Honestly Facing the Darkness

During the Festival of Faiths a few weeks ago in Louisville, Kentucky, Pastor Mike McBride posed a question that remains with me. He asked: Where is it that we have gone wrong as a culture in our theological formation of people?

Three Streams


It’s an essential question, asking religion to take a long look at its own shadow. The church has come to be seen as condoning questionable ethical, spiritual, and moral conduct. And for those who reject religion because of the darkness in it, the question remains for other cultural institutions and for the individual: What dark part of ourselves are we being invited to bring into the light for healing?

At the heart of this life, our soul’s journey is supported by a deep foundation of compassion. At the base of everything that is, is love. Love gives us the courage to look into the darkness and compassion gives us the strength to bring it into the light. That’s how we find healing and wholeness.

I’m looking within, asking whether I have been part of feeding the darkness. I’m holding in mind what is required of me: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in the presence of the divine source of all life. Asking about my part in the institutions of our culture is more difficult, as is finding my role in bringing about change. But if we currently have the system we have asked for, then let me be clear. I’m asking for change.

Let us keep before us the ideal of a culture where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

 

 

 

 

The Stories that Feed Us

I’ve been thinking lately about what faith is, as practiced in community. And about the tension in religious life between nurturing faith and acting for social justice. Not that they’re opposed—they are yin and yang, a union of opposites. The truth, the full picture, transcends each and holds them together. Each at its fullest point gives way to the other, requires the other to continue, loses meaning without the other, whether in the life of an individual or a community.

Herbs on Serving Platter

But where do we put our energy? Feeding the hungry matters, but it matters both physically and spiritually. Soup kitchens and food boxes meet basic needs, but the spirit’s needs are essential as well. The world is hungry in a thousand ways. People must have food, but they are starved for meaning, for hope, for beauty and peace. We cannot live by bread alone.

This week’s radio show, On Being, is an interview with Avivah Zornberg, who explores biblical stories through the Jewish tradition of midrash. She makes the insightful observation that faith is about asking better and better questions.

During the seder meal in the Jewish celebration of Passover, the practice of asking and answering questions is part of the sacred ritual. Children at the table see unusual and interesting foods, placed before them in part to invite questions. Why is this night different from other nights? Why are we eating these herbs tonight? A child’s simple question echoes through layers of experience in the minds of the adults. We need more than simple answers as life goes on, but we continue to ask why.

In the Seder ritual, the answer to the child and to the adults as well, comes through story. There is richness in that kind of teaching. Open spaces with room for exploration are made present in the world of a story. There is wisdom in demonstrating to the young that when people gather around the things that matter, we create a place and a time for questions.

Those early questions usually have answers. Children need information; stories are literal. But when the information comes in the form of stories, the answers invite more wondering, more questions, as time goes on.

The true teachings may be less about what can be known than about the stories that shape our lives, and the questions we’re invited into. A story changes as we inhabit it, and we are changed, too. I wish I had understood this better when my children were young, but we’re all still learning. Still asking questions.

A Gift Just for Showing Up

If I hadn’t had a role to play in the service today, I would have skipped church. With family visiting all too briefly from out of town, another cup of coffee together sounded like a better plan. But since I was needed there I drove to church instead, listening to NPR on the way.

I’ve resisted the anniversary observances of 9/11 this year, wanting to avoid dwelling on the suffering in that event and the dismay at what has transpired since then. But the reminders are everywhere this weekend, and this morning’s coverage left me feeling the weight of the past ten years.

I found myself thinking that if I had to be going anywhere I was glad it was to church. If nothing else, I was glad to be offering up the events and emotions of this anniversary with others, as part of a service that makes remembering more bearable and perhaps even more meaningful because it is shared.

As I waited in back to follow a cherubic acolyte up the aisle during the opening hymn, I had a vision of the sanctuary I had never experienced before. The glass walls at the back of the sanctuary caught the light in just the right way to reflect the trees in the garden behind the church.

The reflection of their trunks blended with the wood of the pews on the other side of the glass, so that the trees seemed to have taken root in the sanctuary. A canopy of green appeared to shelter the worshipers and the center aisle was like a tree-lined garden walk. As a breeze lifted the branches and rustled the leaves outside, the reflected movement seemed an image of the holy spirit, stirring gently among the congregation.

