Mar 302014
 

The ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, on display at the Smithsonian (Photo by Chris Evans)

I had a chance today to speak at the weekly gathering of my faith community about the healing of a blind man in John 9. I talked about how some of the themes from The Wizard of Oz intersect with this story in interesting ways.

The Wizard of Oz is a story about Dorothy waking up – but not simply from an injury that she incurs as a result of a Kansas cyclone. She wakes up to the fact that her seemingly bland existence is filled with more than she originally believed. She becomes aware of the miracle of her own life and of the lives around her.

But The Wizard of Oz is also a story about a wizard who isn’t really a wizard. He is just a con man who relies on an elaborate system of steam and projectors and mirrors to create the illusion of power. He hides behind a curtain, hoping that he will never be found out.

This is also the story of John 9: a man who is blind in more ways than one comes to see the world differently, while a group of people trying to cling to the illusion of their own power refuse to see the same thing.

What does the blind man see? The same thing the writer of the story wants you to see: that God is present in Jesus making a new creation. This is the theme that drives the Gospel of John from the very first verse, which echos the theme of creation from Genesis 1. In John, Jesus’ miracles are signs that point to the work of God – present in the world – renewing and remaking everything that is fallen.

But the power brokers in this man’s community can’t tolerate this. They depend on a purity system, which labels some things as “holy” and some things as “impure” as a means of holding onto power. Jesus’ miracle disrupts their system because it dares to treat someone thought to be “sinful” (because he is blind) as clean and pure, and because he doesn’t need their blessing to do it.

Purity systems rely on the leaders’ assignment of shame and honor as a means of keeping people in line. The leaders will claim that they are merely assigning shame and honor as God would have them. But they aren’t. That is the illusion. That is also why the man’s parents – when they meet with the leaders – are afraid to say anything in their son’s support. But Jesus is creating shamelessness everywhere he goes – every time they turn around. (By the way, if you have been following the news this week, you have witnessed first hand the power of a purity/shaming system – which can cause large institutions to reverse their policies within a matter of hours).

The people who run the purity/shaming system can’t admit that God is working outside their system. So they institute a policy of denial. They keep calling meeting after meeting, hoping that they eventually get an outcome that supports their claim. They want to create an echo chamber where they can speak lies to each other and pretend those lies are true. (This, by the way, never happens in our day). They are going to refuse to see the thing that is perfectly obvious: God is here, at work, and not particularly concerned about who does and doesn’t fit in their purity systems.

Which brings us to the irony that is presented at the end of the story: the blind see and those who claim to see are blind. For those who refuse to see, “their sin remains.” It was true then. It is still true today.

In John, sin is not a category of moral behavior. It is a refusal to recognize and participate in something that God is doing. Those who “sin” and are therefore subjecting themsevles to judgment, are the ones who refuse to get on the Love Train.

Peace.

 Posted by at 4:37 pm
Mar 172014
 

In the book of Acts there is this story about a group of early Christian leaders. They came together to discuss some really important issues that had to do with the way non-Jewish Christians ought to behave. And after they finished their deliberations they wrote a letter.

There is a line in this letter that stands out to me every time I read it, because it turns on its head everything that I/we think we know about “discerning” God’s will.

Here is the letter:

The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For…

(Get ready. Here it comes.)

...it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…

Hold on. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit?

Not “the Holy Spirit told us”? Or “it was revealed to us that we should…”? Or “it is God’s will that”?

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit? What does that mean?

And not just to the Holy Spirit. It says it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.

So this counsel wasn’t just a group of people that were trying to adjust their divine antennas so they could receive the proper signal from a cosmic dictator. They were themselves participants in the decision about what would go into the letter.

This wasn’t a one-way process. It was much more than that. It was interactive. It was participative.

Human beings and this Spirit of God were interacting, and together they arrived at a course of action.

And when they made their decision, it wasn’t “this is the one and only way that things ought to and have to be.” It was simply that their solution seemed good.

Credit: Matt @ PEK (Wikimedia Commons)

The implications of this are staggering. In this new world where the Holy Spirit has broken out, there seems to be space for us to have a say, to play a role, in the process by which the world is unfolding. We are not merely drones implementing the will of God. We are co-creators that are working with God in bringing about that world. Discernment is about conversation.

That is my concept of the divine dance in action. To discern the Spirit of God we do not come in simply ready to respond to orders. We come in to ask, to plead, to give and take and – in the end – we are not looking for that one answer that is absolutely certain. We are just searching for that thing that seems right both in our spirits and in God’s spirit.

So the question is not “What is God’s plan for my life?” It is, “Does this plan seem good to me and to God’s spirit.”

Not: “Is this church the place I am supposed to be?” But: “Does this seem like the a good place for me when I am able to reflect on it in the presence of the Holy?”

Not: “What is God’s will for my next job?” But: “When I am in prayer, do these career choices seem like the right path?”

