Sunday, December 27, 2009

Do You Believe In God?

“Do you believe in God?” she asked, with the innocence of the child she was, having heard that perhaps I didn’t. And, in the short space between her question and my answer, I thought, Which God would that be?

Would it be the God who commanded Moses, “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and who declared to Isaiah “My house shall become a house of prayer for all peoples”?

Or would it be the God who came up with the idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Who lived by the standards “Might Makes Right!” and “The End Justifies the Means!”? Who invented genocide and the scorched earth policy? Who commanded Joshua to destroy all who lived in the Land of Promise and to show no mercy to anyone under any circumstances for any reason ever?

Would it be the God who is a harsh taskmaster, reaping and harvesting without regard for those who did the sewing and the planting?

Or the God who welcomes the weak and heavy-laden, whose yoke is easy, whose burden is light?

Would it be the God who demanded the death of God’s only son Jesus Christ our Lord as the necessary payment—the wages, you might say—for the sins of us all?

Or the God who welcomed the Prodigal home, killed the fatted calf, and held a great feast honoring his return for nothing more costly than a well-rehearsed and self-serving “I’m sorry”?

Would it be the God who sent the Army of Heaven to destroy the Great Beast and its legions for their faithless disobedience, and punish them forever in everlasting fire?

Or the God who, in the guise of a faithless Samaritan, tended the beaten Jew in the ditch and paid for his recovery without inquiring about the quality of his life or the degree to which he deserved to be so treated?

Who is the God who is God? Would the real God please stand up, come forward, and be accorded the honor of my belief, allegiance and loyalty?

And, of course, they all stand up, come forward as One, gather around and wait for me to declare myself to be their servant everlasting, for they all are God to the core. Very God of Very God. “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be world without end, Amen!”

Here, we are in the presence of the God beyond the catechisms and confessions of faith, beyond the creeds and the doctrines, beyond the eleven o’clock worship services and the Sunday school classes and the seminary lectures and the theologies ad nauseum.

If you are going to go to the trouble of believing in God, THIS is the God to believe in, not some tame, domesticated, house-broken god who comes in on cue and exits on schedule. Not some pale, polite, patsy god stepping in the black footprints and reading from a script with predictable lines and action. Not some computer-generated god spewing out formula speeches, creating weal and making woe by the book with the title, “How To Be God.”

If you are going to believe in God, believe in the God who IS God, by god! If you dare! If you can! If you can, believe in a God who can do it all! Who can do everything! Anything! At any time! And does!

God can do anything! We are always saying that, thinking of almighty, all powerful, omnipotent—not unrestrained and without inhibitions. It’s time we revised our thinking. God is wild. Wild beyond imagining. Wild beyond the commonly recognized limits of wildness. God is irreverent, immoral and unrepentant. Impertinent, imprudent, off the wall, over the edge, out of sight. Crazy.

Nothing is off-limits with God. You have to know that about God. No holds are barred. No punches are pulled. No norms are honored. Anything goes with God. Whatever it takes with God. God will do whatever it takes.

Whatever it takes to do what? What is God's plan? What is God’s angle? What is God trying to do? I’m glad you asked. God’s plan is to do whatever is required by the situation as it arises, unfolds! What God did in the last minute doesn’t apply to what God might do in the next minute. God’s plan is to do what is needed. God doesn't rule out any possibilities. God can do, and does do, absolutely whatever the situation calls for every time.

There is no long range, much less eternal, plan with God. It’s all day-to-day, moment-to-moment, here-and-now. Each situation calls for being creatively present for the good of that situation. God lives here, now, to make this situation as good as it can be.

As you know, the situation does not cooperate with its own best interest. The situation is the result of forces and impulses, trends and preferences, that have nothing to do with God or goodness, or even good sense. Something is always coming along to destroy, decimate, devastate, demolish and disperse, and God is always reconfiguring, reshaping, reforming what God has done in order to do what needs to be done here and now in THIS mess to restore harmony and make peace and bring forth the good.

And if the good of this moment clashes with the good of the next moment, God is there to join in the work of making that moment as good as it can be. In every moment, the good is created anew, on the spot, in light of what is needed then, there. A cup of cold water. A kind word. A nap.

