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Loving Jesus and Letting Him Go, Again

I’m letting go of the Jesus I love. Which makes it twice now.

Out-growing a religious skin is scary.  I panic. My instinct is to crawl back into the old. Sure it was too tight and left me feeling irritable much of the time but at least it was familiar (and with familiar comes familiarity’s close cousin: security).

Still, I’ve lived long enough to know that that shedding an old skin is not so much a loss as it is a gain. Let me explain.

My Evangelical Innards

I grew up in a world I would describe as gently yet thoroughly evangelical (I say gentle to differentiate from the hard-edged, moralistic, Bible-thumping evangelical traditions that people often flee later in life and which can leave them with permanent spiritual scars.)  My evangelical upbringing had mostly to do with where you stood in your personal relationship with Jesus.

There is a story told in our family of one of my brother’s-in-law who as a youngster was disecting the carcass of a bird he had brought down with a slingshot. When asked what he was doing his reply was “Looking to see if Jesus is in this bird’s heart.”

When we were children where you stood on this matter was all important. It was your ticket off the sinking ship and into the next life, which we all learned at a young age, was the life that really counted.

I was a devout enough child. I had no reason to doubt what I was told by my adults about the value of, in their words, developing a personal relationship with Jesus.  I grew up going to prayer meetings with missionary aunties who would close their eyes, raise their hands up into the air and sing love songs to Jesus.  Never mind that my brothers and I would mimic them in jest afterward.

I did go forward once. It was during a religious rock concert at a highway church near Peterborough that my parents took my brothers and me to.  The drummer dazzled his audience with an instrumental rendition of Amazing Grace and while we were all on our feet clapping called forward those who were ready “right here, right now, to invite Jesus into your heart.”  My brother and I went up. When we got home everyone got a bowl of chocolate ice-cream to celebrate.

We were baptized soon after by a stout, grey-haired preacher with a thick Scottish accent in a Baptist baptismal tank with navy blue, velvet curtains. This formalized things.

My missionary boarding school encouraged morning devotions and gave us each a book called Daily With the King. I was one of a handful of keeners from my dorm who would get up before dawn and sit in the common room in my pyjamas to read the day’s reflection on Christian living with the accompanying prayer and Bible verse.  Each page would get a big checkmark with my bic pen when I was done. I had fuelled up for the day.

My love for Jesus was true. I felt an energy around it and aspired to be like Dorothy Day or Tommy Douglas or other such followers of Jesus who were concerned for the poor and for justice. So much so that I went on to study theology and to become a Baptist minister. I worked in a suburban church (where I wore a black clerical robe and drank wine and discussed justice issues) and two urban churches  (where I dressed in jeans skirts and cardigans and drank beer and further discussed justice issues).

The First Letting Go

Still, when I turned 40 I began to feel boxed in by my faith tradition.  As I’ve described elsewhere it felt like living in a bungalow in the suburbs peering out at look-alike streets through plastic venetian blinds.

So I moved.  Across the neighbourhood into the Catholic church. This was my first letting go.  I let go all the securities of my childhood faith and the evangelical Jesus that went with it.

It’s not that Catholics don’t love Jesus. Of course they do.  But the emphasis in Catholic spirituality is different. Jesus is not so much your best buddy, the way evangelicals would have it. For Catholics, before Jesus is anything else, he is the Real Presence in the eucharistic.

So every time I go to mass and receive the host I receive the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. He becomes a apart of me. His suffering and his resurrection are absorbed at the cellular level of my existence.  All roads lead into the heart of this mystery for a Catholic.

Of course it has its funny side. Like the time a priest accidentally dropped the host during mass and it went down his sleeve and there was a great kurffufle at the alter in an attempt to retrieve it, and a murmur of snickering through the congregation.

I think I’ve become more human as a Catholic because I think I’ve become more attentive to life on earth as the dwelling place of God. As one teacher puts it: “God comes to us disguised as our life.”  Everywhere is God. The Real Presence is all around me. Catholics get this scandal.

Which is also, I believe, what has led me to the second letting go that I’m in the midst of right now.

The Second Letting Go

The catalyst for this change has been the global climate crisis and a fast-growing community of ordinary people around the world (me included) waking up to what is at stake for our common home, the earth.

For me, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with climate activists has meant standing alongside humans from every walk of life on this planet: indigenous peoples and children lead the way and everyone else follows – religious and secular and anarchists and grandparents and academics and poets and scientists and environmentalists and buffalo farmers and business owners and my two teenagers and black preachers and banjo pluckers and bagpipe players (to name only those to my immediate left and right).  Its an amazing feeling.

Religious differences don’t seem important anymore, superseded by a shared and urgent concern to rethink how we live and reduce our water and air of human-generated toxins.