You are not necessarily waiting for a lightning bolt to strike. Remember, we can know when the Holy Spirit is present not only by visions and dramatic revelations, but also when we are in a place that produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control.  When you are guided by those experiences in making decisions, you are making a decision that seems good to you and to the Holy Spirit.

Prior Posts:

- Review: Age of the Spirit

- On “Spirit”

- On “Holy Spirit”

- On the Two Paths to the Spirit

- Dance of Discernment, Part 1

 Posted by at 8:23 pm
Mar 042014
 

First, full disclosure.

I used to attack Lent with a lot of enthusiasm. The 40 day fast from some important food or practice. The call to personal repentance. The anticipation of Holy Week. When it was new, I found it to be a really helpful discipline.

But over the years, I have become less and less enamored with Lent. Looking back, I can see that, like most American Christians, I had been trained to be a champion of moral self-flagellation, never passing up on an opportunity to remind myself about how I was doing everything wrong. Eventually, Lent became little more than a chance to turn up the heat on a year-round process. It was getting toxic.

I also have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, which means that during the darker and colder months of Winter I am already in a bit of an emotional and spiritual downward cycle. Lent always felt like it was piling on. And sometimes, it was a bit too much.

So at some point, I decided to go a little gentler on myself during Lent. It isn’t that I don’t observe it at all, but I’m not quite as aggressive in my approach to its disciplines as I used to be. I don’t have a formal “fast,” but I do try to pray and read and find other ways to observe the season on a daily basis.

This Season, my Lenten exercise is going to be public. I am going to work my way through Ecclesiastes, and reflect on it – more as devotional than academic study. My intention is to approach it more spontaneously (like lectio divina) than what you normally see in most of my posts. The plan is to get through the book by the start of Holy Week.

If you want to follow along, or join in, just Like the Theoprudence Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (@matteritchie). Hope to see you there.

I may also include some highlights in blog posts from time-to-time.

I’m thinking about using the hashtag #ecclentiastes. What do you think?

 Posted by at 3:27 pm
Feb 282014
 
Daily Prayer for Lent

Credit: Alexandre Eggert/Gabriela Schmidt (creative commons 2.0)

I’m excited to announce a  new resources that I am adding, in addition to the Extended Lectionary. There are now two files that can be used to lead you through daily prayer during the lent season.

Both of the files are structured around the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer. However, I have adapted the prayers that are contained within the Office, together with some of the content, to create a more updated, fresh tone, with a heavy emphasis on contemplative practices and social justice.

If you are unfamiliar with the Daily Office, you should first download the guided prayer for Lent, which contains some preliminary material and several sidebars to help you understand the seven movements that are involved in the Daily Office. Once you are comfortable with the process, a more condensed and easily managed document is available. You should also download the condensed document if you are already comfortable praying the offices.

If you get a chance to use these documents, let me know. I would be interested in constructive feedback.

 Posted by at 11:19 pm
Feb 242014
 

Spiritual discernment danceIn my original post on Phyllis Tickle’s The Age of the Spirit, I suggested that we ought to view the process of discernment of God’s spirit as a dance.  In the next two posts, I am going to explain what I mean by that in a little more detail.

(If you are interested in reading all of the posts in this series, you can also read about my concepts of spirit, Holy Spirit, and the relationship between the contemplative and the charismatic. Also, if you have been reading this blog for more than a year, you will probably recognize some themes I have already explored in this post. All I am doing here is recasting them in the context of Age of the Spirit.)

To get at my idea about dancing, lets talk about three things: glasses, billiard balls, and surprises.

About fifteen years ago, I decided to get a new pair of glasses. I had been going without glasses for several years, and my eyesight had deteriorated more than I imagined. I didn’t even realize it, but I had begun to make all kinds of false assumptions about what things looked like (trees, signs, etc.) because I couldn’t see them clearly. My imagination was filling in the gaps. When I put on my new lenses for the first time, I was amazed. Suddenly, the world around me changed. I noticed the shapes of fonts on faraway signs. I could make out the details of leaves in the trees above me. The words and pictures in the books I read seemed sharper and more vibrant.

Sometimes, when we have difficulty seeing things, we don’t need to be squinting and imagining what we might see in order to perceive the world correctly. We need to find a new pair of glasses.

This can also be a problem with the assumptions that we make  about God. We take on a worldview that we get from our parents or churches  - about who God is, or about how God acts – and that worldview forces us to make certain assumptions about the world around us. But if we change that worldview – by trying on a new set of lenses, so to speak – we may discover that some of the questions that we were previously asking no longer make any sense.

Now, for some examples. Here are four statements that I occasionally hear people ask about their relationship with God:

  • “I’m just trying to decide if this [church/small group/ministry/school] is where I’m supposed to be.”
  • “I don’t know if [my current boyfriend/girlfriend] is the person God intended for me.”
  • “After I found my new job, I came to see that getting laid off from the old job was part of God’s plan for me.”
  • “I think God wants me to major in business instead of art.”