God turns flips, does handstands, and rejoices at length over creative responses to the need of the moment. God delights in doing whatever is required in the service of the good here and now. And if good here produces bad there, it can’t be helped, that's the way it is. God joins in the work there to produce good in the bad, loving it, loving the work.

And if one person's good in this moment clashes with another person's good in this moment, well, we have to work it out. To God’s great joy, the work is never done! In this work, God has complete freedom to do whatever it takes—whatever it takes—in the service of the good of the moment. The good of the moment is the only good, and that good has nothing to do with preconceived notions of good but with what needs to happen then, there. It all comes into being in each moment to serve that moment.

And Jesus? A chip off the old block! Jesus raised the dead and left the dead to bury the dead! He forgave a guilty woman and cursed an innocent fig tree. Jesus did whatever the situation required as it unfolded—healing on the Sabbath one day, and refusing to give an "evil and adulterous generation" a sign the next day. You never know what Jesus will do when.

You never know with Jesus, or with God, or with YOU! YOU are completely free to do what needs to be done in the situation as it arises, and must, if you would join God in being as God is! This is the work of God: Doing what needs to be done in the situation as it arises, unfolds, no matter what!

Not even God can do more than that! God on God's best day cannot do more than what needs to be done in the situation as it arises, unfolds. You'll never hear a truth that is truer than this truth. But hold on, it gets better.

When I/you/we all do what needs to be done in the situation as it arises, unfolds, in the time and place of our living, we are as God-like as God can be, which is what Jesus was in being the Christ, a term that means “The Anointed One.” Anointed for what? For making God known, present, real! When we pull off being what the moment is dying for, we are the Christ as only we can be the Christ, and God becomes known, present, real in our lives and in the world in that moment.

In order to do what needs to be done and make God known, present, real in the situation as it unfolds in the moment of our living, we have to get ourselves out of the way. The only thing standing between us and God, us and the Christ, is us. We are our own worst enemy. And so, the question, Whose side are you on? is always the question. And the right answer is always: Thy will not mine be done!

What, then, is God’s will here, now? To see the good and do it! To know what is being asked of us, what is striving to come forth here, now and DO the thing! To be done with convention, with shrewd, crafty, wily ways, with covering our bases and counting the cost! What needs to be done in the situation as it arises, unfolds? DO IT! Here! Now!

In this way, every moment is the first moment of creation! Every situation offers the possibility of a fresh, “Let there be!” So, let it be! Let it be!

When we live to serve the good of the moment, of the situation as it arises, unfolds, we are not serving OUR good in the moment, or guided by our wishes, desires, ambition, fears. Freedom is being not bound to our wants, interests, tastes, preferences, anxieties, goals, plans, intentions... The freedom to do what needs to be done in the situation as it arises is complete freedom. It doesn’t get freer than that! And if God is anything, God is free—to be and to do whatever is needed in the situation as it arises, unfolds!

So, of course, I said, “Of course I believe in God! Who wouldn’t believe in a God as wild and alive as God? May we all be so wild and alive forever!” Indeed! May we be so!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Community of Individuals

The community serves the individual so that the individual might serve the community by being an individual within the community! The purpose of the community is to produce individuals! The community draws the individual forth, individualizing, you might say, the individuals who belong to the community. The community is careful to NOT erase the distinctions among the individuals within the community—is careful to NOT reduce everyone to some communal standard of thought, belief, and practice, so that everyone is a mirror image of everyone else and “we’re all just one big happy family,” believing the same beliefs, thinking the same thoughts, stepping in the black footprints and living our lives the way life is supposed to be lived, the way life is being lived by everyone around us (in a “Let’s just get along,” “Let’s be nice,” “Let’s go along to get along,” kind of way).

