Sunday, November 29, 2009

We are our own authority.

The meaning of life gets all the press, but I’m here to talk to you about living a meaningful life. Living meaningfully IS the meaning of life. And, who is to say what that is? YOU are, of course. The authority resides within. We act on our own authority. Who better than you knows what is meaningful to you?

You wouldn't trust me to sweeten your coffee for you. Why would you trust me to tell you what to do to live a meaningful life? You wouldn’t trust me in a matter of no consequence, why would you trust me, or anyone else, in a matter of ultimate consequence? Why would you trust anyone but yourself to know what to believe, think, do? It's your life. Live it!

Ah, but, I hear the objection welling up from each of you: “How do WE know what to believe, think, do?” How do you know when your coffee is sweet enough? When it’s time to eat, or go to bed? No one can tell you those things. We can be trusted to know what is right for us. We know when apple pie is called for and when it’s a glass of wine that is just the ticket. We know when it’s time for a walk around the block and when we have had enough of anything. The same thing applies to the deeper questions.

We know what we need, what needs to happen, what is needed in the situation as it arises. All it takes is paying attention, observation, awareness, seeing, hearing, understanding to know what is called for. We find our way to the answers that matter by way of resonance, instinct, intuition, the tug of heart, the movement of soul. Even external rules, orders, decrees, and demands have to ring true. Resonation is the key that turns the lock to knowing what to do.

Our path has to resonate with our heart, our heart has to resonate with our path. We have to sense what is right for us—all things considered—and do it. In every moment, the future is in our hands, and we do not have time to waste, so, we must listen carefully, imagine fully, observe completely in order to take everything into consideration and know what truly needs to be done, and do it. To live knowingly, with awareness and perceptivity, with vision and grace and compassion is as basic, and as spiritual, as it gets. Eyes that see, ears that hear, a heart that understands, and the courage “to get up and do what needs to be done” are all it ever takes. That is the spiritual path, and the way of a True Human Being.

The path of the heart is a seeing, hearing, understanding, knowing, being, doing path. It takes effort to live the way life needs to be lived. We have to concentrate, focus, pay attention. It's easier to follow the leader. Go where you're taken. Do what you're told. Maintain the routines. Honor the traditions. Step in the black footprints. Ask no questions. Make no waves. Happiness. Death. We are happiest, it seems, when we are dead. To be alive, we have to lay happiness aside and live as those who are open to the moment and what the moment is asking of us, even when it is asking hard things of us.

When we live open to the moment and what it is asking of us, there are no rules to keep, no formulas to apply, no recipes or black footprints to follow. “Eat when hungry, rest when tired,” is a Zen rule suggesting that we listen to our body and follow its lead. Yet, Zen masters often ignore their body’s signals, and sit zazen through hunger, drowsiness, and the ache of joints and muscles. Always the question: “How do we know when to do what? How do we know where to draw the line?”

The best answer is arbitrary and subjective, but, we want to justify our actions with precedents, probabilities and iron-clad rationale. Yet, there are no absolutes that cannot be over-ridden. “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” says the commandment, but the Jewish authorities kill Jesus, saying “It is better that one man should die instead of the whole nation.” By what authority do we over-ride absolutes? What is the seat of wisdom? What guide do we follow? When do we acquiesce? When do we overturn? Who is the decider that decides? Our own arbitrary and subjective self, that’s who! After we take everything into account, we have to choose when to acquiesce and when to overturn.

Sometimes we eat when hungry, rest when tired. Sometimes we push past hunger and weariness. Sometimes we indulge ourselves, sometimes we deny ourselves. By our own authority. We decide for ourselves how our lives are to be lived. We say where meaning is to be found, of what our joy consists, what is important, what needs to be done and left undone. We are who we have to please. We Have To Learn To Listen To Ourselves. That’s the task of life: Know Thyself. To thine own self be true. Or, as Jesus says (in Luke 12:57), “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” What other choice do we have? May we choose wisely, and hold ourselves accountable, and deal well with the outcome of our choosing!