I’ve always been interested in low-bar spirituality and recently made up the following creed.  I say it now (usually to myself inside my head) wherever I am to whomever I’m with:

I am human (and so are you).  I am held (and so are you).   I am storied (and so are you).  I am an earth-dweller (and so are you).                                                                                                                                                                 

It’s a start anyway.

I like how it points to the similarities between us rather than the differences. How it joins who I am to who you are.

I’ll say more on each of these statements in a future blog. But for now, back to Jesus:

What’s amazing to me is that in the process of letting him go Jesus hasn’t become less but more. More human. More divine. More universal. More local. More accessible. Marching along beside us as brothers and sisters. Full of laughter, full of hope.

And as a result I find myself more deeply in love with the earth community and the earth that sustains us.  Maybe  to have its well-being in my heart is to have Jesus in my heart.

Maybe, when all is said and done, all I’ve done is come full circle.

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Becoming Catholic: An Allegorical Tale of a Baptist Conversion

There was once a child who lived in a bungalow. The rooms in her house were all on one level which made the house, above all else, accessible. Her bungalow was not the only bungalow in the neighbourhood. Indeed, the whole subdivision was made up of bungalows, all of which varied in style or layout to some extent but familiar and accessible in every other way. The bungalow was a happy and safe place for the child to grow up – busy and crowded and full of people she knew and loved.

One day while the child was outside at play in her neighbourhood she wandered off. Like the children in other allegorical stories who wandered off from the appointed areas of play, her wandering wasn’t a pre-meditated affair. It was not an act of defiance or restless exploration. It was simply that one curiosity on her path led to the next and before she knew it she was quite some distance from her point of origin.

When it came to her attention that she was in an unfamiliar part of the neighbourhood she did not feel panicked or anxious. To the contrary she felt intrigued and adventurous repeatedly negotiating with herself that she would go just one more block before turning back.

And so it was that – without a map or any directions, but on account only of her own curiosity and instincts -she came upon a house unlike any she had ever encountered before. And she was astonished by it for it was a house with multiple stories extending upwards and outwards in every direction. And what astounded her more was that this house, if one could call it that, was in the very neighbourhood in which she had grown up and yet no one had ever spoken of it to her before.

That night back in the familiarity of her own bungalow she asked about the house she had come upon. At first the adults in the house responded with surprise that she had ventured into such close proximity to the house and seemed more concerned with how she got there and why she had gone.

However the girl persisted with her quest for an explanation. Finally she was told what her heart had already guessed at. “That house”, she was told, “was the home of your ancestors”. The little girl listened. “Indeed once, long ago, there were no bungalows in this neighbourhood, only the Great House in which everyone lived.’ Her adults explained that they themselves had never been inside but her grandparents manygenerations back lived there. “It was the only home they knew”.

 

“Why did they leave?” inquired the little girl.

There was some hesitation and a weighing of words. “Well….all was not well. There was rumour that the Great House was in danger of collapsing. Some said it was that the beams in the building were rotting, others that the foundations had shifted. Either way, all began to live with a fear that the roof would come down on their heads.”

“So”, one adult continued, “there had been a great exodus from the Great House. Some families tried to rebuild their houses to resemble this original home. Others wanted to avoid the inherent structural dangers of the Great House and opted for the accessibility and simplicity of a bungalow. Bungalows were easy to build and almost overnight dozens sprouted up all across the neighbourhood, and over the years they had spread and grown into the great sprawling neighbourhood of bungalows seen on the landscape today.

The child was satisfied with these explanations. She trusted the wisdom of her adults. She wouldn’t want to live in a house in danger of collapse from rot.

Yet as the days went on she could not forget about the Great House. She found books in the library that spoke of it, describing the elaborate interior of rooms and the vantage points of its upper stories. She learned about concepts like upper floors and attics, of balconies and spiralling staircases. Some days she would walk to where she could see the Great House. Its gables and turrets towered high over the sprawling neighbourhood of huddled bungalows.

At the same time she had no desire to leave the bungalow. She cherished the way people crowded into it. It was small but practical and she knew each of the rooms intimately. She did not want to show disregard for those who had raised her here or to dishonour the judgement of her forbearers when they chose to leave the Great House so many generations ago.

However, the day came some years later, when to be true to her heart, she walked straight up to the door of the Great House. She reached to knock but there was no need. The wide doors swung open. So it was that she found herself standing alone on the threshold, slowly taking in her multidimensional surroundings. No one seemed to notice her or at least no one paid her any particular attention.

From the inside it seemed not a house at all but a space of endless dimensions, one blurring into the next.