Never, not once, in the history of humanity, has there ever been a single case of civilization advancing by way of a communal decision to think and do things differently. Every single advance (you could look this up) has been made by individuals standing apart from the community, asserting themselves over against the community, risking the ire of the community, in order to think and do things differently. Culture is carried forward by individuals. The individual is the incubator, developer, guardian and guide of society. Healthy communities produce healthy individuals who produce healthy communities. Who WE are as Presbyterian Church of the Covenant depends entirely upon who YOU and YOU and YOU and YOU are. YOU and YOU and YOU and YOU can never think of laying YOU aside in order to fit in, belong, and be as WE are! And WE have to see to it that YOU and YOU and YOU and YOU become YOU so that WE might become a healthy, viable, living and alive WE!

All the talk about becoming a community comes down to how well we care for and about one another and honor the sanctity of each individual psyche, soul, self. WE bring each other forth. WE are guardians and protectors of the vulnerable, fragile, self we each are. The baby in the manger depends upon the right social environment in order to become the Christ he is capable of becoming. We are all the baby in the manger, looking for the right social environment to come forth as the Christ in the world. It is our place as the community, the WE, to provide the right atmosphere for the coming forth of the Christ, the True Human Being, that we are all capable of being. Yet, we are not all to become the SAME Christ! My Christ is not your Christ, and your Christ is not Jesus’ Christ! Christians are not Jesus impersonators. They are their own version of the Christ—the Christ as only they can be the Christ. The world is transformed, is saved, is restored to harmony with itself, not by our becoming who Jesus was, but by our becoming who we are! And, it takes the right kind of community to bring us forth into the individual self, soul, psyche that each of us is.

How do we do it? We do it through conversation. We do it by listening. Loving. Accepting. Questioning. Inquiring. Asking. Seeking. Knocking. Exploring. Imagining. Playing... We do it by practicing the fundamentals of life together. Grace, mercy, peace, you know. We do it by remembering it isn’t about jumping through anybody’s hoops, or preening ourselves to look like somebody else, or molding and shaping and forming ourselves into the community’s idea of who we ought to be. We do it by knowing it is about living life that is meaningful to us, and that no one knows what is meaningful to us but US. LIFE requires us to do what is meaningful to us. We have to live in service to what we experience as meaningful—not in service to someone else’s idea of what should be meaningful.

A true community is composed of individuals who are living lives that are meaningful to them—which is enabled by the atmosphere they create in the community they form together. It is a circle, but the heart of the circle is the individuality of the members of the community. We do not sacrifice that which is essential to the individual self for the sake of the community. When the “I’s” give themselves up so that the WE might be happy, the WE dissolves into a pseudo community which does much damage. It is NOT better that even one person die than that the whole nation perish!

And yet, and yet… If you ain’t dying, you ain’t living! LIFE is grounded on our dying to our idea of what it means to “really live.” Adam and Eve in Eden. Jesus in Gethsemane. Adam and Eve died by refusing to die. Jesus lived by handing himself over to death. We can’t live if we will not die—again and again—to all that stands between us and life, and we are the ones who stand in the way! The question we must answer—again and again—is “Whose side are we on?” The right kind of community reminds us to ask and helps us answer that question. The question can ONLY be asked and answered from the standpoint of our participation in the right kind of community!

If we ain't dying, we ain't living. LIFE—being fully alive—asks hard things of us. Risky things. We can't be safe, secure and comfortable and be alive. We cannot do what we want and be alive. What we want isn’t the point. Being alive is the point. Being alive often requires us to do what we don't want. The deadest people you know are doing what they want. We are not here to hang out in the mall, or in the book store, or in the bars, or at the concerts and the movies until we die.

In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” What are you doing with the time that has been given to you? Of what does life consist? What do you do that means the most to you? As we answer these questions we come alive. Notice, they have nothing to do with what we want. Life does not consist of what we wish to be “of life” for us. We don't do what is meaningful because we want to but because we have to. Wanting has nothing to do with it. LIFE is not about getting, having, doing what we want!

However, this isn’t the way we live. We live in service to our desires and ambitions. What we want requires us to live in ways that rule out what means the most to us. Adam and Eve in Eden, not doing what it takes to live, living themselves to death. How does what we want to do keep us from doing what means the most to us? Whose side are we on?

