Friday, December 16, 2011

Frosty The Strawman & The War On Crassness

We put Christ in Christmas more than 1500 years ago, hijacking the Sun God’s Solstice and hallowing it all Holy for the Son of God, hoping a high Christian festival this time of year might convert the pagan masses to pray at our pious Mass.

Look, let’s break it down: Advent ain’t Biblical, and Christmas ain’t really Christian in the first-century sense, but ‘cause the year is cyclical, and we’re wired seasonally, we can recontextualize the scriptures, crank up the familiar music, and claim some sacred fun from the Sun/Son pun.

If I were to listen to the charge from my fellow Jesus-following bloggers in the emerging movement, it might be time for the Christians who put Christ in Christmas to engage in some anti-consumerist sedition and take Christ back out of an entirely invented tradition.

I get it—but I don’t get it.  Are we really going to let the obnoxious zealots on the religious right ruin Christmas for us? The War On Christmas is a logical fallacy—a Frosty the Strawman, if you will.

But for a few weeks, the whole Christian (and Christianish) world is taking off work and talking about the “straw poverty” of the Prince of Peace. Let’s relish and retweet the annual cultural currency of the revolutionary revelation to “preach good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners.” Do we really want to allow the anti-consumerist critique to go all Grinch on that? If anyone rightfully inherits the legacy of the Puritan Scrooges who ban Christmas, do we really want it to be the Christian left?  Rather than join the War on Christmas because some Christocrats on Fox News boiled our blood, let’s wage Christmas on War.

For me, emerging Christianity is about the prophetic and the poetic not the pious. Yes, we worship a Baby and not your brand, a King and not your bling. But if I am to understand the prophetic commerce of the gospel, it’s neither capitalist nor communist. It’s a gift economy. And the gift-giving of these annual rituals is not inherently evil simply due to their recuperation by WalMart, Amazon, and BestBuy.

Here, for just a few weeks each year, we have a temporary autonomous zone of fierce faith, of frolic and fun. We can wallow in guilt and cringe at perverted first-world privilege all we want, but Christ cannot be offended by Black Friday baloney. If we think all the shopaholic overspending, credit-card maxing, sugar-overdosing, and eggnog foggy sloppiness are strange and somehow sacrilege,  what do we make of God’s profligate love and gluttonous grace?

Children don’t sleep because of the toys, but I can’t sleep because of the joy. Christ canceled my sin, and this is worth celebrating. But more than that, the Christmas teachings are some of the most radical, most countercultural, most subversive in all the Bible. If the superrich, superpowerful sipping alcoholically and feasting sumptuously in the palaces of empire are going to kneel and pray to an infant revolutionary and peasant lord born to an unwed mother in a Palestinian cave, should we really try to stop them?

I’m with Borg and Crossan and their brilliant book The First Christmas, where this holiday is “the promise and hope for a very different kind of world from the world of Pharoah and Caesar, the world of domination and empire.” I’m with Borg and Crossan in repentance and a “confession of commitment, allegiance, and loyalty” to Emmanuel, Messiah, Son of God, Lord and Savior. I’m with Borg and Crossan seeking the birth of Christ within, following the light and resisting the ruler’s plot to destroy the light. I’m with Borg and Crossan, trying to be a “Christmas Christian in a world that still descends into darkness.”

I’m not buying into the myth of the War on Christmas or the war on the War on Christmas but will gladly do combat in the war on crassness. I will deck the halls—jolly but sober. Be a fool for Yule but don’t be rude or crude. Bah Humbug is just another drug, and I refuse to get drunk by raining on someone else’s Christmas parade. If they want to skip church on Christmas Sunday and buy lots of cheap crap made in China, that’s their prerogative.

I’m Occupying Church this Christmas by church-hopping with family and friends and taking in as many services at different churches as I can cram into the 18 hours between dusk Christmas Eve and noon Christmas Day. And I am also celebrating Winter Solstice with friends a few days before that.

This Christmas, I’m going to tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Christ is already everywhere and everything, whether or not we sing. But what we sing and what the lyrics and bible verses bring are nothing shy of a revolution for peace and justice, love and joy. That’s a not a toy, and it can’t be wrapped. But it does have a beat that the little drummer boy can keep. And we sure can dance to it. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Emerging Christianity 101 (Building the Republic of Heaven)

As inhabitants of the 21st century, we’re not new as a people in our desire to frame and name the time period in which we live, and contemporary Christianity sparks and twinkles with hundreds of profoundly articulate preacher-teachers who now identify with the “great emergence”—outspoken intellectuals, congregational theorists, culture critics, renegade professors, workshop leaders, and earnest seminarians.