In ascribing meaning, assigning value, and deciding what it takes to live a meaningful life, we bring the world we perceive into being through our perception of it. “In the beginning was the word.” Whose word? OUR word! Our word creates the world. Red does not reside in the apple. Red does not exist apart from the eyes that see, and say, “Red,” into existence. Beauty comes into being in the act of being perceived and declared to be beautiful. We paint the world with meaning, and bring it to life.

Our place is to witness the world into being, to produce the WOW that sets it apart from the dreariness of unnoticed marvels. Our gift to the world is amazement, appreciation and praise. We acknowledge the wonder of every sunrise and rainbow. We sing the world into being. Thanksgiving is what we do best. We are the thankful ones. May it certainly, and always, be so!

Maybe any living thing with half a mind gets out of itself from time to time and notices, knows that there is more to it than meets its eye in its own little world, knows that there is a bigger world, and loves it, relishes it, delights in the wonder and the joy of it. I hope so.

I know for sure that we are capable of that. And it is our shame that we don’t do it more often than we do. That we don’t do a tail dance, like dolphins, on ocean waves, and wheel through the air, like red tail hawks, for the pure pleasure of it. That we don’t rejoice, and aren’t glad, more often. The numinous calls for that, requires it. Our place is to respond—to see, to know, to be moved, to give chase, and see where it leads.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Church as it Should Be, Part II

The 9:20 Experience began on November 16, 2003. We have moved into our 7th year as a progressive alternative to the Church of our Experience. Over the course of the past six years, the nature of our work to become the Church As It Ought To Be has been to take everything off the table that has ever been on the table, and begin to put back on the table the things that we think should be there, including things that have never been there. But we kept the table as the primary, central metaphor of the Church As It Ought To Be, reflecting the importance of the whole in the lives of the parts, and of the parts for the life of the whole.

The Presbyterian Church USA, as a specific denomination, provides an historical, traditional, foundation for this work of becoming The Church As It Ought To Be. “Reformed, always reforming,” is the motto of the PCUSA. It means we are always becoming The Church As It Ought To Be. The essential dialectic, or dialogue, for this process of becoming The Church As It Ought To Be is underscored in the two poles of the PCUSA.

On one hand, there is the officially recognized sanctity of the individual conscience. This is worth quoting the original sources for verification: From the Constitution of the PCUSA (Part II, The Book of Order): “God alone is Lord of the conscience...therefore, we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable...The Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and (practice) (and) no Church governing body ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience (by) virtue of their own authority.”

A counterweight to the right of individual conscience is the fundamental assumption of Presbyterianism: All of us are wiser than any one of us. We make decisions as a representative democracy, and one of the promises of the old Presbyterian Church in the United States (the “southern Presbyterian Church”) made at the ordination of ministers and members of church governing boards (Elders, serving on a church board called the Session) was “subjection to my brothers and sisters in the Lord.”

The work of integrity, of wholeness, is between the part (the individuals) and the whole. This work requires a fluid, dynamic, flow, a dance together, much like the relationship between the stream and its channel as it finds its way to the sea. Nothing is static, or frozen, or rigid about The Church As It Ought To Be. It is vibrant, alive, breathing, always becoming what it should be. “Reformed always reforming.” Re-forming itself again and again to take into account changing circumstances, perceptions, and the growth of both individuals and the whole.

Here we are, then, beginning our seventh year of existence, continuing the work of becoming the Church As It Ought To Be. This work begins with the encounter with the Numinous. Those of you who were on hand Wednesday night two weeks ago heard me describe the seven weeks away on the combination sabbatical leave and vacation as an engagement with the “Numinous Landscape.” And, you know that I am putting a DVD together with that title and the subtitle: “Doorway to Transcendence.” Who knows when it will be ready, but it’s coming, much like we are becoming the Church As It Ought To Be.