All of these statements arise out of one particular set of lenses – one particular worldview. This worldview assumes that God has mapped out every detail of our lives, and that it is our role to determine what God has already determined should happen. It is as if God has been walking around a billiard table, taking a close, hard look at the arrangement of the balls on the table. And now God has decided how things should work – he has made his “shot” – and it is our job, as the balls on the table, to behave correctly. We ought to do what God determined ahead of time we should do.

However, as anyone who has ever attempted it will tell you, this can be a very difficult and stressful task. I have never known anyone who claimed to be attempting to determine what God wanted them to do in a particular circumstance where they were absolutely certain about it. And I have often noticed that, after people make a decision based on their beliefs about God’s will, they end up being disappointed with the result.

Perhaps, one of the reasons these situations so often disappoint is because we come into them making the wrong set of assumptions about how God creates our world and how God relates to us.

Which brings me to the idea of surprises.

When I’m talking about surprises here, I’m talking about good surprises. Not that puddle of oil you found under your car last week. Or that number at the bottom of your most recent electric bill. I’m talking about the time your spouse gave you something for Christmas that you never even imagined you wanted, but that was the perfect gift. Or that time your four year-old made a spontaneous crayon drawing of she and you holding hands. Or that time you were driving home late one afternoon, and the dusk suddenly lit up in 100 different shades of pink and orange.

Being surprised in this way is an essential part of our existence. It is part of what makes life joyful. Take away the all of the unexpected – create a world in which we know exactly what will happen and when it will happen today, and tomorrow, and the next day – and nothing becomes interesting, engaging, or even beautiful any longer. We are halfway to hell.

What kind of God would create a universe like that?

If the universe were nothing more than a completely predictable series of events, it becomes the equivalent of the child who puts on a finger puppet show for herself. When the show is nothing but what she expects, she eventually becomes bored with it and puts it away. It is impossible for her to love her show – or the puppets – in any meaningful way, because they doing nothing other than what she makes them do.

But there is at least one other set of lenses – another way of looking at the universe – that doesn’t require it to be an cosmic puppet show, with each of us serving as little more than paper dancing at the end of divine hands. This set of lenses has been called open theism because it posits that God created a universe full of possibilities ( one that is “open”) rather than empty of them (“closed”). An open universe can be surprising, even to God, because its complexities allow it to behave in ways that are unexpected (in other words, it has what scientists, theologians, and philosophers sometimes call emergent properties).

So when God enters into our lives and lives along side us, it is not simply a matter of God making a decision about one and only one thing that we ought to be doing, and then hoping that we are able to figure it out. Instead, God is sometimes watching us, waiting to see what decisions we make – God wants to see what we become. There are some decisions/paths that are wasteful or destructive or unwise, and we are warned about those in scripture. But there are hundreds of other possibilities that are open to us – ones that are beautiful and good and right. Which path we take – and how we go about it – that is the miracle of life, the wonder of creation.

But it is also not as if we are doing it alone. God is still there beside us – the Spirit living within us. What we decide and do is also connected to God’s identity and God’s creative work. We are partners with God in this effort.

In one of his books, C.S. Lewis described marriage as something like this: “It is more like a dance than a drill.”

I think the same is true of our relationship with God.

So when are discerning the Spirit with the assumption that it is all one-sided, that God is going to do all of the instructing, and we are just trying to figure out what God wants – when we think that what we want and what we find to be “good” has nothing do to with it – we may be starting out on a false direction.

What if, instead, we saw the process of discernment as a dance in which God leads, but in which our reactions and responses were equally important? Or what if God was more like a musician playing a piano or guitar, and it was our job to find our own, unique way to dance to the music?

When we begin to see discernment through those lenses, I think we are much closer to doing it well.

____________________________________________________

A FOOTNOTE ON TWO OBJECTIONS TO OPEN THEISM:

If you don’t have any objections to open theism, there is no reason to read further. However, if you have some questions about it, I am going to briefly address two common complaints below.

First, some people object to open theism because it challenges God’s omniscience – that is, the belief in classical theology that God “knows all.” But in actuality, it gives God even more credit. According to open theism, God sees the potential for not only one future but for all possible futures. The surprise and beauty comes from experiencing the universe that actually evolves/develops out of those possibilities.

Some also object to open theism because it makes the future of the universe uncertain. How can God redeem people or the universe, some argue, if he doesn’t know how it is going to happen? But open theism does not contend that God has no control over the universe. God can, if God chooses, take control of any aspect of it at any time. So God can make a promise about something that God will do, and be confident that the promise can be fulfilled. Exactly how it is fulfilled, however, is in part up to us and how we respond to God. I don’t have the time to go into it at this point, but that is more or less how things work in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament.

You can read much more (and much more eloquent words) about open theism in Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible.