We have to trust ourselves to the service of what is meaningful to us. This is the beam that Joseph Campbell talks about when he says, “We know when we are on the beam and when we are off of it.” We know when we are doing what is meaningful to us, even though that may not be what we WANT to be meaningful.

We have to know what is meaningful to us—and do it! If we are not going to do what is meaningful to us in the time left for living, when will we do it? To live without doing what is meaningful to us is to not live at all. In the grip of a meaningful vision—the sense of what must be done—we cast what we want aside to do the thing we have to do, even though it may make no sense and we will not be able to explain it to anyone, even ourselves.

In the grip of a meaningful vision comes to pass the saying, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” And we have no idea who the “Thy” is! It doesn't matter who the “Thy” is, or who we understand the “Thy” to be. We have to do the thing that must be done whether we want to or not! Get up in the cold and write! It's crazy. The most meaningful things are often crazy. We sit for hours waiting for the right light to take a photo no one will see. Crazy.

And the community understands this and encourages us to do the crazy thing, because that is the thing that brings us forth. We are connected at the level of the heart, soul, psyche, self with the thing that needs to be done—the thing that needs us to do it. That thing is our life. We live to do that thing. And don’t be literal-minded here, the thing that needs us may be more than one actual thing, it may be a lifetime of things strung together one after the other, or it may be a multi-tasking glob of things hurled throbbing, glowing, and spinning into our lives. The point is that we have to wake up to the fact that what most needs us to do it is what we most need to do. Even though it is crazy and makes no sense and we cannot do it and pay the bills. We’ll have to do something else to pay the bills.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

God Without the Wardrobe

Wynn McGregor leads off with two stories, one about her grandson asking his father if “God sleeps naked,” and the other about a scene from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” where the celebrant smashes the chalice and is stripped of his clerical vestments.

Think of Transcendent Reality as God Without The Wardrobe. Think of religion as clusters of clothiers. We bring God down to our fitting rooms and begin to measure and cut and sew, dressing God in our ideas of how God ought to look. Draping God with our best stab at godliness. “Oh yes! The Holy Trinity! Doesn’t that look just perfect, though? My, my. And Omniscient. Omnipotent. Omnipresent. Stunning! Almighty! All Knowing! All Powerful! Immortal, Invisible, God-Only-Wise! Oh, indeed! And THIS: There Is No God But The God WE Say Is God! By all means! Perfect! As perfect as God should be! Just right, Your Holiness!”, we say, bowing to our creation.

The deeper truth is spoken by the child, and by the composer/conductor (Leonard Bernstein): God sleeps naked and has no need of holy garb. Transcendent Reality has no wardrobe. Transcendent Reality is the Underlying Reality, the Grounding Reality, upholding our lives. The visible world rests on the invisible world. The Christ is where the invisible becomes visible. Incarnation, you know. Human being becoming God (without the wardrobe). Christmas.

Mary gave birth to Jesus. Jesus gave birth to the Christ. There is nothing automatic and natural about the Christ coming forth into the world, either then or now. You think a virgin birth is hard. Just try being who you are! This is the hardest thing, the greatest work, bringing forth the Christ by being who we are. And, it has nothing to do with getting the Out There In Here, as though we have to mold ourselves into some external model of right living. The Christ does not exist Out There, Up There, Over There, somewhere beyond us, external to us. The work involves getting the In Here Out There, bringing forth the Christ within and making the invisible visible. Christmas. Every day.

The problem is that we stand in our own way, block our own path. We are of two minds, or three, or four, or, how many of them are there really? WE are Legion, don’t you know? In league with ourselves against ourselves. We want what we have no business having. This is as succinct a definition of sin as you will ever stumble upon: Wanting what we have no business having. Wanting what we want and not what we ought to want. Just try to want what you don’t want, or to un-want what you want! We can pretend, but we cannot comply. We can fake it, but we cannot make it. Unfazed lives the want-er within.

And so, the war of the wills. We strain to be morally pure and pleasing to someone’s (perhaps our own) idea of God, and white-knuckle it past temptation only to be ambushed by symptoms and circumstances we cannot control and do not foresee. The Christ we produce is a plastic prototype with robotic movements and delayed reactions following a programmed script written to be in accord with some church council’s decree of how it ought to be done. The Out There is squeezed without regard for style or fit In Here. The Christ is prefabricated and slapped, perhaps literally, into place.