When I reconverted to Christianity in 2009, I immediately dove headfirst into reading and research and wanted to figure out what kind of Christian I was; soon, I became so infatuated with the “emerging conversation” or “emergent church” that it prompted my own revisionist fantasy that if there’d been an emergent movement back in 1988 when I walked out on Christ, I might never have left.

Despite the often ill-informed and arch-conservative backlash against Emerging Christianity, it remains a remarkably innocent and hopeful impulse within world religion. Not exactly non-denominational but almost transdenominational, it intentionally bypasses categories. This tendency towards frank, open-ended, and unapologetic ambiguity frustrates the critics that would like to punitively pigeonhole all things emergent as loose-moral-liberalism and hipster heresy.

For me, its rejection of political and theological binary dualism linked with its emphasis on practice or “orthopraxy” make it intellectually and socially irresistible. Its similarities with gospels of radical inclusion and process thinking make it theologically inspiring. 

Rooted in the Latin word emergere, meaning to “rise out or up, bring forth, bring to light,” we might remember how Christ emerged all the time, so much so that emergence mines the core meaning of our religion. Jesus emerged from womb and tomb, from fishing boats and from the overturned tables of temples, from heaven into history. 

In his 2007 “amateur” treatise Signs of Emergence, Kester Brewin pirates a phrase from the controversial children’s fantasy author Phillip Pullman to suggest that the emergent church might embrace its “holy freedom” by building the “republic of heaven,” a “rich and complex, networked and decentralized” “womb of the divine.” Here, to borrow Brewin’s broad poetic brush, we’re infectious, earthy tricksters reject “market economics” for the “cycle of the gift” as our ecumenical “destiny” finds us “living together as one with God in 
the city with no temple.”

Brewin, Bruce Epperly, and Nanette Sawyer all invoke a mystical “center-without-circumference” “circular-but-decentralized” concept of God, attributed to St. Augustine & other mystics; it not only defines a marriage of God’s immanence and transcendence along with the omnipresent nature of Holy Spirit, it eloquently energizes the emerging movement with a suitable meme.

God is the circle
Whose center is everywhere
And whose circumference
Is nowhere.

Brewin boldly taps the biblical narrative for the roots of Christ wildly free flexibility. He writes, “On the cross we see the beginning of the final act of God’s decentralization. . . . The curtain is ripped. God has exploded. The vial has smashed and the virus has escaped. The emergent Christ has been unleashed. . . . This then is Christ emerging: it is Christ disestablishing the need for the temple, for people to gain access to God only by being in one place and through the hierarchies of priests; it is Christ establishing his body as a decentralized network of believers, and thus giving birth to a complex, emergent church that could not be destroyed any more easily than the Internet could be.” I agree with Brewin that the profoundly potent and spiritually nutritious Eucharist meal is a most substantively and symbolically subversive instance of Christ’s effusive and diffusive nature in the world.

We take Christ with us—broken for us and ingested into us and digested in prayer and scripture-study and meditation brought out into the world by our love. To contemplate Christ’s complexity as this diverse and digested body loving largely in the world works out at an amazing pace of grace.

Brewin continues, “The Emergent Church—like all emergent systems—will not be marked by knowledge stored centrally. There will be no key leader . . .  The distributed nature of knowledge will be positively celebrated, as it will prevent the collecting of power . . . [T]he idea of truth in the Emergent Church will change. It will no longer reside in some intangible conceptual work of theology that only the fully trained and ordained can unlock. Instead, the pursuit of it will be about our shared experience. . . . The truth of the church needs to become ‘open source,’ with distributed agents able to feed in solutions . . . .”

Such dynamic language may feel threatening to those who cling to a static notion of supernatural theism, but many of us embrace an engaged and integrated, God alongside the Creator’s timelessly holistic and holy qualities.

One of the many things that makes Peter Rollins' work generally and H(N)TSOG more specifically indicative of the “philosophical and theological underpinnings of the emerging church movement” (as the book jacket hyperbole boasts!) comes in his embrace of the ambiguous and antagonistic, parodoxical and prophetic aspects of Christian spirituality.

Rollins confesses that his approach is “oil and water,” a blend of “mystical humanism” & “religious fundamentalism.”

We gain direct insight into this unique and challenging perspective right off in the book's introduction, where Peter almost bemoans the subject of God as “among the most difficult & dangerous of them all.” I “shudder” with Rollins on the implications of this statement, for this Christ/God is no cozy Christmas card or bouncy Easter basket savior. As a recovering drunk, I take sardonic delight in Pete’s pithy provocations, in choosing a new hobby as risky & razor-sharp as exploring the nature of the divine.  

