My Jesus Question

My Jesus Question

jesus-question-copy So…I’m considering this question.  I work at a church and there are a lot of things a church might be about.  But in my mind one of those things, maybe the most important thing…but maybe not (I’ll grant that possibility to someone that might have a better answer)…is to better follow Jesus.

I’m submitting this question to whomever might choose to read this little post.  I’m not necessarily looking for public comments (although they are welcome).  I’m not interested in laying a guilt trip on anyone.  I’m not wanting to convert anyone on this post.  I’m simply asking this question of myself and inviting others to consider it as well.  Grace and peace.

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It Might Have Been Otherwise

It Might Have Been Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs

It might have been

otherwise…

—Jane Kenion, Otherwise

It’s a rainy Tuesday and I’ve been awake listening to the soggy morning that awaits, dreading getting out in it.  But, I picked up Garrison Keillor’s compilation, Good Poems, turned to page 25 and read Jane Kenion’s  Otherwise.   It’s a poem that is at once true, familiar and inspiring.  It lives up to Keillor’s criterion of “good poem”.  I get a warm feeling and decide I’ll write a little blog post about it and then leap into the morning.

And then…all of a sudden…it bludgeons me with it’s truth.  It’s sort of like turning on the TV expecting to see “Love It Or List It” or ” Fixer Upper” and instead there are malnourished children or refugees huddled around a burning barrel.  I walk away from Otherwise feeling guilty to actually be walking on those two strong legs, to be drinking hot coffee, to
be sitting in a dry and warm single family dwelling.  It might have been otherwise you know! (I’ve recently been told this is the guilt of a Democrat.)

Sigh…road

So, the matter at hand is that I have a new
day in front of me.  Another day to live life.  It’ll be made up of decisions large and/or small, thoughtful and/or thoughtlessly reflexive. The sum of these decisions will bring me to the end of this day some 16 or 17 hours from now.  I’ll be proud of some.  possible regret some others.  And still more of these decisions will be totally forgotten in
the blur of the routine busyness this day will bring.

My spiritual practice today will be to be more deliberate with my time.  To be more grateful, more conscious of my decisions and the sum of their results.  It could be otherwise.

We praise you with joy, loving god, for your grace is better than life itself.  You have sustained us through the darkness, and you have blessed us with life in this new day.

—The Psalm Prayer at Morning Prayers, The Upper Room Worship Book

 

Christianity After Religion

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In her Acknowledgments at the end of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass says, “These pages are my long-considered answers to questions a book and a teacher raised during my senior year in college.”  Christianity After Religion is one of those books that took me a long time to read.  Not because it was difficult, but because it required me to look at questions that have lingered around my faith and life for years.

Raised in a very religious home, faith has always been an integral part of my everyday life.  It was not merely a program to be consumed a couple times a week at our local church.  It was giving thanks at every meal.  It was hearing the Bible read each night as we gathered in my parents’ bedroom.  Those readings closed with us all kneeling beside the bed and expressing prayers to God. The church of my youth taught me that when some tenet of that faith was challenged by culture or science or another doctrine, the first response was defensive because the challenge seemed to attack the very foundations of all the provided meaning and purpose for every aspect of my life.  Religion had been framed as a no-holds-barred death-match…winner-take-all.

There was a point about 12 years into my vocational ministry that this framework made absolutely no sense to me.  My denomination had been embroiled in religious/theological/cultural battles for 20 years and the lines that were drawn between the sides didn’t seem to be significant or substantial enough to justify the carnage being wrought between good and faithful people (Diana Butler Bass has a wonderfully succinct description of this battle on page 233).  It was for damn sure draining my very soul.  A journal entry I made during that time simply said, “God, if you’re there, cool.  If you’re not, cool.”  I had had enough.

During that time, my family was a part of a community of faith that seemed to be a refuge from the battles…a spiritual DMZ so to speak.  No doubt, our congregation was labeled by those in the fight, but my pastor, Dr. Larry Taylor, and the good people of that community had remained true.  There was something different for me about that place.  These people were not sheltered by any means and if pressed for a position on the issues of the day, whether religious or political, you would get an impassioned and well reasoned opinion from anywhere on the continuum of possibilities.  But, we were ultimately followers of Jesus in a place called Emmanuel Baptist Church and that community was more important and life giving than any one political/theological position.

When looking back, I recognized that I had experienced this same type of community in a couple of places before.  In the Baptist Student Union at LSU led by Frank Horton, and in the college department of First Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, led by Anne and Jack Lord.  Rather than soul-sucking battles for “truth”, I found life-giving and transformative spiritual community.  It was in these communities of my college days that I felt a call to vocational ministry.  And it was Emmanuel Baptist Church that helped salvage that call from the hubris of denominational leaders seeking to tear apart such communities in the name of their particular versions of truth.

