Christianity’s Next Stage

This week of Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit that launched the church, seems to me an especially appropriate time to consider new possibilities for what the practice of Christianity can be. An insightful book that helps in doing exactly that is Paul R. Smith’s Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve.

Sometimes the right book crosses our path at the right time, and for me this is just such a book—one that articulates a vision of a more inclusive and spiritually oriented church, at a time when I’m asking how church can be better at fostering spiritual growth, and what might help it in moving forward. It is written by a pastor who cares deeply about his own congregation and about the church at large.

Smith begins by looking at the stages of religious understanding, recognizing the gifts and strengths of each stage while noting the limitations to be overcome. Each level builds on and incorporates some of those previous understandings about God and faith, while moving toward greater spiritual insight. His description of these stages is available in a series of articles here.

He then looks at the ways in which we can experience the Divine—as God around us encompassing all of creation, as God beside us in close relationship, and God as a divine spark within. He then explores ways of seeking connection with the Divine, an experience available at every stage of spiritual development.

He sees Jesus as a model of what human life can be, exhibiting the divinity at the heart of human beings, and revealing how we can live when we transcend ego, connect with God, and live according to our true Christlike self. The Bible shows faithful people moving through various stages, being led by those with greater understanding and experience. The kingdom of God is a term for a higher stage yet, when we are better able to move beyond ordinary, everyday awareness and into the spiritual reality in which we are one with Christ and with each other.

Smith sees the church as a place to deepen our thinking about God, to heighten our experience of God, and to be transformed by how we see ourselves in connection with God. He takes seriously the mystical experiences described in the New Testament, which mainline churches such as mine tend to overlook. Thinking people are suspicious of such visions and visitations, associating manifestations of the spirit with distasteful public spectacles and primitive theology. Smith points out that experiences of God or visitations of the Holy Spirit can take many forms, some dramatic and some more subtle. What’s more, we interpret those experiences according to our various stages of understanding. Experience of God is not something that we outgrow, nor is it relegated only to religion that denies the value of reason. He quotes Karl Rahner as saying, “The Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic, or not a Christian at all.”

He sees the role of the church as helping and encouraging people to grow spiritually, both in understanding and experience of God. In a healthy church, the members are encouraged to grow into the next spiritual stage of understanding, and to experience increasing closeness to God. It is from this transformation that good works will emanate.

We are best able to love and serve others when we operate in a climate of health and wholeness within ourselves. We need the loving, healing presence of God, and the world needs the love and healing we can offer out of that experience. These are the most valuable things that the church can offer, the source of all good gifts that the church and its members can share with the world.

 

 

 

Jesus and Jerusalem

During Lent this year I’m thinking a lot about Jerusalem in the year 30 or so. I’m meeting once a week with a small group to talk about the last week of Jesus’ life and the events leading up to the crucifixion, and it turns out you can hardly make sense of the stories without knowing something about Jerusalem and the practice of Judaism. A good map and some background information on the city’s history and politics helps. A book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan called The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem is also a good resource.

 

Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover. Everyone did. The city of 80,000 swelled to a population three times its size during the festival. But why was Passover so important?

Some of us learned the story as children, but as an isolated and fantastical tale. To appreciate it we need to see the story within the bible’s overall narrative. In brief, God insisted that Moses lead the Hebrews out of their enslavement in Egypt. As Moses confronted Pharaoh, he brought down plagues on Egypt, demonstrating God’s power over Pharaoh and making the point that God’s people must be allowed to leave. There were frogs and locusts, boils and flies, and water turned to blood—ten plagues in all. Yet none convinced Pharaoh to allow the Hebrew slaves their freedom until God sent the final and most horrible plague.

The event that finally changed the fate of the Hebrews occurred with the final plague, which was the Passover.  The Hebrews were instructed to kill a lamb and ritually mark their door frames—the doorposts and lintel—with its blood. They were to roast the meat over a fire and prepare a meal to eat in haste. With no time for the dough to rise they were to bake unleavened bread, and be dressed to leave at a moment’s notice.

While the Hebrews were making their preparations, the Angel of Death was passing over the land, claiming the lives of the first-born sons throughout Egypt. Only those homes marked with the blood of the lamb were spared. As the cries rose from Egyptian households during the night, Pharaoh demanded that the Hebrews be gone.