For years, I “passed over” the God of monotheism on a detour into the narcotic sweetness of secular hedonism & New Age Nirvana Neverland. Upong finding God again in middle age, God is suddenly once again “the one subject of whom we must never stop speaking.”

In this context, postmodern emergent theology is inherently and intuitively mystical as we refuse “to colonize the name of 'God' with concepts” or degrade God with definitions, but still, you will find us “speaking with wounded words of” our “wounded Christ.” Suddenly, theology is not this profound & elite science reserved for expert priests but an endless excess that attempts to “engage” & “understand” as “a loving response to God.”

Instead of “the idea of theology as that which speaks of God,” we get to play & praise “the idea that theology is the place where God speaks.” The emerging church “is not then a revolution that is in the process of creating something new but rather one that is returning to something very old.”

The emerging church stretches our conception of God from object to subject to verb. Too often religion diminishes the mysterious grandeur of God into a paint-by-numbers B-movie rent-a-savior, a cartoonish caricature & Saturday morning superhero. Past the blonde-haired coloring book Jesus on a pastel background, we bypass the simply supernatural to pass through our cosmic memory of something naturally superior in its simplicity. A misunderstood god as celestial ego meets a mysterious God-made-flesh in terrestrial & egoless acts of love. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

We Are One In The Spirit (Rally To Restore Unity 'Synchroblog')

Inhale. Exhale. Spirit is breath. To breathe or to pray or to meditate is to participate in unity.
“We are one in the spirit. We are one in the Lord.”

Is unity something that we can think or plot or strategize ourselves into? Is there anything unique about Christian unity that distinguishes itself from the inherent unity that binds all things?

“We are one but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.”

Particularity or plurality? Unity or diversity?

This is the week I turned off Jon Stewart because I didn’t want to hear another word about a particular death and what it means to our world. This is the week a particular resurrection might remind us of the peace that passes all understanding.

This is the week that Rachel Held Evans called Jesus followers to unity with her wonderfully creative “Rally To Restore Unity,” and all I could think of was singing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” I suggest all my fellow unity-bloggers belt out a verse or chorus.

The more I thought about her admirable call, the more I thought how sad it made me that we who follow Jesus would need to make this call to “restore” a unity that Christ always already embodies for the universe.

Nagging notions in my gut give traction to the transcendent heresy of hope and the imminent discomfort of our collective denial that unity exists as alpha and omega, describing the delicate dynamo of God’s true nature.

Perhaps Christians have such a problem with ecumenical unity within our own faith tradition because too many of us are fundamentally incapable of imagining a deeper harmony of interspiritual accord with people of other faiths?

Perhaps Christians cannot comprehend unity in their debates about the historical Jesus Christ because they’ve yet to experience the transhistorical and mysterious unity of the Cosmic Christ?

The more I experience Christ, the more I admit that at the depth of my monotheism is what Marcus Borg describes as Christian panentheism. The more I think about restoring unity, the more I want to simply recognize unity, confess unity, celebrate unity.

We don’t so much need to repent from ruining unity with our doctrinal debates and theological attacks but rather repent from the idea that in the love of Jesus anything but unity would ever be plausible or possible.

We cannot create unity as much as we can bask in the created unity. We cannot restore unity as much as we can rekindle it and relish in the redemption born in our bones and bought on the cross.

Breaking body and bread, anything but unity exists only in our heads.  

Richard Rohr writes, “If there is indeed one God of all the earth, then it is this one God who is breaking through in every age and culture . . .” He continues, “Although we use the phrase ‘peace of mind,’ there is really no such thing. When you are in your mind, you are never truly at peace, and when you are truly at peace, you are never in your mind.”

Prayer is the dare for those of us who care about unity.

15 minutes of morning mediation, and unity is restored.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jesus Didn't Drive

Jesus didn’t drive. Jesus didn’t tweet or text. Jesus didn’t multitask. Jesus walked, was both silent and talked. Jesus remembered to rest.

Years ago, deep in the chill of December, I really wanted to get to a particular party—I think it was for the Winter Solstice or perhaps for New Year’s Eve. Problem was, the destination lay on the north side of Short Mountain in rural Cannon County, Tennessee, and the already winding, gravel roads were made more treacherous by a recent dressing of snow.

Serious partiers many of us, we did the only logical thing: parked the car several miles out, threw some provisions into a backpack—and then we hiked in. Of course, the walk itself was worth it. There are few things more peaceful than the crunch of boots in fresh snow, few things more peaceful than walking deep in the woods on a winter’s day.