I said then, and I will say now, “numinous” is a word that comes from a word that means “to nod” (According to James Hollis, and why would he lie?). The numinous nods at us, winks at us, beckons to us, whispers our name, and waits, momentarily, to see if we notice, hoping that we will, so that the chase might be on. The numinous evidently loves a good chase. I’d love to know where that comes from, but, as with everything else about the numinous, we will probably never get to the bottom of it.

So. The numinous nods at us and is gone, like a white rabbit, around a corner, over a hill, down a hole, leaving us wondering if we saw anything, and wondering, itself, if we will give chase, if we will come after, if we will stop what we are doing and do what it wants us to do, which is, to look closer, see where it leads. The numinous pauses, hoping that we will take up the trail of the numinous, which is also the path with our name on it, and laying caution and timidity aside, follow after.

Ah, but, where DOES it lead? I’m so glad you asked. There is no reason to hold anything back. Most of you are old enough to take it, so here goes: The numinous leads us straight, not counting all the detours and asides, twists, spins and round-a-bouts that compose the path—the beam—with our name on it, to the heart of Transcendent Reality and, interestingly enough, to the heart of our very own heart as well. Which is to say that the other side of you, the other side of me, is God. This means that the numinous which leads us to God leads us to us. So that oneness-of-being is our source and our goal.

But this may be too much for one sitting. While I’m sure you will find what I’m laying out to be the case, it may be prudent to begin softly and go slowly so as not to give you too much of the unheard of to hear. We tend to shut down when we hear things that are too much unlike the things we have already heard. So, I will start over and say the numinous is that which stirs our soul, which touches us, which moves us. What happens then is the critical part. We must move toward that which moves us. The movement of soul within us, the stirring of heart, the resonating vibration of something responding to something, must be translated into the physical act of bodily moving toward that which nods to us, winks at us, calls our name. Everything hangs on it, on our moving toward that which moves us.

We recognize when something outside of us resonates with something inside of us. We don’t take anyone’s word for anything without resonation. When we experience the resonating movement, what is resonating? What is moving? What knows what? Yet, it is not to be ignored. When something catches our eye, we have to look closer, chase after, or else. We must move! This means we have to leave home, or what has become home! We step boldly into the wilderness and find our way back, well, home!

The hero’s task, the spiritual journey is waking up, moving toward what moves us, following the white rabbit, doing what needs to be done. One white rabbit leads to another. Grace is never linier, direct, predictable. We do not know where we are going or how we will get there. We think it’s about one thing but it’s about another, and when we think it’s about that, it’s about something else. Everything is a doorway, nothing is a destination. Even Transcendent Reality opens to us. The whole and the parts in eternal dialogue, becoming the Church as it Ought to Be.

We are all responsible for nourishing, for nurturing, our sense of the numinous, the ineffable, “the underlying reality.” We find the way forward by doing what we think, what we feel, what we intuit, what we instinctively sense, needs to be done and seeing what happens, seeing where that takes us, seeing what that leads to. We must not miss the treasure on the way to the treasure. We must not ignore what is opening before us, beckoning to us. We must be able to abandon our previous plan in favor of what is obviously calling our name, though it might be nothing like what we had in mind. We start out in the attic and find ourselves in our neighbor’s basement. This is called allowing the path to open up before us.

It can be a while between white rabbits. The process requires patience and being present to the moment with curiosity and compassion. The question is always “Now what?” We wait, watch, for something to wink at us, to nudge us, to catch our eye, call our name. It’s our practice, waiting, watching but not sitting on our hands, or wringing them.

When you don’t know where to go to take a photograph, for example, or what to do, go somewhere, do something. The act of going somewhere, of doing something, will give you some momentum, and will increase your chances of seeing where you need to be, of what needs to be done. So, go somewhere. Take a photograph of something. See where it leads you. Nothing is worse than standing still, wringing your hands, burning daylight.