Feb 212014
 

Phyllis Tickle believes we are entering the Age of the Spirit, a time when Christianity will become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit as a member of the trinity. This is necessary, she and John Sweeney have argued, because Christianity has reached a point of crisis of authority, where neither church structures nor scripture appear any longer to be adequate sources of discernment of God.

So far, I have talked about the idea of spirit – the experiences that we have in connection with people, organizations, and places – that transcend what we see, hear, and touch. And I have talked about the Holy Spirit as a unique, personal spirit. Holy Spirit leads us in the ways of peace and love, toward a world that is no longer governed by spirits of hatred, envy, and greed.

Which now raises the question – how do we get in touch with the Holy Spirit? How do we come to know the Spirit of God for ourselves?

The Christian tradition seems to have developed three perspectives on this.

First, is the idea of scripture as revelation of God’s spirit. Scripture, according to the writer of one of the Biblical letters to Timothy, is “God breathed.” That is, it is said to have the life of God or the Spirit of God in it. Thus, it is sometimes called “living” because it is never considered to be merely words on a page. It has the life of God within it.

But there are at least two other paths that Christians have claimed to be a way to understanding and experiencing God’s spirit.

The first of these is the charismatic tradition. This relatively new tradition focuses on direct experience and revelation from the Holy Spirit. Charismatics believe that manifestations of the Spirit of God from scripture, such as speaking in tongues, are still accessible to Christians. They usually worship in powerful, ecstatic ways, with up-tempo music and lots of shouting and dancing. Often, during such worship, charismatics come into contact with the Holy Spirit.

I believe there is much that the rest of us can learn from the charismatic tradition, and that we should pay more attention to them. But there is also a dark side to the charismatic tradition.

Charismatics often struggle to sustain the emotional and spiritual highs that are generated from their style of worship. What seems to bring them close to God’s spirit at one event just doesn’t seem to do it in the next one, and even less so  in the next one. If I were a charismatic, I would feel constant pressure to have those “God moments” and I would feel abandoned when I didn’t have them. I might even begin to question myself, wondering if it was my “fault” that the experience I had in the past has never repeated itself.

As an example, just days before I write this, a pastor famous for the charismatic practice of snake handling died as a result of a snake bite. He had done this many times before, and everything had always worked out for him. But, tragically, not this time. I think that sometimes things work out the way charismatics hope and believe, and sometimes they don’t. And I suspect there is a lot of personal struggle among charismatics to reconcile the two experiences.

Second, the charismatic tradition has spawned an industry of preachers who make all kinds of promises that they can’t necessarily deliver. So there are a lot of faith healers and others promising that you can become rich if you follow their teachings. And those things don’t work out for a lot of people.

Don’t get me wrong, I think most charismatics find all of the hucksterism to be a little embarrassing and inauthentic, in the same way that the rest of us do when those outside of the Christian tradition are exposed to them. However, the charismatic masses seem to be the most vulnerable to the influences of these leaders.

Old Man Praying, Julian Falat (1853-1929)

But there is another path to the Holy Spirit that is much older and – therefore – more tested by the centuries. It is the contemplative tradition. The contemplative tradition advocates long, quiet, and mentally and emotionally open times of prayer as a way of experiencing God. The contemplatives teach us that, by practicing silence and contemplation over time, all of us can get in touch with this Holy Spirit.

In other words, the charismatics seek to find God in the extraordinary, but the contemplatives seek to find God in the ordinary.

But there is no point in pitting the two against the other to decide which one is the “true” way of being in touch with God. There is every reason to believe that God can be found in extraordinary ecstatic experiences, just as the charismatics claim, as well as in the calm moments of quiet spirits, made possible by the practice of prayer, day after day, year after year.  I believe that a spiritual community, living in an age where the Holy Spirit takes on a more prominent role, should be ready for both. They should practice both. They should expect God to meet them in both places.

The contemplative tradition has much to offer charismatics because it takes away the pressure of constant ecstatic experience. Did you have an ecstatic worship experience last week? Good for you. But there is no reason to expect it will happen again today. So let those experiences lead you into the practice of contemplation, where – over time – you will come to see that God meets you every day in quiet prayer. And be sure – there will be a time again for dancing and shouting, because God will certainly show up in that way as well.

Next: More on discerning God’s spirit.

 Posted by at 10:30 pm
Feb 172014
 

A brief review of where this series has taken us so far:

  1. Phyllis Tickle believes we are entering the Age of the Spirit, a new era for humanity in which the Holy Spirit is more fully engaged as member of the divine trinity.
  2. “Spirits” are things we experience every day. People have unique spirits, as do places and organizations. We are all aware of the spiritual on some level.

So there are spirits of peace, and there are human spirits, and there spirits of disorder and chaos. And… there is also a Holy Spirit, which has sometimes also been called the “Spirit of the Lord” or the “Spirit of God.”

Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican)

Christians often speak about the Holy Spirit, suggesting a uniqueness that distinguishes itself from all of the other spirits. Also, Christians have often referred to the Spirit of God using gendered pronouns. Over the centuries, it has sometimes been a feminine gender  (“she”), but mostly it has been a masculine gender (“he”). Both, however, suggest that the Holy Spirit is a personality, not merely an abstract “force.”

So in the Holy Spirit, we have a “spirit” in the sense I talked about in the last post. But this Spirit is markedly different from other spirits. And those who have experienced this Spirit talk about the Spirit like they would a person.

Paul – the apostle from the New Testament – wrote a lot of very interesting things about the Holy Spirit. In fact, you could say that he and his friends were obsessed with the subject. Here is an example that some of you may have encountered recently, if you go to a church that follows the Revised Common Lectionary:

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Here, we have a description not only of the Spirit, but of what the Spirit is doing in our world. Paul believes that he and others have encountered this Spirit of God. In fact, not only have they encountered it. This same spirit also inhabits them – it has become part of them, as are their own, human spirits.

This is a remarkable claim that ought to sound as crazy to us as it no doubt did to the people in Paul’s day. Paul tells the people who receive this letter that – because they have received this Spirit of God – they are able to understand things that would otherwise seem foolish to those who have the “spirit of the world.”

Now, at this point, I think a lot of people miss something very important, and to understand what people miss here, you need to understand something about Paul and the reasons he wrote so many letters.

Paul believes that we are living not in one world, but in two. They both exist in the same time and space, but they are vastly different in one respect: the first is governed by something that Paul often calls flesh or sinful nature. This is a world where people crawl over each other to get to the top, and where those who have wealth and power don’t hesitate to use them to dominate others. It is a world where might makes right. When Paul talks about the “spirit of the world,” he is talking about the spirit that drives people to behave in destructive ways within that world.

But Paul believes there is also another world, one which was birthed when Jesus rose from the dead. In this world, Jesus is considered the “Christ” or “Messiah,” and he has become the true Lord over everything. And now this new world is slowly pushing its way onto the scene – one where humanity can live together in peace and harmony, and where mutual love gives birth to a new era of joy. Paul does not ordinarily use the same language to describe this as Jesus. Jesus called it the “kingdom of God.” But there is no doubt that Paul believed in it, just as Jesus, before him, had taught.

Paul says that the Spirit of God gives his readers the “mind of Christ” in the text that I cited above. In other words, he is saying that his readers no longer have spirits that drive them to live in the old world. Instead, their spirits - inhabited by the Spirit – are part of this new world.

And what does this Spirit that is ushering in the coming world look like? Paul writes about it in another letter, this time to a church in Galatia:

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Do you see the same idea here? The spirit of the world – which here is described as “flesh with its passions and desires” – is gone. The new Spirit, one of love, joy, peace, etc. now inhabits the believer.

Another example. When Luke writes about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he tells a story about Jesus reading from a book in the Old Testament called Isaiah. Luke uses this story to tell us what Jesus is about. And what does the text say?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And there we have the same idea again: this Holy Spirit is “upon” Jesus at the start of his ministry. The result? The poor receive good news, the unjustly captive are set free, the blind see, the oppressed go free. It is a fantastic picture of God’s new world, which this text describes as “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That – in a nutshell – is my take on the Holy Spirit within the Christian tradition. The Holy Spirit is is some ways a “spirit” like any other – a transcendent quality that we sense all around us, but which defies simple observation by sight, sound, or touch. Yet the Spirit of God is also unique, personal, and divine. This Spirit inhabits us so that we are capable of living in this new world where peace, kindness, and gentleness reign supreme.

Next, I plan to talk about two traditions that have taken the Holy Spirit very seriously. First, the more recent charismatic tradition. And second, the more ancient contemplative tradition. What do they have to offer?

 Posted by at 7:04 pm
Feb 142014
 

In a previous post, I talked about Phyllis Tickle’s book The Age of the Spirit, in which Phyllis and John Sweeney, her coauthor, talk about a dawning era in which the Church is becoming increasingly sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

spirit spirituality angels demons

morgueFile credit: Penywise

For our next step after this post, we will see if we can get a handle on what we mean when we talk about a “Holy Spirit” or the “Spirit of God.” But before we can get a handle on the “Holy” part of “Holy Spirit,” we need to deal with another question: what about this  strange word – “spirit”? What does it mean?

Some people think that talking about the “spiritual” is a bad thing because it causes us to ignore the things that are going on around us in the “real” world – the one that we can see, hear, and touch. They think we will ignore the needs problems of our world, such as  poverty and inequality if we are only concerned with “spiritual” matters. But Christians, beginning with the ones that wrote the Bible and continuing until today, have been deeply concerned with the idea of spirits – and, therefore with the spiritual. This is not because we want to ignore what is going on in the world around us, but because we are convinced that a spiritual perspective is the only way we can fully understand it.