In “The Practice of Walking on the Earth,” Barbara Brown Taylor teaches us about an annoying and obvious truth that when walking as a spiritual practice, “All it takes is the decision to walk with some awareness, both of who you are and what you are doing. Where you are going is not as important, however counterintuitive that may seem.” (itals mine)

This kind of “go with the flow” might work alright for Taoists, but is it the best approach for Christians? “Where you are going is not important”? Doesn’t this undermine the entire purpose of my personhood, my career, family, and faith? What does aimless wandering have to do with achieving my goals? Instead of a “purpose driven life,” we get to dally about with no apparent purpose?

Of course, that day in the snow, we were profoundly present to the beauty and the cold, deeply aware of our humanity and humility and place in the universe. But we had a clear goal, a defined purpose. If it weren’t for the promise of the party—at least in my case, the possibility of getting good and drunk—we might not have embarked on the pedestrian journey in the first place. (Sober now more than 700 days, I can tell these stories; back then, I did deep denial about the drunk as destination part.)

In fact, the spiritual narrative of trekking along without a specific goal plays out when Taylor attempts the practice of walking a labyrinth, balancing the requisite need for a spiritual feeling with the frustrating pointlessness of the whole endeavor. Walking the labyrinth, like life, is fraught with “switchbacks and detours” and the disturbing revelation “that the path goes nowhere.”

The truisms that the journey precedes the destination, that the process trumps the product, that the doing is better than the done—these maxims have meant so much in my life, from my writing career to my practice of exercise and prayer to my arduous recovery from various addictions.

But at the same time I parrot these sacred truths in an appropriately priestly manner, I am prodded by the nagging notion that it all might be a rather large, illogical, and fragrant heap of cow dung. Here’s the rub: as much as these circular and cyclical and zen-like ideals sound, I cannot help but question whether or not they are all a lie. I wonder if they are effectively used to keep the late-capitalist and technologically-savvy slaves happy on the postmodern plantation

Life as we’ve learned it may at once be cyclical and recursive, but it’s also finite, goal-oriented, and linear. Sadly, the latter leanings dominate our American reality, and really living in the present for the sake of moment seems like the elusive meme for an elite caste of enlightened sages. For me, when learning to love the moment and the process for the sake of the moment, the process can then feel like just another goal. At the end of the day, it seems like I am never really there, never really doing it right, so distracted by the sinking premonition that my stinking thinking will never really slow down enough, so we can just be, just breathe.

Authentic spirituality as made relevant by adopting real disciplines utterly contradicts the logic of everyday life that we’ve learned. Deep spirituality subverts the goal-oriented aspects of fundamentalist Christianity. If we are serious about spiritual discipline and spiritual practice for their own sake, we are faced with the dilemma of unlearning the less nuanced aspects of the altar-call narrative: finding Jesus, getting saved, and reserving our ticket to heaven.

But, so imprisoned by a linear logic of life and its trajectory of time are we, that getting off the hamster-wheels and treadmills of predictability in favor of a differently ordered routine of just plain paying attention might actually feel like a taste of heaven.

So outside our often too-limited worldview waits the wonder of God. So strange this is: it takes the teachings of a preacher or philosopher to crack the nut of our limits, to touch spirituality’s limitless nature. In this alternate narrative, we still find Jesus and get saved, but sometimes heaven shows up here and now.

For me, Taylor touches the present and presence in a mellow passion that percolates well with Paul Tillich’s teachings about “The Eternal Now,” where we accept “we come from the eternal ground of time and return to the eternal ground of time and have received a limited span of time as our time. Tillich continues: “If we want to speak in truth without foolish, wishful thinking, we should speak about the eternal that is neither timelessness nor endless time. There is no time after time, but there is eternity above time.”

This week, I haven’t been able to walk much, nursing a nagging knee injury. Paying attention to my pain has replaced paying attention to my steps and stride and has taken a chunk out of my pride. This week, I’ve had to drive my car.

But I still follow a Jesus who didn’t drive. According to Taylor, “This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.” Jesus didn’t drive, and because of this, “Food tasted better at the pace he set. Stories lasted longer. Talk went deeper. While many of his present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it. Jesus was a walker, not a rider.” Jesus didn’t drive. No, “He took his sweet home.”

Sunday, March 27, 2011

“Good is the flesh”: Forever Scandalous Meditations on Alienation, Liberation, & Incarnation

The contemporary scandals in Christian circles hold nothing on the central scandal that forms our faith. Jesus wore skin, breathed breath, died death. Jesus ate, slept, eliminated waste. Jesus felt pleasure and pain.

Our early churches rejected the idea that Jesus was all God without flesh, just borrowing a body for God’s time on earth. It was considered heresy to suggest that Jesus was only God or only human—he was all of both and all the time. God became one of us, as popular song proposes. When God got born Jesus, God got skin. Doctrine says God didn’t learn sin—but if we study the gospel records of Jesus carefully, when he wore skin, he sure came close to what we call “sin.”