By the time I reached Chapter 7 and read Diana Butler Bass’ description of The Great Reversal, I recognized she was describing those communities from my past.  These were not utopian by any stretch.  But when taken as a whole, my experiences in those places were lived examples of belonging, behaving, believing (in that order).  Butler Bass’ connecting this vision of community with spiritual awakening was exactly the appropriate link to make and her practical actions of “prepare, practice, play & participate” placed the lofty aspirations of such an awakening on the solid ground of experience and tangible action.

Christianity After Religion has become a foundational book for me.  I’ll read it again and, with difficulty, will attempt to find more space for notes and thoughts in it’s margins.  I recommend it very highly.  And I recommend you take your time.  It’s not a “page-turner” and I mean that in the absolute best sense of that term.

wandering around the routine in bare feet

Back in my Collegiate Ministry days, one of the first things discussed at the beginning of each year by our student leadership team was our theme for the year.  There was usually a quote or a scripture passage and then logos and t-shirt designs would follow.  One of my very favorite t-shirts emerged from that process during the 1995-96 academic year at Louisiana College.  “Shoeless” was all that was printed on the front of the shirt.  The image  to the right was on the back.  It proved to be very popular.  (Those are Scott’s feet…I didn’t want to know how he stood on the copier)

(True story: A group of students and I attended a Rich Mullins concert in Lafayette, LA that year.  We hung around afterward so people could get some autographs.  One of the students came to me (Lori) and said, “Rich Mullins wants your shirt!”  I walked over to the merchandise table where he was busy signing things and he said, “Can I have your shirt?” My response was, “Uh…sure…uh…I’ll send you one.”   Mullins: “no…that one…I’ll trade you…you can have one of these.”  Simultaneously awkward and cool moment.)

The quote is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “Aurora Leigh”.  It seems to turn up often in EBB quotes. ( I’ve used it about almost 4 years ago on this blog).

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries

Your assignment…if you choose to accept it:  Take off your shoes!  This can be figuratively or literally.  Look around for the holy ground we so easily pass right by without ever noticing!  Don’t let this day be chained and defined by a dry and godless routine.  Be aware…God will begin to become evident in surprising places and people. You might even be one of those common bushes for someone else. (share you’re burning bush stories below)

PEACE!

WIFI Prayers and Hugs Withheld

My last post focused on the hopeful tone evident at this year’s US Conference on AIDS in Chicago.  While there is still much work to be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the end of the epidemic is actually a realistic possibility.  However, with these consecutive posts, I want to be careful and not overstate my own role in this battle against the epidemic.  I’ve merely attended a conference and worked a booth a couple of times.  I’m NOT a hero here.  But I was fortunate to be in the company of several hundred people who are…people who have dedicated their lives and invested their own love and compassion toward eradicating this devastating disease.

Who am I then? I am a person who claims to be a follower of Jesus.  Vocationally, I am an ordained Christian minister tasked to help others along the path of following God, offering God’s peace (shalom) as I go.  Probably the most formative thing for me personally coming out of my visit to the USCA was how institutional religion has come to be perceived among the HIV/AIDS community.  I was made painfully aware of how badly the community of people who claim to “follow Jesus” have behaved in response to this epidemic and to those who are HIV positive.  I’ll grant on the front end that many of the attacks directed toward institutional religion are based on generalizations and are often unfair.  I’ll also grant that there are MANY religious institutions who are doing GREAT work among this community (My two personal favorites are Samaritan Ministry & The Center For Church and Global AIDS).  So, before we go any further with this post, if you count yourself as part of this group of people called “Christians”, I would like for you to leave your defensiveness at the door.  Go ahead…lay it down…I’ll wait…leave that whole “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” thing there too…  Ready?

Samaritan Ministry is always one of the exhibitors at the US Conference on AIDS…the largest conference of its type held in the United States. Until this year, Samaritan Ministry was the ONLY faith based organization who exhibited at this conference.  This year, it was great to have Rev. Donald Messer and the Center for Church and Global AIDS at the conference as well.  (from the CCGA website: “Donald Messer is a 70-year-old writer, United Methodist theologian, and retired college (and seminary) president who tells us here that he believes his career may have begun in earnest only after he retired and began to work full time for the organization he founded, the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.”  His book, Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis was a profound inspiration to Wayne Smith.  He’s also a great guy to hang out with over Chicago style pizza!)