The exodus that ensued was when Israel became a people. As they wandered in the wilderness they threw off their identity as slaves and formed a new nation. The Passover was an act of power that marked the Hebrews as God’s own people, singled out from those around them, and destined for their own unique place in history.

The celebration of Passover became a remembrance of what it meant to be God’s people, the heart of their religious identity. It remains such to this day. Perhaps the violence of the story is why we don’t dwell on it. We don’t want to think of God as sending an Angel of Death to anyone. Another discussion is the evolution in our understanding of how God operates.

What we have to remember if we’re trying to understand Jesus’ last week on earth, is that he was a faithful Jew. The scriptures he studied were the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures. The practices he followed were shaped by Jewish law and liturgy. The religion into which he tried to breathe new life was Judaism. He was called Rabbi—a teacher in the Jewish faith. His actions in Jerusalem in the days leading up to his death show his love of, identity with, and vision for God’s people.

If we care about the events leading up to Easter we need to understand that they are entwined with Passover and the practice of Judaism.

 

Following a Guiding Star

We’re approaching Epiphany on January 6—the twelfth day of Christmas, or “old Christmas” to some. I hear the word epiphany used mostly in the context of literature, probably because real-life epiphanies are rare. It means a flash of insight, a sudden revelation about the true nature of things. Something happens that triggers a new way of seeing things, a new level of understanding. A perspective that was previously unattainable suddenly becomes the new reality.

Photograph from the Hubble Telescope

 

Epiphany as a holiday, or holy day, recalls the story of the Magi from the East who, in seeing a new star at its rising, discerned that a very special child was born. The child’s star was such a powerful sign it moved them to set out on a long journey, following the star as it led them to see for themselves the hope that had come into the world. When the star stopped over the place where the child was, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw him with his mother, Mary, then knelt before him. Their appearance honored his singular fate as they offered him precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Who couldn’t use an epiphany? We stand in need of a higher mind, a broader perspective. Or at least an idea we haven’t thought of before. Both individually and collectively, we live with conflict that seems irresolvable. One worthwhile goal can undermine another. Resources are limited but needs go on and on. The realities of life don’t fit together in a way that makes sense. How can a king be born in a stable? How can one who dies on a cross be a savior?

Carl Jung taught that learning to live in the dualities that life deals us is how we grow. We’re pressed to develop a broader view that somehow encompasses both. But there’s nothing comfortable about it. When we can acknowledge the individual value of those things that exist in tension, rather than rejecting one or the other out of hand, there are no simple answers. But in living with that complexity, rather than forcing an artificial simplicity, we become better, deeper, more thoughtful, more compassionate people.

As we move toward Epiphany, and into the new year, what kind of guiding star are we following? What is the vision that calls us to lift our gaze upward, above the daily routines, to cross the desert and move toward hope? What do we need to see for ourselves that will give life meaning? These questions aren’t easy, either. But in asking them perhaps we invite the possibility of Epiphany.

As Summer Ends

We had a cool snap here in Central Kentucky this weekend. Combine that with the start of school coming up and we’re on notice that here in the fullness of summer, fall will be upon us soon. Not that it comes as a surprise, but every year it takes more than store mannequins dressed in wool for the reality to sink in.

 

 

Another summer is slipping away, but I’m holding onto the fragrance of rosemary under the afternoon sun for as long as I can. Time passes but when it’s infused in red wine vinegar, thyme can linger a while.

How was your summer? It’s a natural enough question to ask during a season of transition. But there’s another question behind that one. What was your summer? Did it bring what you hoped for? Did you plant a garden—literally or figuratively? Did it thrive? What did it yield? Did you learn something, do something, enjoy something? Did you fight weeds, endure drought, manage to keep something alive?

For those who preserve their garden’s abundance, rows of canning jars or packet-laden freezers mark the summer’s accomplishments in a tangible way. I’m making herb vinegars this year, but summer’s end is more a matter of stocking the psyche’s pantry for the months ahead. It’s been good to spend time with those I love, pursue creative work, and clear out some clutter. I hope to keep those fruits of the season with me, and I hope you have a harvest to enjoy as well.

Is there anything else to do before summer ends? What shall we take on this fall?