Slaves and monastic saints and homeless people and prisoners and prostitutes and people living with AIDS know the glory of a God who loved and became flesh perhaps a little better than the economically and socially privileged do—we for whom it’s still convenient to deny our flesh and wallow in our duality.

Barbara Brown Taylor blames Freud, portions of the apostle Paul, the Protestant Reformation, and the Greeks for the particular piety and shame with which contemporary Christians deny the flesh, this unfortunate misunderstanding of Christ’s central mystery and meaning.

Taylor taunts our deep discomforts with a sad yet hilarious story about dissecting a Christian mural where the God-man Jesus is practically naked, wearing skin without blemish or blister or even one tickling prickle of body hair. Our first-century Christ was a hard-working middle Eastern commoner of modest and rural parents. But he shows up in art as a pink-skinned hairless Caucasian ready to model for a 21st century fashion magazine.

Is it any wonder we’re so messed up? We like to blame current glossy magazines and websites for our twisted and pornographic imaginations when it comes to body image but apparently these creepy disconnects with reality have their roots in classic Christian art.

Taylor further tempts us by suggesting that the scandal of the incarnation doesn’t just mean that Jesus is in full solidarity with our suffering and our pain, but God is also with us in our pleasure, too. She relates a particularly vivid anecdote where she and another preacher admit to each other over dinner and wine that they sometimes get turned on (she used the word “aroused”) while preaching a good sermon. While Taylor is quite delicate in her choice of euphemism and manner of description, the message of this passage is quite clear: God is sexy. While Taylor witnesses this as evidence of “divine audacity,” this question raised more discomfort and speculation than affirmation when we discussed it in Sunday school class.

As Taylor takes us on a journey without much jargon into a joyful body-theology, I gratefully shed so much shame and blame from my decades of spiritual confusion concerning the very heartfelt and sometimes hurtful issues that this chapter addresses. From a very young age to only very recently, my own deep alienation regarding these core tenets of Christian mystery and revelation caused me great pain. A better understanding of a God who wore a body is deeply liberating to this middle-aged body.

It’s funny and fateful and not at all unusual that I’m nursing a particularly acute sports-related injury while writing these words about embodied spirituality. As my pain speaks to me, the glorious reality of a God cloaked in skin comforts me.

While I love the narrative of the cross, the crucifixion always confused and troubled me as perhaps a little too masochistic, the substitutionary side of the coin struck me as almost cruel and disgusting. I always “got” the political aspect of the cross as the radical statement of God’s solidarity with the executed criminal. But as I meditate on a Jesus who chose to wear skin, I see him renouncing the sin of not loving that skin by choosing to experience brutality and physicality of pain in such a way that He could embody empathy and compassion for all bodies everywhere, for generations past, present, and future, loving victims and executioners. It’s the experience of God dying, not the symbolism of it (whether subversive or substitutionary) that speaks to me today.

Of any example I can imagine in modern literature, Baby Suggs’s sermon in Toni Morrison’s bluesy, tragic novel Beloved perhaps captures the resurrected and liberated requirement of loving flesh best of all, as she reminds those whose flesh has been owned and disowned to shake off the shackles of self-hatred and shame.

In what Gerald Britt calls “an exhortation to victorious self-love, communal affirmation and the spirituality of personhood,” Baby Suggs preaches:

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed…What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give leavins instead. No they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it.”

“This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver - love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet… More than your life-holding womb and your live-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Souls in Pebbles (And the Angels That Shut My Mouth)

What’s more sacred—the painter or the painting? The poet or the poem? The singer or the song?

What empirical evidence do we have that God exists?

In An Altar in the World and its immediate prequel Leaving Church, with her crisp and compelling narrative voice, Barbara Brown Taylor conveys her earliest encounters with God, manifest and incarnate in the world around her.

Where and how does she meet the Presence with Reverence? In Leaving Church, she’s basking in a feral field, “happy on the black dirt,” so connected to the Creator-in-creation that “I cannot tell whether I am pressing down on the earth or the earth is pressing up on me.”

Her sensuous descriptions delight readers and defy logic. While she claims that she “had no religious language for what happened in that golden-lit field” nor “no picture in my mind of a fantastic-looking old man named God,” it’s obvious to her audience that she was born to a preacher’s poetics of a language that lights up pages and hearts with multiplying images of God, no matter how unconventional these might be.

In An Altar in the World, she’s resting on the deck in the middle of the night with nostrils full of coffee-and- tobacco-Daddy-smells, spellbound by the spangle of sky, studying the stars with a relational awe that strikes the core of us, and like our author, this first impression of infinity makes our stomachs flip.