Knowing I couldn’t possibly do justice to the scene, I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo anyway, just to help me remember. It’s the picture you see here, the photographic equivalent of an illegibly scribbled note.

I’ve written about trees in a church before—something I find to be a meaningful symbol. That’s why this scene of a worship service overlaid with the life of a garden felt like a gift. In the fullness of late-summer growth, brought to life by a gentle wind, the reflected image of the trees spoke of suppleness and fruitfulness, deep roots and new branches, life and hope.

At its best, that’s what a church is all about. And because I showed up today, I was able to experience a reminder of the good that can come from people gathering together. On today, of all days, I’m glad I was there.

I’ll leave you with a verse from the opening hymn we sang:

Yes, on through life’s long path,
still singing as you go,
from youth to age, by night and day,
in gladness and in woe
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing.

 

 

 

Green and Growing Faith

The power of ceremony and ritual was evident in the British royal wedding this weekend. It offered a wealth of archetypal images—of union and strength, new beginnings and promise, grandeur and reverence. Many of its elements seemed straight out of a fairy tale. But what I keep remembering is the sight of English Field Maples lining the aisle inside Westminster Abbey.

It was lovely to see life that was fresh, green, and growing inside a sacred space a thousand years old. We have a need for the sturdy structures of the church and its traditions. They can help us contain and interpret the most important moments of our lives. Ideally, religious rituals and teachings help lift our joys to the light and bear us up under the weight of our sorrows. But to fulfill their role to the fullest those practices must meet our lives, and the culture and climate in which we live them, in a meaningful way.

For this to happen we must take responsibility for engaging with the traditions and leaders of the church. We need the courage to express our genuine questions, needs, longings, and aspirations. And at the same time, the church needs to respond with openness, granting a blessing upon our willingness to wrestle with angels in the dark. Where this is possible, the church will be a shelter for green and growing faith that transforms the world. But where we just go through the motions, all that remains is ritual drained of life.

The church helps us live into the truth that our lives are part of something greater than ourselves. But the trees in the abbey speak a message as well: the church is charged with fostering something more important than its traditions; its role is to foster life.

What can we do to live a green and growing faith, and to help build a church that fosters it?

 

 

A Prayer at Easter

 

When the cup we hold is bitter
and its weight heavy to bear
May we look to the One who sustains us
in whom all things work for good.

When we lose our way in the dark
and the night is filled with fear
May we remember that love upholds us
and find strength renewed by the dawn.

And when we find that loss and sorrow
draw us to the tomb
May messengers of life and hope
roll away the stone.

 

May your Easter season bring the gift of life that blooms anew.

 

Winter Solstice and Rebirth

We’ve reached the Winter Solstice, shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, bookended by the longest nights. Oh my. Last night brought a lunar eclipse as well, though the heavy cloud cover discouraged me from getting up in the middle of the night to watch.

I’ve observed other eclipses of the moon, fascinated to see the shining orb slowly overtaken by shadow. In spite of understanding the phenomenon, it’s an emotional experience to see it happen. There is a kind of visceral drama in its disappearance and the wait for that first sliver of its return.

The eclipse is similar to the drama of the winter solstice, but in condensed form. The light slowly disappears and we anxiously await its return. As with every kind of darkness, we need the gift of faith and the reassurance of ritual to make it through.

The sun at its farthest point from us, the winter just beginning, we have a long way to go. For the most part we accept the rhythm of the seasons, adjust to the routines shaped by shorter days and longer nights. And in celebrating the completion of these longest nights we know that this, too, shall pass.

The light returns incrementally, but the cumulative effect of those small changes transforms the seasons. Tomorrow the earth and sun begin their course toward summer—a marvelously hopeful thought, however long the journey may be.

It has me thinking of the power of committing to steady movement in a particular direction over time. Apparently it’s natural to remember that this time of year. The rebirth of the sun through the Winter Solstice, the rebirth of divinely inspired possibilities for human life through Christmas, the rebirth of the year and all that it contains through New Year’s—the idea of renewal is a thread weaving through all these holidays. Here in the dark of winter is energy toward rebirth. Hallelujah!