Making Room for Joy

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for Joy. This is the meditation I wrote to read in worship this morning.

At the hour before sunrise, in the subtle turn from night to day, the world that was cloaked in darkness  gradually comes into view. Forms in the distance are hardly recognizable, then silhouettes gain definition: a mountain, a tree, a ship on the horizon. The stars begin to fade in that gray light—a loss, yes, though necessary if we’re to greet a new day. Soon even the brightest planets give way, but in the half-light of early dawn we keep watching, waiting, for something more. Then the sky begins to warm, the rosy color rising from the East until it brings life to everything it touches, from the dome of the heavens above to the glow of our own skin. Morning. The golden sun. Joy.

Joy is not ours to command. We watch for it, make room for it, and feel gratitude when it arrives—a heart-opening presence, a gift from God. It can color the world like the sky at sunrise, or condense to the flame of a single candle that sees us through the night. Joy can feel like the most natural thing in the world, or the most elusive. Its light shines out in a shared laugh or a thoughtful gesture. We know joy in the experience of beauty, or when we offer our best and find that it pulls us into the flow of life.

The angels heralding Christ’s birth bring to us, even now, tidings of great joy. They have amazing news of how much we matter, how near God is, and how blessed life can be. May we turn toward those glad tidings, asking that God prepare our hearts and our lives to receive God’s life-giving joy.

Susan Christerson Brown

 

The Upheaval of Early Spring

It’s been a volatile early Spring this year. Every time I relax into believing the growing warmth has arrived for good, chill winds argue otherwise. It’s a changeable, unsettling season. Daffodils wilt in the cold, pansies wither in the heat, followed by days of cold rain and dreariness. Meanwhile, storms are tearing across the country—150 tornadoes just in the past three days. The transition from Winter toward Summer is wrenching, unpredictable, as transitions can often be.

Spring brings more than a season’s worth of change, it seems. A couple of calendars I’ve come across lay out the year in six seasons, rather than four, which makes a lot of sense to me.

J.R.R. Tolkien gave the elves in his Lord of the Rings trilogy six seasons. He added a season called Ending of Summer, and one in early Spring called Stirring, which I think is a perfect name.

Naturalists studying the Melbourne, Australia area propose six or even seven seasons. They’re represented here on a beautifully drawn wheel. Some divide what we call Spring into Pre-spring or Early Spring and True Spring, and divide Summer into High Summer and Late Summer. Others retain Summer and divide winter into Early Winter and Deep Winter.

The Hindu calendar also includes six seasons—Monsoon comes after Summer, and Prewinter follows Autumn.

Dividing the year into sixths feels quite different from our usual division into quarters. Four is solid and stable—the four sides of a square, four points of a compass, four legs of a table. It feels complete and unmoving.

Representations of six have a different sense—a pie cut in six wedges, a six-pointed star, a wheel with six spokes. These are images that suggest motion. The eye continually travels around them, which is appropriate for representing the cyclical nature of the earth and the seasons.

The continuing cycle represents our own growth as we persevere through our lives, gathering energy for many buds and blooms, yielding multiple harvests, and accepting the end of countless growing seasons.

As regular as the seasons are, they are ever fluid, moving toward the next thing. They never rest in the sense of having arrived. What appears to us as the fullness of any season is simply the momentary place that the continual motion has brought about.

Early Spring is a reminder of this. There is always this much going on; upheaval is always happening. This time of year it’s just easier to see.

What kind of transition is Spring bringing for you this year?

It’s Not Too Late to Enter Lent

We’re a week into Lent, but it’s not too late to think about a Lenten observance if you haven’t already. At the service I attended on the evening of Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, the thing I heard that struck me most was, “At the end of Lent we will be different.”

It’s true. When we take up some kind of spiritual discipline for Lent, we will be changed. We can be sure that in knocking on that door, it will be opened to us. That’s the reason to enter into these forty days of spiritual focus—a period of time long enough to foster real growth yet limited enough keep from being too daunting.

Even a simple observance over the period of these weeks leading to Easter can make a difference. I’ve written about some ideas for that in the post, “Small, Gentle Ideas for Observing Lent.”

I’m exploring different kinds of prayer this Lenten season. This week I’m immersed in the psalms. Simply reading a psalm every day, slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, can be a rich Lenten observance. Especially if you understand the enemies and foes mentioned there as being your own personal demons.