In these passages, Taylor teaches us about an altar in the world, not an altar in the church. Taylor finds God on earth and in the heavens, not then, but now. She also feels reverent regarding “birth, death, sex, nature, truth, justice, and wisdom” and manages to throw in a line about pornography (in an analogy to define true reverence, mind you) and learning how to shoot and clean guns.

Such exuberant shattering naturalistic earthy immanence shakes me because of how accurately it corresponds to my own experience, but in reading this, I am also confronted with another unraveling revelation. In this entire second chapter, she never references the person of Jesus directly, except in the Eucharist bread and in the tiny reverence for a hazelnut of Julian of Norwich’s vision. God never gets too anthropomorphic. Polymorphic would be more accurate. Is this a pagan priestess or a Christian (former) priest we’re listening to?

So the God that Taylor touches in “night skies, oceans, thunderstorms, deserts, grizzly bears, earthquakes, and rain swollen rivers” is the God of the Bible and not of some New Age-Tree-Hugging-Hippy Occult or of some Pantheist, Buddhist, or Taoist perspective? Is this Bible-based-Jesus-loving Christianity or Yoda-and-The Force or the blue-bodied-3D-magical-mystery-tour of the movie Avatar?

While Taylor does talk about Moses, she’s more interested in the burning bush. The burning bush brings God into focus, breaks our routine, and forces “a time-out.” Taylor’s burning bush is a golden garden. What was yours? Do you remember it? Do you want to write, paint, or sing it out? Is God-in-nature? Or in your heart-and-mind? Does God have a face or facial hair? Is God masculine or feminine? Or both and neither?

Taylor teaches us fleetingly about Christ through the experience of a secular Jew called Simone Weil who became a Christian mystic and who “was drawn so strongly to the sacramental life of the church that her desire for baptism became almost overwhelming to her. Yet she declined to be baptized, saying that she could not seek her soul’s safety in any church that denied salvation to those who did not belong to it.” Rather than feasting at the communion table, Weil “strengthened her resolve to stay hungry with those who were hungry.” Weil’s witness of downward mobility, voluntary poverty, and unchurched Christianity forms a permanent Lent to protest against the social injustice of a world that still has Hitlers.

While Weil’s is a mysticism of fierce absence, Taylor’s exudes a fecund presence where she touches us with what it’s like to touch God in splashes of ecstasy where we get “the whole dose of loveliness at once.” But she also warns about taking more than our share of this legal dose of divine love; borrowing from Weil, she suggests that “eating beauty” (when beauty should only be looked at) is the devouring and devastating desire of “compulsive shoppers, promiscuous lovers, and petty thieves.” And I would add drug addicts and alcoholics to that list—we who cannot be content with mere contact with Spirit, who instead insist on consuming “spirits” without end, liver-damage-and-life-wrecking-blackouts-be-damned.

Taylor’s uncommon mysterious is also most common. She loves chicken but lives in chicken-production country. The fleshy details of feather or fragrance did not compel her to give up chicken but churned her towards “cooking it and eating it with unprecedented reverence.” Reverence sparkles, but it also stinks. It smells like war, addiction, and chicken barns. Reverence comes from both abundance and abstinence, from both Lent and Easter, from bad blisters and boundless bliss, but in every case, it bypasses blame for the God-shaped birthmarks and blemishes of blessing and bloom.

I will never forget the watershed moments in my spiritual journey when my fragile bag of skin got “plugged into” the life force of the universe that we choose to call God. My mountaintop moments are many, so it’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like for my brothers and sisters for whom the universe doesn’t pulse and pound with prescience and Presence.

From revelation to revelation, I did not escape alienation or disorientation. My experience of the electrified and animated world, lush with lust and love and light and life, led me not to church away from it, not to Christ but to a pantheistic and polytheistic neopaganism. I wish I could name a central theme to the magical communities in which I traveled on-and-off for 20 years, but it’s the distracting and disturbing lack of a center that finally led me to distrust my ability to discern between the divine and the demonic, so much so that you could say at some point that I’d “gone over to the dark side.”

Today, I am almost two years into my reconversion to Christ and am so grateful not only to Barbara Brown Taylor but to folks like Marcus Borg, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and my pastor Pat Handlson as well—for their works and witnesses have brought me to the vocabulary and vision of panentheism, a way to understand the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of God. Gratefully, nature mystics need not disavow earthy delight; we just need the comprehension of the incomprehensible—that our God is everywhere in the world yet is simultaneously more than the world, always visible and yet still invisible.