More about that in a moment.

For now, lets talk about “spirits.” Many of us have been conditioned to think about “spirits” as mysterious, maybe even fictional things that “normal” people never experience. Perhaps a select few people – maybe psychics, mediums, or priests that are interested in that sort of thing – can experience spirits, but most of us can’t. If there are any such things, the rest of us are simply oblivious to them.

I don’t agree with that. We all encounter spirits every day, but we aren’t always conscious of them. Not only do you have a spirit yourself, you also have your own sense of them. It is something that is built into your humanity.

A twentieth century theologian named Walter Wink has been of tremendous help to me on this issue, and most of the next few paragraphs come more or less directly from what I have learned from Wink.

Have you ever heard someone called a “free spirit”? How about when your grade school was getting ready for a big game – were you supposed to have “school spirit”? Have you ever heard talk about the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the “spirit of 76″? Have you ever walked into a room, or a house, or a building, and immediately felt a sense of dread, or of warmth, or of anxiety that you couldn’t explain?

All of these experience are – in a very real way – encounters with spirits or the “spiritual realm.” Spirituality tells us that what we see, hear, taste, and touch is not all that there is . Something else is also present within and around us: in people, in groups, and even in some places. We can choose to pay attention to the spirits that are around us, or we can do our best to ignore them and go about our day with our blinders on. But they are present, and at some deep, intuitive level, we are all capable of sensing them. At least, to some extent. 

There is one thing, however, that most of us don’t get about the spiritual. We have been trained to think that matter and spirit are separate things. That is, matter exists in one “realm” and spirit exists in another. Perhaps one crosses over into the other from time to time, but for the most part, they are separate. This way of seeing the world is called dualism.

But there is another way of seeing the world that is much different. This alternative way of seeing the world understands that matter and spirit are both part of a single reality. That is, they both exist side-by-side. Your spirit, then, is not separate from your body or your brain. They are all part of one, single package – one reality or “realm.”  This way of seeing the world is called an integral view.

Under the integral view, there is no point in thinking about a “sweet by and by” or a separate sphere in which things are purely “spiritual.” Such place does not exist. Both the material and the spiritual are fully present here and now – all bound up in a single reality. True, we can most clearly see those parts of reality that are made up of matter and energy, flesh and blood. But there is a part of the same reality that transcends those things, a part that we can only “feel” and sense more indirectly, that is just as real. That part of our reality is called the spiritual.

So when someone claims that “spiritual” people don’t pay enough attention to the world’s problems, I say: “No. The only way we can truly understand what is happening in a world filled with war, and violence, and poverty, and oppression is to see the full picture. And we need to appreciate what is happening spiritually in order to get that picture.” If someone has a dualistic view – where their “spiritual” concerns are about a separate world that is disconnected from our own – the criticism may be true. But not for those who take on the integrated view.

So there are spirits. There are free spirits, and spirits of rebellion, and spirits of anger, and powerful spirits, and weak spirits. Some of them are peaceful and gentle. Some of them – we all have been near them – are very, very disturbing. Sometimes we understand them properly. Sometimes we don’t.

There is also a Holy Spirit. We are going to talk about that in my next post.

But before I wrap things up on this post, lets focus on the language that we use to talk about the spiritual.

We have all kinds of words that we use when we begin talking about the spiritual. We talk about evil spirits, and demons, and angels. We talk about someone the Bible calls “the Satan” or “the accuser.” The Bible even talks about something that sounds really foreboding called “the Powers.”

When we use language like this to talk about the spiritual, we are often engaging in projection. Projection is a way of using things we can see and understand – creatures with horns or wings, or exorbitant weapons, or crazy looking faces – to describe experiences of the spiritual. So when most of us talk about demons, we don’t really expect to encounter a creature with red pigment and sharp horns around a corner some day. We know it is something else. But we are using the physical imagery of the demonic as a way of describing something that we sense on a much deeper, more intuitive level.

So when people ask me if I believe in angels and demons and evil spirits, I say “yes.” But how I understand those things is different from what you will encounter in a fairy tale, for example.

Which brings me to the final thought for this post. At this point, some of you may be asking: “Well, okay, if spirits are these things that we all know and encounter every day, and if all this business about angels and demons is really just a projection of those experiences, is any of this real? Or is it all just stuff that we invent in our imaginations, which can be easily explained by psychology or sociology?”

That is a good question. I often ask questions like this of myself. And the best way that I know how to answer it has two parts:

Part 1: Yes. I do think there is something that is “real” behind the experiences of the spiritual, whether they are ordinary, day-to-day things (like a sense of someone’s anxious spirit) or more extraordinary events (like someone speaking in tongues). I think something is happening that cannot be fully accounted for by psychology or neurology (at least, as we currently understand those fields). Having said that, though, I also think that the material realities that are studied by psychology and neurology are integral with the spiritual. All of it is, as I have already said, bound up in a single reality, some of which science can measure and observe, and some of which it cannot. So it turns out that the question “is all this real” is a lot more complex and nuanced that you might think.