We are directed to put on the Christ as we might put on “the full armor of God,” to use a scriptural metaphor. Told to wrap ourselves in a wardrobe cut out in the fitting rooms of ancient religion, and required to project an image that has come to us from Those Who Know Best And Must Be Pleased. But Bernstein invites us to see through the posing and the posturing, the draping and the strutting about. Crash goes the chalice! Gone are the clothes! Now what?

We are as naked as God, and have nothing but ourselves in the work to be the Christ, here and now, in the lives that are our lives to live, today. On one hand, there is nothing to it. It is simply a matter of finding our way back to ourselves, to “the face that was ours before we were born.” On the other hand, it is the hardest thing, the greatest work, because we stand in our own way, wanting 10,000 things more than we want to be who we are.

Carl Jung says we spend our lives walking around ourselves, around the Self we are born to be, circling closer, perhaps, over the years, but never arriving at the one we are. Jung spent his life working to help us close the distance between the life we are living and the life we are called to live, between the self we are and the self we are born to be. His term for becoming who we are is “individuation.” The Zen and Taoist term is “True Human Being.” The Buddhist term is “Buddha” or “Buddha-mind.” The New Testament’s term for becoming who we are is “Christ.” The Christ is the Anointed One, anointed to bring Transcendent Reality forth into the world of space and time by simply being who we are in the moment of our living.

In the wilderness, Jesus is stripped of all of the trappings—the wardrobe—of family and culture and stands naked before that which has need of him. Think of the wilderness experience as the birthplace of the Christ. When Jesus steps back into society he is following the path with his name on it, and is obedient to a will that is, and is not, his own. He speaks to this when he says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and accomplish his work,” and, “The Father and I are one,” and, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” And he prays that his followers “may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us.” Paul reflects this when he says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

But, again, this is not an External, Out There, Model of Holiness that is being hawked. Jesus and Paul are simply exhibiting “the face that was theirs before they were born” in their lives, and, in so doing, bringing Transcendent Reality forth into the world. Here is the formula from a couple of weeks ago: The numinous (that which moves us, resonates with us, catches our eye) 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.

In order to be the Christ, we have to be who we are, following the path with our name on it, which is not the same thing as the life we have in mind for ourselves. And we are back to standing in our own way, blocking the path to Transcendent Reality, to “the face that was ours before we were born.” Birthing the Christ within means getting ourselves out of the way and getting on the way that is our way.

This is not easy, but there is a guide within. We know when our lives are resonating with us and when they are not. We know when, and where, we are alive, and when, and where, we are mostly dead. We know, as Joseph Campbell says, “when we are on the beam and when we are off of it.” The path to God Without The Wardrobe, to Transcendent Reality, to birthing the Christ within is found in finding our way to that which is life for us, which brings us to life and enables us to be fully alive.

Yet, here is the tricky part. We cannot close ourselves off from the voice of opposition! Always the tension, the counterweight, the contrary! Life is not a quick sprint to glory along the path we love. As we got ourselves out of the way, so we have to get ourselves back in the way! Jung says “Life can flow forward only along the path of the gradient,” and, “In order to be balanced, there must be opposition.” Dialogue is as necessary for our spiritual life as air, light, food and water are for our physical life. And the necessary dialogue is both internal and external. In other words, we work it out with ourselves and one another!

We are always working it out! Within ourselves and among ourselves! What to do. How to do it. Who to be. What is needed. How to proceed. We figure it out anew in every moment! There is no formula, no recipe, no rule book, no black footprints, no wardrobe! Only the dialogue! Only the conversation! We find our way forward along the path of the gradient. We do not run up the mountain. We take our time, listening our way along. We circle the self over the course of our life, narrowing the distance (we hope) yet never settling into the center. And the community of sojourners helps us listen, helps us hear, engages us in dialogue, and keeps us in contact with all that has to be taken into account as we think through what is next, what needs to be done and how best to do it.