When you aren’t in the mood to take a photograph, go take a photograph anyway. That may get you in the mood. Besides, you don’t have to be in the mood. We must develop the discipline of going in the direction of what moves us, resonates with us, is important to us, regardless of what we want, or are in the mood for. We cannot just follow the white rabbit as long as it takes us where we want to go, but it better go straight there with no fooling around. What we get out of following the white rabbit is a meaningful life. Something not found in the display cases or on the show room floors. In the grip of a compelling vision (the white rabbit) we put all we thought we wanted aside and serve the vision. Or else.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Stack of Stones

All it takes is taking it. All we have to do is take it, and go on taking it, for as long as it takes. Do we have what it takes to take it, is the question. Where do we find what we need to take it, is the other question. What helps us take it, is the other question. Here's what I think. It gets us back to the Inukshuk and to the Inunnguaq.

An Inukshuk is a stack of stones, or carin, placed by the peoples of the Artic for those who came after them. An Inunnguaq is an Inukshuk in the form of a human being. Here's one I created from stones taken from the Robson River in British Columbia:

An Inukshuk or Inunnguaq was placed in the Tundra as a landmark and a reminder. The placement of the stones could point the way to food, shelter, or water, and provided comfort along a frozen and forbidding way. The stack of stones was a connection with those who had gone before. It stood as a reminder, and as a metaphor, as a representative of the fact that we were not as alone as we thought we were. Someone had been here before, had been where we are before, and left this as a representative of them to us, as a way of saying, "Come on. Don't give up. This way. I'm with you."

The stack of stones connected us with an actual, tangible, real human being who put the stones together, but, more than that, with whatever it is within each of us that finds what it takes to do what it takes, even in frozen, hostile, forbidding places, where there seems to be nothing in the way of resources and comfort to keep us going. The stone stack connects us with ourselves, with whatever is deep and resourceful and courageous about us.

And, more than that, the stone stack connects us with whatever is beyond us that is here with us in every time and place to resource us, encourage us, and keep us going. This is what I call "Transcendent Reality," it is the Underlying Reality, which forms the ground of our being/doing/living. In the Tundra, we are not alone. In the Tundra, there is That Which Is With Us to comfort, console, encourage, and point the way to those who know how to listen, how to wait, how to open themselves to the presence of that which is present with them. Who know how to trust themselves to that which the stones represent, to the Truth that is more than words can say. I call this attitude of openness to that which is with us "a prayerful countenance."

When Paul said, "I can do all things in him who strengthens me," he's talking about doing all things in "that which" strengthens us all. We do the "him" or the "that which" a disservice when we reduce it to the God of Christian theology. The experience of the "that which" is for all people, belongs to all people, is truly “of the people,” beyond doctrine, or belief, or theology or ideology. It is the foundational principle of existence. In the Tundra, we know we are not alone, and it has nothing to do with doctrine or theology. "Transcendent Reality" is the Underlying Reality, the Tao, that undergirds all things. We don't have to understand it to trust ourselves to it.

We cannot map it, predict it, say what it is, reduce it to a formula, or a plan. We can only trust it, trust ourselves to it. The stack of stones is all we have to go on. Someone was here before us. Someone made it through this place with nothing more than we have. Something helped someone. Something will help us. We have to trust that it is so.

The ultimate test of faith is not whether we believe in God but whether we will trust ourselves to life and risk being alive. Will we step boldly into our fear every day and refuse to die before we are dead? Will we trust that we will have what it takes and find what we need to "get up and do what needs to be done" the way it ought to be done—and go one doing it, no matter what, every day for the rest of our lives?

Faith is trusting ourselves to life, to the experience of life in its rawness, in its realness, in its full fury and its unrelenting drip, drip, drip. Faith is trusting ourselves to life knowing that we will have what it takes to deal appropriately with whatever comes our way. But, we are afraid we won’t have what it takes, and our fear keeps us from being alive.