Part 2: In either case, however, the bottom line is that the experience is the same. This is another thing Walter Wink has taught me. When someone is angry or upset, their spirit affects us in certain ways. When an organization pressures everyone to behave in a certain way, a certain spirit descends on everyone who is a part of it. You can say that angels and demons are “real” or “unreal,” but the experiences that we have are still there. So, in a way, I don’t think you have to sort out this (surprisingly complex) question to understand spirituality.

Soon, I’ll be posting on the next issue – what is this “Spirit of God” that Christians claim to know?

Feb 082014
 

via caffinatedthoughts.com

Much of the social media buzz this week related to the infamous “Ham on Nye” debate. It seems like almost everyone agreed it was a really silly exercise, and yet no one could resist watching and commenting. It was like a huge train wreck that was announced far enough in advance to give everyone a chance to gawk at it.

The problem with the debate, of course, was that – while it appeared to be a dispute about Earth’s history – it was really a clash of two different approaches to the process of knowing. Ham thinks knowledge is best acquired through his preferred approach  to interpreting scripture (i.e., fundamentalist readings). Nye thinks knowledge is better acquired through the scientific process of observation, testing, peer review, etc. They were never going to agree, because they never got around to talking about the underlying philosophical issue in sufficient detail.

It was largely a misadventure in which the real issues were never discussed. Much like most political debates.

via christianbookexpo.com

But there was another social media debate last week that also missed the point in its entirety; this time, a debate over the importance of “church attendance” that took place between Blue Like Jazz author Don Miller and a myriad of others.

It all started with this post by Miller, in which he stated that singing church songs doesn’t really inspire him, that he doesn’t really get any other benefit out of regular church attendance, and that he feels more connectedness with God in his day-to-day work. Miller explained by talking about his learning style. He learns by doing, not by sitting and listening. Since most churches offer experiences that require facing forward toward a stage, listening intently for a long time, and then leaving, he doesn’t really benefit that much from the traditional church service.

The response was swift and strong. One post by Jonathan Leeman on the Gospel Coalition website disagreed, comparing Sunday morning activities to the skeleton and food that support and make the life of Jesus possible. You can’t love the church without belonging to a church, he argued. He also inferred that if you aren’t willing to come and listen to a Sunday morning sermon, that it must mean you refuse to “listen to God’s word.”

On and on the responses went – many of them deploying the theological language of “participating in the body of Christ” and “spiritual community” as a way of suggesting that one cannot be a follower of Jesus without attending church. Most of those responses never put the “attending church” part so bluntly, but it was not difficult to discern that implication behind the statements.

Miller was so overwhelmed by the responses that he wrote an extensive second post. In this one, he doesn’t retreat from his point at all. In fact, he admits he doesn’t really go to church very much. Furthermore, he was able to dismiss almost all of the suggestions that there was something “unique” to be found in traditional church, talking about how he was finding them elsewhere. He even suggests that he is surrounded by a strong spiritual community with which he shares his journey. (I think Miller is right insofar as he makes his point, but also missing something; more on that below).

I think this debate also features two or three perspectives that are largely missing each other’s points. A few observations:

First, this disagreement is largely about what the word “church” means. Some participants are thinking about church as a longstanding Western institution, or series of institutions. The institutional church has buildings, pastors, worship services, budgets, committees, and various programs. Membership is primarily comprised of attendance at the weekly service, giving, and participating in some of the church’s planned programs. Others are thinking about church as a much more abstract and universal concept – those who are Jesus followers and who, by extension, can share a certain identity and purpose. The people who share my faith walk with me, both in person and (in more recent years) in other ways, such as through social media – are my church. The remainder is seen as unnecessary. In particular, attending a Sunday morning worship at an institutional church is no longer necessary.

Second, there is a lot at stake in this argument. The institutional church is in decline. Pews are emptying. Budgets are getting tight. Churches are closing down. Anxiety levels among those who support (or depend on) church-as-institution are at all-time highs. If people no longer think of participation in institutional churches as a component of a life that follows Jesus, then these institutions are going to vanish. No wonder Miller stirred up a hornet’s nest.

Third, most institutional churches are in survival mode. Butts and bucks are what drives them. Success is measured by how many people attend and by how much giving takes place. Large staffs and overhead must be justified as being useful to people. A 50,000 square foot church facility, which requires heating, cooling, maintenance, etc., together with a 10 member staff, doesn’t look like a very efficient use of resources if only a handful of aging members attend a single Sunday service each week. Likewise, all of those costs for staffing and overhead – not to mention the demands for staffing and overhead for the larger denominational structure – have to be paid. Every time another well-to-do member dies, with no one to replace them, the situation becomes more and more dire.