When I read Taylor, I am reminded of a few things—that I did not make the trees or my own heart, that I am not God. My reverence for the trees taps into the One who made the trees, so I that I defend but don’t worship the tree, better aligning my theology with our ecology. My sins included “eating beauty” instead of just gazing at it, but they also included confusing my will for God’s. The latter deception is the work of the Deceiver, and I would consider disabusing myself of “self will run riot” nothing short of an exorcism.

Seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing God in nature and the natural world—sensing the profound cosmic unity of Creator and creation—these sensory spiritualities were not na├»ve errors of my youth. These experiences attach themselves to the meaning of mystery as Taylor’s book makes abundantly clear. We experience God in everything, and everything or anything can be sacred, because wherever or whenever God goes—from the beginning to the end and to whatever comes before and after or above and below—God’s isness is. God’s that great, that vast, that good.

Rob Bell’s controversial new book Love Wins lavishes readers with beautiful, compelling, moving stories and images. Many resonated with my deepest yearning and understanding, including this one:

“[T]here are Christians who have raised support, gathered supplies, traveled thousands of miles into the farthest reaches of the globe to share the good news of Jesus with the ‘unreached people,’ who upon hearing of Jesus for the ‘first time,’ respond ‘That’s his name? We’ve been talking about him for years…’”

In reverence, Christ is the Christ of bread crumbs and sidewalk cracks, of misty dawns and death’s mystery, the One who, according to Bell, “will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.’” Bell reminds us that in the Old Testament Jesus shows up in the form of a rock, and Taylor tells us that mere pebbles have souls. I can imagine many of my younger faithful friends saying, “Jesus rocks,” but it took a famous and allegedly irreverent rock-and-roll preacher to teach me about the rock in Exodus 17 that is The Rock I Corinthians 10. I will never listen to the stones that shout in Luke 19 in the same manner again!

Taylor, I think, understands what Bell’s talking about when she discusses her friends whose reverence rejects religion because they see how it breeds “belief” (a softer word for dogmatic doctrine and imprisoning ideology) that ultimately breeds debate. These everyday mystics “do not want to debate anymore. The longer they stand before the holy of holies, the less adequate their formulations of faith seem to them. Angels reach down and shut their mouths.”

As long-winded and prolific as we American Christian writers and preachers are, I sometimes wonder if it’s only evidence of our lack of deep faith or excess of ideological belief or lack of authentic connection with the living God. Why don’t the angels reach down and shut our mouths (including the big mouths inside our rattling minds)? Is that when the real reverence might begin? I don’t know, but in the meantime, I am going to take Taylor’s advice and practice paying attention to the really big things that can best be seen in the really tiny things.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

There Is More

Good news: the spiritually starving don’t need to get greedy after God because there’s always more of the More—enough gorgeous God generosity to go around. Barbara Brown Taylor has written a beautiful book to give us more of the More, a book teeming with topics and tactics rooted in an inclusive epiphany and the “wonderful news” that we “do not have to choose between the Sermon on the Mount and the magnolia trees.”

To open An Altar In The World, Taylor dispenses with dualism in direct and poetic prose. Writing from a spiritual perspective that Marcus Borg defines in The God We Never Knew as Christian panentheism, Taylor reassures that we don’t have to pick between a God that is “out there” and a God that is “down here.” Even better, the God beyond but also in the world isn’t too picky about where or when to show us God.

Our author summarizes her purpose like this: “My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”

So in 12 chapters, Taylor teaches us 12 angles or avenues (not unlike 12 steps I suppose) by which we can participate in the personalist priesthood of our everyday lives, where we “recognize some of the altars in this world—ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”

By erasing the stark and often stultifying division between our spiritual sojourns and the rest of our lives, Taylor tempts us with a leveling that could lull is into Pollyannish complacency or propel us into courageous depths of the cosmic ocean we call life. I have already tried the former—living a laid-back, New Age spirituality where we forget prayer because: “like, hey, it’s all prayer, man.” Today, I have no choice but the constant prayer that Paul suggested, to dive into the defiant depths of everyday spirituality with a fierce focus—and I think it’s this most intentional kind of journey that Taylor invites us on.

When Barbara Brown Taylor recommends the everywhereness of God, she means it, from “the foothills of the Appalachians” to the “gravel of a parking lot,” so much so that she proclaims without a hint of restraint that “the whole world is the House of God.” When she attempts to name God, she speaks in the superlative and the sublime, the elusive and elastic, choosing phrases like “the Really Real,” “the Luminous Web That Holds Everything in Place,” or what perhaps might be her favorite, “the More.”