What kinds of new possibilities might be germinating in the dark?

Reflecting the Season’s Light

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

The most recent place I heard this question asked was in a department store, appropriately enough. It’s a conversation opener this time of year, a December version of “How are you doing?” Behind the question looms a checklist of things to accomplish for the celebration to be complete.

A friend with three children looked at her calendar a few days ago and realized that her family had so many scheduled activities there were only two nights free between now and Christmas. She wasn’t complaining, just gearing up for the pace set by the intersection of family and holidays.

Here in the Northern hemisphere the days have grown short, night falls early, and we try to keep too busy to notice. We lean into our Christmas celebrations like plants growing toward the sun. We’re drawn to outdoor displays of light, Christmas trees twinkling, and candles glowing. Ornaments and wrappings made to reflect the light shine out from every corner.

Of course we’re drawn toward warmth, light, and joy. We look forward to the gatherings, performances, and rituals of the season. They dispel the dark. We follow the star this time of year, keenly aware of our need for the Light of the World.

The liturgical year sets aside these weeks leading up to Christmas and gives the season its own name—Advent. It is a season of anticipation.

Advent is not about creating Christmas, it’s a time of preparing for something beyond our ability to bring about. In the darkest time of the year comes a new birth, the renewal of life and of light. We honor it with our celebrations, but that spirit of new beginnings is more powerful than anything we can make. It’s the gift of life and growth, which begins in the depths beneath the surface of the earth, or of our lives.

Our celebrations are like the ornaments reflecting light. We can make the world brighter, better, even more merry. But it’s not up to us to generate the light. It’s good to remember that we only have to reflect Christmas; it’s not our job to create it. Knowing that makes it easier to lighten up.

What brings the season’s light to you?

Working with Stones

I’m fascinated by the limestone fences that line the Central Kentucky landscape. Constructed without mortar by skilled builders, many of whom were itinerant Irish and Scottish masons, they can endure for centuries. The Dry Stone Masonry Conservancy teaches this almost-lost art to local masons, preserving and spreading the knowledge that allows the old rock fences to be repaired and maintained in the original way, as well as new ones built.

To study a section of stone fence is to appreciate the depth of attention brought to the work. Rough and irregular stones are layered without gaps, as if each settled naturally into its place according to its nature. Even the smallest stone is an integral part of the whole, filling a space that would otherwise weaken the structure. Made of limestone from the surrounding fields, the fences come from the land and fit easily into the landscape. They were built from the necessity of working with materials at hand. They belong.

Labor and skill are apparent in these old stone fences, but so is a sense of reverence for the world as it is. The builders worked with the nature of the stones, so that the textured unity of the fence is not imposed through conformity but coaxed from diversity. The strength and beauty of a rock wall comes from working with what is given, carefully determining the placement of each piece so that is part of a cohesive whole. Nothing is forced; every stone is different. Yet put together in the right way the stones yield a structure that is beautiful, cohesive, and strong. Each stone lends its strength to something that endures.

The building method works because the stones are different shapes. They don’t just sit side by side, they fit into each other. Scattered across the ground, the stones don’t look like building material. They’re just rocks. They suggest nothing of the potential seen by a mason. But placed by a master builder, they become part of something beautiful and enduring.

In the same way, it can be hard to see what the scattered parts of our lives add up to. Sometimes we lack the perspective on our selves, or on our communities, to see anything more than a rocky field. At those times it helps me to remember that I’m not the mason. In spite of everything I try to do and learn and accomplish and create, there is only so much improvement of myself or the world that I can bring about under my own power. But there is a master builder who has the vision to make something good of my life and its odd-shaped elements, and of this world and its rough-edged inhabitants. There is good work in progress.

What helps give you a builder’s perspective?

Return from a Dark Journey

I cannot imagine what the Chilean miners emerging from almost ten weeks trapped underground have been through, and it’s almost unbearable to try. But now they are returning to the world, one at a time, through a long narrow portal that they must travel alone. As some commentators have remarked, they are being reborn.