But this issue isn’t limited to the classic, neighborhood church. The big megachurches, which meet in giant facilities and often have huge staff with a handful of well-paid CEOs at the top, have the same problems. If they don’t keep their attendance and giving levels up, they are bound to fall into crisis just as quickly as they came together. The pressure for fundraising is enormous.

To make matters worse, as crisis escalates, financial resources are increasingly internalized. That is, they are used to serve the members of the institution, rather than to benefit the community or world at large. It becomes increasingly true that they only thing the church can do is pay its bills and provide a salary to a staff which plans and implements its weekly service, together with a few other programs.

Fourth, at their worst, some institutional churches enable abusive behavior by their leaders. One of the problems with large structures that accommodate people with significant authority and celebrity is that the wrong people can end up in those positions. Those people then use their power as a means of accommodating abusive behavior, and then shielding it from visibility. This surely does not take place in all churches (or even most of them). But it has probably been the case with some institutional churches for a very long time, and in the media age, it is almost impossible to hide. The existence and harm caused by sexual and spiritual abuse by those  in positions of church authority is more apparent than ever.

Fifth, I think People Like Don Miller Can Easily Discern These Issues. I don’t think it takes long for most people to quickly understand the survival dynamic or the internalization of resources dynamic. Nor do I think it takes very long to pick out churches where spiritually abusive behavior, whether it be moderate guilt control or more severe varieties, is lurking in the background.

Don Miller does not say this, and it may not be what is lurking in the back of his mind. However, I think there are many people who will say what Don Miller is saying, while in actuality they are consciously or unconsciously trying to get away from an unhealthy institutional culture.

Sixth, defenders of institutional church should stop using guilt and shame strategies in efforts to win people back. Messages which state or imply that those who reject institutional churches are either insincere or that they don’t care about [pick your favorite theological concept here " the Gospel," "the Body of Christ," "the family of God," "spiritual community," "being accountable," etc.] are disingenuous at best. Yes, people often can and do experience those things without institutional church structures/services, and you often don’t find them in institutional churches. Such statements are patronizing at their worst. Pastoral experience and theological education do not necessarily qualify someone to better discern and explain how “spiritual community” ought to look in a context that is different from their own. And, even where there is a point to be made, such strategies suffer from the classic problem of mote and beam.

Seventh, I think there is still great value within institutional churches. Here is the central problem. I am not sure that institutional protestant churches will or even can survive in their current form. (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are a different story – for another time). They have simply been deconstructed/exposed too extensively, largely by X-ers and Millennials – and even by their “own” – theologians and scholars. The model of building/pastor/services/members/programs that I talked about at the top seems to me to be increasingly dysfunctional, both financially and – by ripple effect – in many other ways.

Yet these churches, for their mountains of problems, also carry something that – to me – is extremely important. For lack of a better phrase, I am going to borrow from the Apostle’s Creed and call it the “communion of saints.” Here, I am not talking about an immediate spiritual community in the here and now. As I have said above, I think you can have that without institutional structures. Rather, I am talking about a means of living out one’s faith in the context of the history that has gone before it. I find it impossible to develop a healthy perspective on the timelessness of my faith, and of my connection to believers throughout history, without participating in the traditions of the church. That means: liturgy, Eucharist, witnessing baptism, blessing marriage, Lenten ashes, singing the same songs, hearing the same Psalms and scriptures. I can have spiritual community, and even improve my spiritual walk, in conversation with my friends over a Coke. But if I want to appreciate my connection with Isaiah, Paul, Augustine, Francis, Luther, Terese, my Grandparents, etc., if I want to know that I have deep, ancient roots, I need this thing – this “communion” that, for better or worse, is carried along in its current form by the institutional church.

Eighth, I think the debate over “church attendance” ignores the real dilemma, which is this – how to preserve the communion of saints even as the institutional church, in its protestant form, vanishes I completely sympathize with the Don Millers of the world. Really, I do. I don’t think the answer is always to recommend a return to institutional church. But I also think that, despite all of the toxicity and pointlessness to much of it, there is something that is of value to future generations within institutional churches. Something that needs preservation.  What I think is needed more than anything else at this stage is a conversation which (a) acknowledges the decline of church-as-institution and (b) seeks a creative means for preserving the communion of saints, as carried by institutional church, for future generations.

I don’t know exactly what that looks like. I am a part of a project that – in some ways – is trying to do that through an alternative conception of church, even now. But I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, and I don’t think we have arrived at the be-all-and-end-all solution. We are just one of many trying to work out a practical solution to a difficult problem.

 

And there, in almost 2000 words, is my reaction to the Don Miller/church attendance debate from this last week: the Don Millers of the world have a point, and guilt and shame counter-strategies should be abandoned, yet I find it important to preserve some of the the traditions that are carried by institutional churches.

I conclude with a statement that is consciously liturgical.

Lord, have mercy.

 Posted by at 2:02 pm