Carl Jung says, “Only boldness can deliver us from fear.” We cannot reason our way out of fear, into the goodness of being alive. If reason could do it, I would say something like this to you: “Look,” I would say, “we are here, now. We cannot deny that we have made it this far, to this day, this hour. Nor can we deny that we came through hell more than a time or two in getting here. We have faced more than we ever imagined we could face, and dealt with what would have surely kept us forever in the womb had we known it was waiting on us, laughing. And, we came through it all, wounded and limping, perhaps, but recognizable and more or less in one piece and here we are, as living testimonies of what we are capable of—of what we can do—because we have done it.”

That’s what I would say, but you could as easily say as way of rejoinder, “Yes, but. We are afraid the worst is yet to come. We are afraid we will not have what it takes to survive the next round, or the one after that. We are afraid we cannot keep on coming up with what it takes to face what still waits on us, laughing.”

So, you see, I cannot reason you out of fear into courage. I cannot talk you into living bravely. You have to make up your own mind in the matter, and gather your resolve, and step boldly into your fear every day for the rest of your life. But I will say to you, in order to remind you of the essential nature of that work, our only protection is found in knowing/trusting that we will have what we need to deal with what comes our way and do with it what needs to be done. And it is important that we know this and live as though it is so, because it is so, but we have to believe it and act on it, for it to become a hard and fast reality in our lives. But this is the foundation: Living courageously and stepping boldly into our fear. Everything depends upon it, and flows from it. Even the fear of death pales and retreats before those who will not die before they are dead.

The stack of stones called Inukshuk and Inunnguaq calls us to trust ourselves to our lives and connects us with all the people who have experienced the full emptiness of the Tundra—with everyone who has dealt with idiots and narrow-minded-ness and injustice and smallness-of-heart-and-soul-and-being and the awful un-ending-ness of one damned thing after another. And they left these stones behind to encourage us, and remind us that we are not alone. They took it. We can take it. We can give our best to the work of our lives in spite of an apparent, or even obvious, lack of impact. And we can leave a stack of stones for those who come after us. It's all we need, really. A stack of stones. To remind us of all that is true out there in the Tundra, beyond words, beyond reason, beyond explanation and understanding.

And, there is one other thing. The stones are not glued together. There is no steel rod running through their centers to bind them tightly erect and keep them in place. The wind blows across the tundra. The ice forms, and melts, and forms again. The rocks shift. And fall. And other people come along. And other hands stack them again, differently.

As with them, so with us. We are always being torn apart by the forces of life, and being helped to gather ourselves back together by those who extend caring hands. We are capable of an infinite number of reconfigurations. The wind always blows on the tundra. The ice always forms, and melts, and forms. The rocks fall and are restacked. Our lives fall apart, and we are helped to get them back together, and live on, shaped by our circumstances without losing our original essence, reconfigured, yet still the same. Laughing back at what laughs at us, knowing we are not alone, and that no matter what, we will have what it takes to do what needs to be done in the tundra and all other places all our lives long. Amen! May it be so!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

We are always growing toward who we want to be.

The question I'm interested in us living to answer is not "Who are we?" but "Who do we want to be?" The spiritual journey is the process of maturation, of growing up, so, who do we want to be when we grow up? And, since growing up is never completed—we are always growing up no matter how old we are—we are always growing toward who we want to be.

There are no steady states of being. Being is not static. We do not get it together, or get it right, and freeze ourselves in place. Death is the only static form of existence. Life and being are always moving, changing, shifting, evolving, becoming. We are always reconfiguring ourselves to deal with each situation as it arises, or to put ourselves back together following harsh encounters with hard realities.

We are not who we were yesterday, or who we will be tomorrow. We are certainly not who we were before I left seven weeks ago. To say who we are is to say who we were when we said who we are. Two days, or fewer, after we say it, we have to say it again.

