriousness with which I am taking things justified?” How we treat our children, and what we tell them, and how we tell them what we tell them is crucial to the future that we are creating. We have always heard in the church, “Our children are the future of the church.” That is not true. The future of the church does not depend upon the children of the church but upon the perspective of the church. The perspective of the church is the future of the church. How we treat our children is a reflection of that perspective. How we treat our children is the future of the church.

It is important that our children learn to think. Not that they think what we think, but that they think. And, that they think about their thinking. Toward that end, we need to provide our children with experiences that develop their creativity and open them to a sense of wonder and joy. We need to connect our children with what brings them to life and makes them alive, and enable them to trust their own voice, and learn to discern the voices within, so that they might perceive and follow their own sense of direction, their own guide. And we need to give ourselves permission to start over in developing our own understanding of the world, the universe, life, and our place in them all.

There are six statements that turn Christian theology as we have received it on its head, and open the way for new way of understanding ourselves and the way things are. We have talked of them before, here they come again:

Our idea of God is not God. What could be more scripturally sound? “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9), and, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:33-36). Even Lao Tse gets into the act with, “The Tao that can be said is not the Eternal Tao.” Yet, we act as though our idea of God IS God. We declare our beliefs to be “true beliefs.” And we excommunicate people, or call them heretics, or declare war on them because theirs is a different idea of God than ours.

The Garden of Eden did not have latitude and longitude. There was no primordial Paradise from which we were expelled for disobeying God, and hence no Original Sin which requires the atoning death of God’s only Son to patch things up with God and get us back in God’s good graces if we confess, repent, and believe. The whole thing goes with the Garden of Eden, and we have to start over, and create “out of nothing” the perspective with which we view the world, the universe, life and our place in them all.

The church was before the Bible. Of course the church was before the Bible. The Bible was the creation of the church. The church decided what was to be included in the Bible and what was to be excluded, and when part of the church disagreed with the officials of the church, the church declared itself to be the infallible voice of God and that was that. And the church said everything it said was true because it was in the Bible, yet the church decided what was in the Bible. Surely, you see the illogic at work here, even if your name isn’t Shirley.

We are the ones who say so. We believe what we believe because we believe what we believe is worth believing We are the authority by which we declare something to be authoritative, believable and true. Of course, we say we have to “take it on faith,” but why do we take “this” “on faith” and not “that”? We are the ones to decide. God is who we say God is.

Every step forward is a step into heresy. Everything that we believe with such fervor and proclaim with such gusto was, at some point in the past, rank heresy, the embrace of which was punishable by death or exclusion from the circle of orthodoxy of the day. Some present heresy is the hope of the future.

The ants find the picnic, the flowers turn to the sun. We are perfectly capable of evaluating what we experience and determining what truth is. We know “it” when we see it, and we know “not-it” when we see it. “The truth will out.” “The truth shines through.” It’s only a matter of time. All it takes is time. And attention.

We find the way forward in fits and starts. Hits and misses. Rights and wrongs. Who knows what we should do? What we should care about? How we should express our caring? Just care about something! Just start caring! And keep our eyes open. The way will open before those who are open to the way. We don’t have to figure it all out before we start walking!

Friday, August 03, 2007

07/29/07, Sermon

It helps to know what we are after, what we are about, what we intend. For instance, where photography is concerned, I am more interested in pleasing the eye, in calming, restoring, the soul, than with taking a picture that is a completely accurate rendition, or representation, of some aspect of the “real world.” I am about making pleasing, calming, renewing, restoring images—images that assist us in the art of living well. I mean for each image to be a sanctuary of sorts, which provides breathing room between ourselves and our lives, and allows us to shift a bit in the saddle, regain a sense of perspective, and ride on.

As we think about ourselves in this place and our point, our purpose, in coming together—as we wonder what we mean, what we desire—as we ask “What business are we in here? What are we about?”—as we stand before our future and craft our intention regarding what that future will be—I can think of no better term for all of that than “sanctuary.” No soul can survive with out sanctuary in the world of space and time.

Life is abusive. Our lives, at best, are sources of low grade, yet, cumulative, posttraumatic stress disorder. We need a sanctuary. A place of retreat and restoration, regeneration, renewal and recovery. A “hospital of the spirit,” so to speak, where we can heal and be well. But, sanctuary doesn’t just happen. It is an intentional creation by and of the people who gather as sanctuary. Just as it is the people who are the church, it is the people who are the sanctuary. We generate sanctuary by the quality of our being together. We foster sanctuary by the way we receive and treat one another, particularly in the absence of the other. How you treat me when I am not with you is the simple key in determining whether you are a sanctuary for me and whether I will be healed through my association with you.

Kindness and compassion, grace, mercy and peace are healing agents, balm for our wounded-ness. We need the right kind of lap. We are only the right kind of lap away from being able to handle our lives. We need gentle, caring presence. We need loving laughter.

We think that explanation will make our pain disappear. If we only understood, then it would be okay. But, after we know why things are the way they are, we still have to deal with it, with life as it is. The best reason in all the world will not erase our pain. “Reason cannot uproot what reason didn’t plant.” Pain is impervious to the power of logic. Knowing what happened and why will not ameliorate the impact of what happened. But, the right kind of lap will. Sanctuary restores our souls.