Being a faith based organization attending this meeting always makes for an interesting stream of conversations. Two particular conversations hit me very hard this time.  A young woman came by our booth this year and took our “unofficial USCA IQ test.” This is a simple four-question card that opens easy conversation as well as serving as an entry to our door prize drawing.  After completing the test, Nicole asked what Samaritan ministry was all about. She began to tell us her story. She was HIV positive and worked for an HIV/AIDS service organization (or maybe a department of health…hmmm…can’t remember). One moment she was telling us her story and how her pastor wouldn’t touch her when he found out she was HIV positive.

The next moment Nicole was weeping.

Wayne immediately reached out and hugged her. The conversation continued.  It was deep and moving.  I was honored to have her trust and the opportunity to hear her story.  But I was also struck by the amount of hurt that can me administered by a hug withheld in the name of Jesus.  It was a deep and faith scarring hurt.  I’ll never forget that moment.

About 30 minutes later, an African American man approached our booth. He also took our IQ test.  As we listened to his story, we found out he was a minister who was also HIV positive. He told us about attending a “healing service” at a church. At the front of the church, there was a woman who had cancer and who had gone forward for prayer. The minister and a group of deacons were “laying their hands on her, anointing her with oil, and praying for her” (see James 5:14).

He said, “I wanted me some of THAT!” He went forward, informed the pastor that he was HIV positive and wanted to be anointed with oil and prayed for.  The pastor’s response?

“He looked at me…backed AWAY a step or two…raised his hand in the air in my direction…and began to pray. They laid hands on the woman with cancer…I got the WIFI prayer!“, our friend said with an inviting and friendly laugh.

And we all laughed…except it really wasn’t funny. This pastor’s sanctimonious prayer was an unloving action based on ignorance and poor theology. It was the same action that made one young woman weep in her abandonment and a young man laugh at the unfortunate irony.

I’m going to resist the rant that is poised on the tip of my tongue.  I would hope those stories might speak for themselves.  I’ll say this however in closing: I want to be a part of a group of people who reach out and give Nicole a hug and then walk with her on her journey.  I want to be a part of a people who will never be accused of WIFI prayers.  I saw God very clearly at the USCA this year (and each of the other times I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.) Frankly, I saw “the Church” there as well…very active and engaged. To bad “organized religion” is missing it.

Peace!

Withdrawals

So I’ll confess…I’m addicted to the little red flag that signals a response to something on my Facebook page.  The Internet browser I use is Apple Safari.  Normally I have a tab open with my Gmail account, another tab with Facebook, and then any additional tabs I might use for surfing the Internet, checking out the news of the day or to do research for the tasks of the day.  In addition, I have my mail app and my Facebook app adjacent to each other on the home screen of my iPhone with “push notifications” turned on.  What this means to the non-techno-geeks out there is that I’m aware practically immediately whenever someone posts a message to my wall or sends me an email message.

One of my motivations for this Facebook fast was my increasing awareness of my addiction.  While the designation of addiction might seem to be a little melodramatic, I have to admit that it fits.  The simple definition of being addicted to something is to be physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance leading to adverse effects when that substance is taken away.

On Ash Wednesday night, not 30 minutes after my “final” sign-off…I recognized I had a problem.  My Bible Study group at church has a fairly active Facebook group (our page is not as active as the Facebook Group but here’s a link).  I intended to post scripture passages and prayers daily leading up to our class time last Sunday (March 14, 2011).  I knew there was a way to post to the group via email that would keep me from having to login to my account.  But I didn’t know the proper email address and I didn’t know the procedure.  So I innocently logged in…and there was the little red flag…with a 7 on it!  I couldn’t resist…I had to see who had commented on my wall.  The next morning…I “needed” to make sure my Bible Study post was up…same thing…red flag…my mouse could have simply clicked the Bible Study Group link…

Well…the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Facebook Fast

“Really?!?”, replied my wife.   “I don’t believe you!” commented my daughter on my last post before signing off Facebook for Lent 2011.  I have to admit, I was at best skeptical.

A little context/confession here…I’ve never completed a Lenten fast.  I’ve only tried it one time before.  I was a “fail” as the kids like to say.  I couldn’t even tell you at this moment what I failed to give up for lent that year.    More context/confession…I’m a Facebook junkie.  I was a very early adopter.  Facebook opened membership to anyone over the age of 13 with a valid email address in September of 2006.  I was aware of Facebook on college campuses prior to that time.  I opened my own Facebook account in the Summer of 2007.  That puts me pretty much in the Total-Facebook-Geek category in most people’s books.  I check it on my computer, on my phone, while I’m at the office, while I’m driving in my car…just about anywhere.

Part of this lent deal for our church this year was to “give up something” but also, add something.  As I’m writing this, I’m aware of my failure in the add category…I was going to write more consistently…fail.