Just as we can not step in the same river twice, not only because the river is flowing, changing, but also because WE are flowing, changing, so we can’t say who we are twice because something changes between the saying. So, since there are no steady states of being, we have to talk about the values, qualities, characteristics we admire and then work to incorporate them into our lives over time. What is the ideal, personal and corporate, that we live toward? Who are we working to become? Who do we wish we were? Who do we want to be when we grow up?

This takes us straight to the heart of the matter, to the Christ, the True Human Being ("Son of Man" was Jesus' term for True Human Being), the Anointed One (what "Messiah," or "Christ," means). Anointed for what? To be who the Holy One is ("The Father and I are one," said Jesus). We are as close to God as some people get. We are working to be so Christ-like, so divine-like, so much a True Human Being, that people see the divine through us, are touched by the holy as they engage us. The qualities of the numinous, of the wonder, of the beauty and truth, of the mysteries of Transcendent Grace and True Human Being-hood, are to shine through us, be exhibited in us, expressed by us, personally and corporately. We are to treat one another and all others as Christ would. We are to treat one another and all others as though the other is divine, holy, is Christ. As though we are divine, holy, are Christ.

The qualities we are working to bring forth in our lives, and in the life of the congregation, and in the world, are the age-old, time-tested expressions of the divine spirit within us and about us: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, goodness, self-discipline, grace, compassion, and the like. How do we bring love (and all the other qualities of holiness) to bear in "each situation as it arises"? We have to be creative and prayerful to answer this question because what is needed in "this situation" will not be needed in the same way in the next situation, though it may be a very similar situation. No policy statements apply. We step into each situation and decide what love (etc) requires here and now. We have to listen, hear, look, see, understand, know, and act in response to this moment as though we were the Christ, the Anointed One, bringing forth the holy into the moment, with no black footprints to follow.

This gets us to the foundational attitude of the spiritual journey: A prayerful countenance. Prayerfulness is a right-brain function. We do not think (left-brain function) our way forward, doing this, then doing that, out of some recipe book, applying someone’s idea of a formula for life, but wait, with eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart that understands, and a will to do what needs to be done, for what needs to happen to be revealed to us. We “wait and watch.” This is prayerful waiting, prayerful watching, prayerful living ("Pray constantly," advises the old Apostle. This doesn't mean to say the Lord's Prayer constantly, but to live prayerfully, to live open to the moment and to be aware of what needs to happen there, not knowing beforehand how we will answer our accusers or what we will do).

This is the solid core of the Biblical witness. None of the main players there do it by the book. No one does what is expected of her, of him. David and Bathsheba certainly don’t, yet, from that union come, according to Matthew, Solomon and Jesus of Nazareth. Abraham leaves the security of home and strikes out on his own, which might be not all that unheard of in his day, but he does not sacrifice Isaac which did stand apart from the customary way of doing things back then. Moses murders an Egyptian, escapes, then returns to Egypt. Mary says sure she will have a child as an unmarried woman. Joseph says sure he will marry Mary nonetheless. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and returns to Jerusalem, tempting fate and daring the authorities to arrest him. From cover to cover in the Good Book, no one does it by the book.

They all live prayerfully open to the situation that is opening before them and respond to that situation, not out of what ought to be done in the mind of the authorities of their day, but out of what truly needs to be done in the situation as it arises. THAT is the Biblical standard. Not keeping the rules. Not doing what is expected. Not stepping in the black footprints. Not reading from the script. Not living like we are supposed to. But prayerfully responding to the need of the moment, in the here and now of our living, exhibiting the divine qualities, and trusting ourselves to Transcendent Grace, as we step into the unknown and do there what needs to be done.

So. Who are we? We are those who are working to develop the divine qualities and bring them forth in all of our interactions, reconfiguring ourselves as needed to live appropriately in each situation as it arises, doing what needs to be done there as Christ would in our place, so that they might say of us as the Centurion said of Jesus, in a manner of speaking, "Surely this person was, these people were, divine!"