Alberto Segovia, brother of Dario Segovia, one of 33 miners trapped underground in a copper and gold mine, picks up a rosary as he prays outside the mine in Copiapo

The ingenuity and skill, the expertise and determination, the sheer will and powerful life force driving the rescue efforts are heroic. The images of that first rescue pod reaching the chamber deep underground where the miners waited are a visceral experience. The elemental symbolism in this amazing story holds the archetypal images of life itself, male and female, which have resonated throughout the ages.

Yet even with the images we see from underground, each miner emerges from a mystery. We see the opening of the rescue shaft leading from that dark chamber under the earth, and wonder at where he has been and what he has experienced. He steps out of the Fenix capsule to applause and warm embraces, returning to the life to which he belongs. But surely he is changed.

NASA’s experience in outer space has helped facilitate the care of the miners throughout their confinement, but theirs is an experience of inner space like nothing we’ve known before. The world watches anxiously as each returns, asking if it is possible for yet another man to have made the journey back from such an ordeal. We draw reassurance from every sign that they are intact—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And we want to share in some part of their journey, to learn from them.

What does it mean to be given life in this world, to be born or reborn? Saints and mystics have sought answers in different ways for centuries. Seekers on vision quests, walkabouts, or spiritual retreats continue to ask for understanding. These Chilean miners may not have sought to make a trek into the darkness within the earth and within themselves, but they have made the journey forced upon them. Reporters tell us that poetry and music, faith and love, have allowed them to endure and help them to sort out their experience.

One of the rescued miners, Mario Sepulveda, said of the experience that it wasn’t a matter of being tested by God, because that’s not how God works. But that life holds difficult experiences, of which this has been the most difficult for him. Yet he was glad it had happened to him, because of how he has been affected by it. “It was a time to make changes,” he said. “I was with God, and I was with the devil. And God won.” He said that it was God’s hand that he took, and that was how he made it through.

What are we learning from the journey we’re sharing with them?

Photo by Ivan Alvarado of Reuters http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38587487

What is Religion?

Preparing to teach a college class in religion has me asking the question, What is religion? In the context of a particular faith we can invoke the music, stories, ritual, and symbols that shape its identity, but the general question about the nature of religion is harder to address. What do people have in common when they practice religion?

Scholars trace the word religion to the Latin religare, which means to bind fast or connect, having to do with humans and gods. It contains the same root as ligament or ligature. So we can say that religion binds together the natural world and the realm of the spirit. It also connects those who share the same faith with one another, and it connects the various aspects of an individual’s life within a worldview that helps to make sense of one’s experience.

Inspired by Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God, we might say that religion is the practice of bringing our hearts and minds to an attempt to live, along with others, in the awareness of the greater reality. It means concerning ourselves with what is really real. Mircea Eliade, in Patterns in Comparative Religions, also invokes the sense of ultimate reality when he says that “Sacredness is, above all, real.”

Religion is based in the experience of its founders and their encounter with this ultimate reality. It offers a framework for those who follow, helping them to understand and perhaps to experience the divine in a similar way. It also allows a community to grow around that shared understanding and experience.

Whether we view it positively in terms of community or more negatively as an institution, religion is an aspect of the collective. For better or worse, it’s what we do together in an attempt to find meaning.

Yet according to Joseph Campbell in Thou Art That, “Carl Jung says that one of the functions of religion is to protect us against the religious experience. That is because in formal religion, it is all concretized and formulated. But, by its nature, such an experience is one that only you can have. As soon as you classify it with anybody else’s, it loses its character.”Campbell accurately points out the tension between the needs of the individual and those of the group, a tension found not only in formal religion but in any group, from the family to the nation.

In my own experience, I find that religion at its best grows out of spiritual life. The spiritual heart of religion, as I understand it, is the desire to live in relationship with what might be called the Divine. Ideally, everything we do begins with that.

The religious community that I know well is the church, which is made up of all kinds of people at different places in their faith journey. Some of them would agree that spiritual life is the heart of their experience of church, others are mainly focused on the work informed by it. But over time, through discussions and worship experiences, from friendships and shared work, the church offers a place for all people to cultivate richer and more meaningful lives. At its best, and in spite of its worst, the church offers both challenge and encouragement to grow in myriad ways. From what I know of them, this is the way of other faiths as well. Religion can offer a framework in which to shape a life with greater meaning and joy.

What do you understand religion to be?