In helping us understand what he calls Christian panentheism, Borg catalogs this more—the many human and non-human images for God that we find in the Bible: king, lord, judge, lawgiver, potter, shepherd, wise woman, father, mother, lover, healer, friend, rock, fire, light, eagle, lion, bear, hen, cloud, wind, breath, fortress, shield. Above, below, in, and beyond this though, we meet a God that is reality itself—“pervading the universe as well as being more than the universe,” as Borg puts it.

Too often, we gravitate to the most anthropomorphic images of God in our repertoire (at the expense of the other God experiences available), choosing comforting familial or legalistically constitutional concepts that colonize the creator as our best and worst human aspects, as judge and jury or the forever masculinized dude and daddy.

The profoundly “premergent” theologian Paul Tillich touched “the More” of which Taylor speaks in his before-and-beyond-a-definition: the “ground of all being.” In Systematic Theology, Tillich writes, “[T]he question of the existence of God can neither be asked nor answered. It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being. As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings—the world. Being itself is beyond finitude and infinity.” This is not unlike the definition of God that master practitioner of centering prayer Thomas Keating calls “Isness without limits.”

Peter Rollins matches this moreness in his first emergent manifesto How (Not) To Speak Of God where he calls out as “conceptual idolatry” our tendency to always corral and categorize and make coherent what Rollins finds in Meister Eckhart as the “unnameable” and “omni-nameable” or “God standing beyond every name” and “God with a multitude of names.”

Rollins philosophical prose rocks us with the inexpressible, invisible, and inaccessible aspects of a God that is “bigger, better, and different” than our dualistic comprehension; Taylor reminds us that this invisibility beyond our “idolatrous concepts” is matched even more and then some by a manifest visibility in what we mistake as the commonplace and everyday, the impoverished and the foolish, the naturalistic and the material, the profane and the mundane.

Given these vast and visionary vocabularies, it’s amazing to me that we sometimes still want a downsized God we can post on billboards and bumperstickers or carry in our back-pockets with our debit cards, spare change, Wal-Mart receipts, and snapshots of everything from girlfriends to grandkids. (I am not being facetious – I keep pictures of Jesus everywhere, including in my wallet, and these really do comfort me).

But there’s another problem I want to put plainly, from the wellspring of wisdom teachings and multitude of sacred scriptures, we too often take the God that reflects our culture as opposed to the one that’s counterculture: Geico and Gimme God as Moral Contract, Sacred Commodity, And Afterlife Insurance Policy instead of the Generous God as Everything and of Everything (And Then Some) Love And Justice Prophecy.

Now, if the forever-father and patriarch-protector images comfort you more for their familiarity, keep them. They’re in the Bible. But that’s not all that’s in Bible. The prophet Isaiah preaches naked and without sandals for three years—that’s in the Bible. Noah gets drunk, passes out naked, wakes with a hangover, and puts a curse on his grandson Canaan—that’s in the Bible.

Misfits and weirdoes and freaks fill the Bible to the brim, but so does God’s unconditional and unfathomable love for the misfits and weirdoes and freaks, so much that God chooses misfit ministers all the time. When people point out that the Bible not only contains such crazies but also constantly contradicts itself, it always seems to me it’s meant either as a wake-up call to dogmatic fundamentalists or as a way to discredit the whole Judeo-Christian project.

But of course among us foolish believers, these kooky characters and compelling contradictions mean something else; they tell us that if God can choose a drunken Noah or a naked Isaiah or denying Peter or a doubting Thomas, God might also choose me or you. Regarding contradictions, Rollins remarks, “The interesting thing about all this is not that these conflicts exist but that we know they exist. In other words, the writers and editors of this text did not see any reason to try and iron out these inconsistencies.” The vast valleys and intricate intersections and momentous mountaintops of the text can be quite intimidating, but they also form a new grammar of grace, a kind of sentence where God is subject and object, adjective and verb.

Taylor confirms that when she set out “to learn and love” the Bible, she reads in “a way that trusts the union of spirit and flesh as much as it trusts the world to be a place of encounter with God.” She continues, “Like anyone else, I do some picking and choosing when I go to my holy book for proof that the world is holy too, but the evidence is there. People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the top of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers.”

When a handful of renegade Bay Area priests took Ash Wednesday to the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District with ashes to impose on strangers and placards promising “More Forgiveness,” they were overwhelmed with the spiritually hungry response as they ministered to workers in the taco joint and unkempt unrecovered drunks. One of the Ash Theater practitioners noted, “I never thought I’d be walking along the street censing trash cans and storefronts and so many people would come toward it.” And another added, “I think people might want a lot more church than we generally give them.”

I’m thrilled to commence this new study at the beginning of Lent and am really looking forward to delving deeper and deeper into this book and The Book over the coming weeks and discussing and sharing with others our encounters with the Ground of All Being, with the Isness Without Limits, with the More—and More and More and More.