At my church we’re exploring the subject of prayer during Lent, in classes and in worship.  Our senior minister is talking about prayer during his sermons over the next few weeks; his first in the series is about the power of simple prayers and how there is no “right way” to pray. He mentions Anne Lamott’s writing about the two best prayers she knows: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  You can listen to his March 13 sermon, “Prayer: What’s the Point?” here.

Finding a way to pray, or perhaps even a new way to pray, over these weeks of Lent seems to me like a way of inviting transformation. But whatever we choose, taking on a Lenten discipline is not so much a matter of buckling down as a way of opening up.

It’s not too late. What would you like to find on this journey?

Breakfast Stirrings

Most mornings this winter I’ve enjoyed oatmeal for breakfast. The kind that cooks on the stove is worth the effort for me, even though it means an extra pot to wash. Served warm with dried cranberries and a little brown sugar, a few chopped walnuts stirred in, it’s a healthy and comforting brace against a cold morning.

But with the welcome respite we’re having from winter in Central Kentucky right now, I can hardly bear the thought of another bowl of oatmeal. All winter I’ve loved it; now I’m sick of it. Maybe it’s really cold weather I’m weary of, but the guilt by association persists.

Poor oatmeal. A steady companion all these bleak months and now I don’t want it in my sight. Don’t need that remnant of the winter doldrums. It’s hardly fair. I just opened a tall new cylindrical box and it may be next winter before I finish it.

Fresh fruit! Whole wheat toast! Even cold cereal sounds better. Yogurt! Or smoothies! So many possibilities on a sunny spring-like morning. It’s spring fever at the breakfast table.

If the pangs over ignoring my faithful oats grow unbearable, I’ll make them into cookies.

What kind of change are you looking for?

The Red River Gorge at Nightfall

I had a chance to visit the Red River Gorge over the holidays—a brief but beautiful drive with my family on the return trip from a Christmas visit.

We arrived at dusk, knowing our time was limited but wanting to see all we could before dark. The main road was snow-covered and a new snow had fallen, softening the landscape and offering up each bare tree and dark evergreen in clear contrast against the field of white.

It was immensely quiet there. The trees closed overhead and the light faded as we wound down to the river. As night began to fall, the snow reflected what little light remained. It held off the darkness, creating the sense of a moment outside of time in an otherworldly place.

Robert Frost’s words kept echoing through my mind: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Gazing into awe, I was humbled by the power and mystery of this life.

The Gorge, a place of dramatic beauty, sits right off the highway. We usually drive by it on our way to somewhere else. But stopping by those woods on that snowy evening was a memory, and perhaps even a glimpse of eternity, to hold for a long time.

Have you had a glimpse of the eternal?

How to Welcome the New Year

I love the fresh start of the New Year. It’s usually a time of introspection for me, a chance to look back at events and changes in the previous year, and to dream and plan for the new one.

Lots of people are doing a great job of sharing their approach to that work this year. Christine Kane lays out a promising technique for using a single word as a beacon for the year. You can find the link to her free download describing the process here. Bradley J. Moore at Shrinking the Camel has a great post on setting goals that spur growth here. If you’re interested in specific, entirely do-able actions to take now to help in reaching goals for the year, Marelisa Fabrega has a wealth of ideas here.

This year I find myself less able to dwell in the dreaming and visioning space that I associate with year’s end. I miss it, but what I’m drawn to instead is the physical task of clearing out all kinds of work spaces throughout the house.

I’ve filed months of papers and notes accumulated from the year’s various projects, tossed old files, taken bags of donations to Goodwill, and I’m about to get to the bottom of a very old pile of ironing. Yes, it’s tedious and exhausting. But it needs to be done and it’s satisfying enough that I keep going.

I do have in mind work I want to accomplish in the coming year. At the very least I’m clearing space to do that work. On another level, I’m purging the clutter that encroaches not only on my house but on my self. Clear space, perhaps, will help with clear thinking. Room to work, perhaps, will make room for action.

So this is another way—a workmanlike way—of preparing to welcome the New Year. Not with resolutions, but with a certain kind of resolve.

Happy New Year!

How is the spirit moving you to greet this New Year?