So the doubts of my wife and daughter are pretty much justified.  I’m still pretty skeptical about the chances of my success with the Facebook portion of this thing.   Here goes nothing…


How can we find peace?

some thoughts by Thomas Merton (from the book Choosing to Love the World)…

We prescribe for one another remedies that will bring us peace of mind, and we are still devoured by anxiety.  We evolve plans for disarmament and for the peace of nations, and our plans only change the manner and method of aggression.  The rich have everything they want but happiness, and the poor are sacrificed to the unhappiness of the rich.  Dictatorships use their secret police to crush millions under an intolerable burden of lies, injustice and tyranny, and those who still live in democracies have forgotten how to make good use of their liberty.  For liberty is a thing of the spirit, and we are no longer able to live for anything but our bodies.  How can we find peace, true peace, if we forget that we are not machines for making and spending money, but spiritual beings, sons and daughters of the most high God?

I’ll not be able to improve upon that…

The Brain and Faith

An interesting article by Michael Gerson was brought to my attention in the footnotes of a book I’m reading. I was particularly intrigued by a couple of paragraphs in the middle:

“The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not. …For Newberg, this is not a simple critique of religious fundamentalism — a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It is a criticism of any institution that allies ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. “The enemy is not religion,” writes Newberg, “the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political. Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says, are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is composed of pups — the newer parts of the brain, more creative and compassionate — “but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain.” So all human beings are left with a question: Which pack do we feed?”

Thought provoking stuff… (Gerson’s full article is included below)

Religion has often unintentionally enabled scientific skepticism. The faithful will issue a challenge to science: Ha, you can’t explain the development of life, or the moral sense, or the nearly universal persistence of religion. To which the materialist responds: Can too. It is all biology and chemistry, thus disproving your God hypothesis.

To this musty debate, Andrew Newberg, perhaps America’s leading expert on the neurological basis of religion, brings a fresh perspective. His new book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, summarizes several years of groundbreaking research on the biological basis of religious experience. And it offers plenty to challenge skeptics and believers alike.

Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis — along with everyday people new to meditation — Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to “long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love.” He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly — a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances “social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions.”

Newberg argues that religious belief is often personally and socially advantageous, allowing men and women to “imagine a better future.” And he does not contend, as philosophically lazy scientists sometimes do, that a biological propensity toward belief automatically disproves the existence of an object of such belief. “Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn’t exist,” Newberg states with appropriate humility. Neurobiology helps explain religion; it does not explain it away.

But Newberg’s research offers warnings for the religious as well. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain — particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate — where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is “filled with aggression and fear.” It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.

For Newberg, this is not a simple critique of religious fundamentalism — a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It is a criticism of any institution that allies ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. “The enemy is not religion,” writes Newberg, “the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political.”

Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says, are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is composed of pups — the newer parts of the brain, more creative and compassionate — “but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain.” So all human beings are left with a question: Which pack do we feed?

“How God Changes Your Brain” has many revelations — and a few limitations. In a practical, how-to tone, it predicts “an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about.” But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn’t about very much. Mature faith sometimes involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are other, even more practical methods to consider. “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy,” said C.S. Lewis, “I always knew a bottle of port would do that.” The same could be said of psychedelic drugs, which can mimic spiritual ecstasy.

Every religious discussion eventually comes down to the question of truth. Can we escape from the wheel of becoming, or hear God’s voice in a wandering prophet, or meet a man once dead? Without such beliefs, religion is mere meditation. Newberg’s research shows an amplified influence of religious practices on those who “truly believe.” But Newberg himself has difficulty sharing such belief. His research on the varieties of religious experience — and his scientific understanding that the brain is drawn naturally toward artificial certainties — leave him skeptical about the capacity of the human mind to accurately perceive “universal or ultimate truth.”

Yet, he told me, “To this day, I am still seeking and searching.” And that is the most honest kind of science.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

Posted via web from mikeyoung’s posterous

New beginnings…

This blogging thing comes in spurts for me.  It’s been a while since I posted anything…nearly 3 months.  My excuse has been that I really didn’t have anything to say, at least nothing I wanted to put in writing.  I felt that something profound had to be laid down every time I clicked the “Add New Post” button.  Whether or not published posts have actually lived up to that expectation is debatable.  But there is something about the discipline of putting words on a page I need at this point in my life.  It has little to do with an audience for this blog. Based on the “hits” counter, not many people are reading this stuff anyway.

The relatively recent (at least for my circles) rediscovery of the practices of observing Ash Wednesday and Lent have been increasingly meaningful for me over the past several years.  Once my understanding shifted from “giving up a guilty pleasure” toward the taking on of a new discipline[s], it has become an important season for my faith.  This year, part of my Lenten discipline will be to write regularly here on the blog.  We’ll see where that takes me.