Once we see all there is to see, we have to make our peace with it. Making our peace with it doesn’t mean leaving things as they are. It means doing what we can to make things like they ought to be, and letting what we can do be what we can do.

What can we do about poverty, for instance, or racism? What can be done about those things? Smart people have been trying to imagine solutions for years, yet, poverty and racism continue to abound. We have to make our peace with the work to end poverty and racism with no real strategy in mind or turning point in sight. The work goes on, and the work requires our dedication to the task, without payoff or reward. A good bit of life is like that.

Sanctuary offers no false promises or empty encouragement, but exists for us as a solid source of hope in our lives. Hope is not optimistic. Sanctuary is where we gather to know how things are and see what must be done, where we regroup, recover, and rededicate ourselves to the work that is before us, without regard for impact or outcome. Grounded in sanctuary, our lives have a source of vitality that has nothing to do with the results of our living.

We come here out of life situations that are beyond remedy. There is no solution for any of the real problems that beset us. We have worries and concerns for which there is no fix. On a global scale, the world is running out of oil and terrorism is not going away. On a personal level, we have health issues, and mood swings, and family problems that laugh at everything we throw at them. We cannot get away from the stuff we don’t like about our lives, about life. But, we can come here.

Coming here provides us with a practical perspective. No one here has it made. Everyone here deals with incorrigible realities. Some of us do that with greater aplomb and style and skill than others of us, but none of us escapes the work of having to deal with what we don’t like and can’t do anything about. What we can do about the things we can’t do anything about is make our peace with doing what we can and letting that be that. We gather here to find what it takes to pick ourselves up and go on with our lives. One of the things it takes is knowing how important we are to the rest of us. When we get to the point of being unable, or unwilling, to go on with our lives, we think the world would be better off without us, and that we would be better off without the world. That is the depressive fallacy. Sanctuary exists, in part, to ward off the depressive fallacy.

Look. It’s like this: We are all crucial to the experience and expression—to the creation and cultivation—of Optimal Mind. Optimal Mind is exactly what we need to do what must be done. Optimal mind is group-think, or mob mentality, at its best. It is the product of our coming together in the service of the best we can imagine, of our commitment to living together in ways that serve a good beyond our own personal good, in ways that take the good of an increasingly wide circle of our neighbors into account.

Optimal Mind is created by the mutual impact and influence of one another in the service of the good we recognize as good. We produce a we-ness by virtue of our participation in the collective way of thinking and doing and being. This is the culture, or the mind, or the soul of the group. When we belong only to one tightly knit group, a family, or clan, or tribe, the group mind is the controlling force directing the thinking of the individuals within the group. As the culture grows and differentiates, we have membership in a number of groups, and think of ourselves as separate individuals with our own personal minds. We need to re-think the concepts of “self” and “mind,” and understand that who we are is more a function of the groups we belong to than of the idea of “the rugged individualist” we would like to be. We are more of a “we” than an “I” or a “me.” Because of that, it is crucial that we focus on being the right kind of “we.”

We participate in our own becoming by creating the right kind of “we.” Optimal mind is a self-reflective loop of awareness and values and action produced by those who intentionally come together to be more than they could ever be alone. It begins with sanctuary.

We come here in a mental state that is bruised and battered and wrung out and exhausted. We are psychically spent. At the end of our emotional ropes. We don’t have what it takes to do our lives alone. We cannot find the way forward and see no reason to go on. But we come here, don’t you see, because there is more to us than meets the eye—because there is more to IT, to life, and living, and being alive than meets the eye. And, something knows that. And, brings us here, hoping that we will find what we need to get up and do what must be done. Hoping that we will find hope.

Optimal Mind is hope at its best. Hope is not optimistic, remember. Optimism is a cheap imitation of hope, a manikin put together with duct tape and super glue and hawked as Elle MacPherson or Cindy Crawford, or a inflatable man that you invited to think of as George Clooney or Antonio Banderas. Hope, on the other hand, is grounded solidly in the realization of the way things are (and also are). Hope doesn’t care what its chances are. Hope sees what needs to be done and does it, in season and out of season, around the clock, in all weather conditions, no matter what, whether it feels like it or not, whether its in the mood for it or not, whether it wants to or not. If we can hope like that, we have it made, and the world will be saved through us.

Sanctuary is the source of this kind of hope. Sanctuary is a quality of mind that might be called “mindfulness,” or “awareness.” Sanctuary is a presence that sees into the heart of things, understands what’s what, knows how things are and how things also are, and lets things be as they are for as long as it takes for them to change into what they ought to be. Sanctuary doesn’t hurry anything, doesn’t push, or force, or compel, but it transforms everything simply by calling attention to things and allowing things to be known for what they are, and also are.

There are a number of foundational realizations at the heart of sanctuary. These are called “the ten thousand spiritual laws.” Two of them are: We can see and hear only what we are capable of seeing and hearing, only what our life experience has prepared us to see and hear. Once we see or hear we cannot unsee or unhear what we have seen or heard. Seeing and hearing (eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand) are the evolutionary tools of soul which transform the world. Sanctuary fosters the perspective that changes the world.

It is our work together to create the kind of perspective, the kind of sanctuary that saves lives, restores souls, cultivates Optimal Mind, and reforms the world. We are not here to believe a certain way, or think a certain way, or even to act a certain way. We are here to see, and hear, and understand, and to allow our living to flow from our seeing, and hearing, and understanding. Amen! May it be so!