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.