There were expansive rooms interconnected in every direction each charged with the energy of music and art crossing the full spectrum of human cultural expression. Gardens with animals, and beaches with tides, and cliffs with cascading waterfalls seemed not out of place. And everywhere an intermingling of people from every walk of life: kings and peasants and fools and artisans and farmers and writers and poets and architects and palaeontologists and astronomers and theologians and saints and revolutionaries, and even a whisky priest. Instinctively the girl knew these to be from every generation – both past and present and, could it be, from generations yet to come.

The Great House was full of activity but not in the boisterous crowded way that she was accustomed to in the bungalow where everybody knew everybody’s name. The coming and going here all seemed to be from a centre which in turn gave a sense of Real Presence to the whole. It was at this centre that all names were spoken and from here that all names were known. The child stepped tentatively forward. She wondered if the Real Presence would have a memory of her name. After all, it had been five hundred years.

I am that child. I cherish my upbringing and roots in the Protestant tradition. And I suspect there are others like me who long for the Great House yet feel a deep affinity for the bungalow.

In Catholic terminology someone coming into the Catholic Church from a Protestant background isn’t “converted” to the Catholic faith. Rather they are “reconciled”.  I like that. It implies that the journey is not so much about loss as it is about recovery. Not so much a separation as a reunion. And like all works of reconciliation it implies a process.

In coming posts I will share my own process in the year long period of orientation and discernment that led me into the Catholic faith. If you are interested, stay tuned.

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Sacred Stories in a Secular Age

After 20 years working with children and youth in a performing arts program that stages biblical narrative, I find myself wondering about the value of sacred stories.  Apart from giving shape to the religious tradition they represent what role do they play in culture?  Do sacred stories offer anything when it comes to the spiritual and psychological health of humans? Is the loss of a sacred story tradition one of the casualties of secularism in the west?  Are our children and youth suffering from sacred-story deficit disorder?

I was raised on Bible stories so I know most of the fault lines when it comes to sacred narrative traditions. Here are a few of the most commonly cited reasons from people I know who have abandoned the religious narratives of their childhood:

Fault line #1: Traumatic
When God comes across as scowling and vengeful in one sacred story after another it is hard to trust the purported loving side of this, or any other, divinely-appointed authority figure. Indeed, the punishing nature of God as portrayed in Bible stories has been such a source of trauma for some that it remains an open wound well into their adult life.

To this day my younger brother (now in his mid-40s) tells the story of the time as a kid he returned from the corner store where he’d gone raptureto buy a pack of gum only to discover that the house was empty. He walked around calling out and when no one answered he concluded to his horror that Jesus had returned and that for some wrong-doing in his young life he had been “left behind”. I came home 1/2 an hour later to find him balled up alone and crying in the corner of the couch.

Fault line #2:  Boring
For some Sunday School experience was a source of such unbearable dullness that they thought they would pass out for lack of oxygen before the class was over.moses

The issue isn’t action. There is plenty of action in Bible stories. The issue rather is plot. The fact that the outcome of all the action was too predictable. The end was always the same:
A God who had the unfair advantage of all the power in his court would inevitably appear on the scene to save the hapless human antagonists from themselves or condemn them to their misery.  Kids aren’t fooled by a story with tension points that are less than convincing.

Fault line #3:  Colonial                                                                                  Christianity has been thoroughly critiqued in our post-modern context for the way in which its exclusive claims on religious truth displaced indigenous story traditions around the world.

I grew up among the Kikuyu of central Kenya at a time when western colonialism wasn’t yet a full generation old. 14-03-02-g-2-kk-largeStill in that one generation the centuries old Kikuyu origin myth of the nine-daughters placed on the land at the base of Mt. Kenya had been all but replaced by the Garden of Eden origin story introduced by Christian missionaries.

Later in life when I moved to the west coast of British Columbia I learned that the local origin myths of Canada’s indigenous peoples had suffered a similar fate. The “white man’s” Adam and Eve was rolled out over top of creation stories such as the Haida’s account of the first humans being coaxed out of a clamshell by a raven.

Fault Line #4: Exclusive
One of the most troubling features of so many sacred narrative traditions are their harsh exclusions.  Whether on moral or cultural or political grounds it seems that too often sacred stories have a hidden agenda of advancing the political or social privilege of one group over all others.sodom

One of my brothers is gay and because of the blatant prejudice of stories like Sodom and Gomorra, historical context notwithstanding, he has felt marginalized, hurt and angry by the community of people who refer to these stories as “sacred”.

Fault Line #5:  Caricatured
Sometimes it seems that all that is left of Bible stories in pop culture is to spoof them. And its easy to do especially in their caricatured Sunday School version. The great greybeards and the bathrobes and the walking sticks and the all-important dialogue. What’s not to poke fun at.

A colleague who works with me in staging biblical drama showed this You Tube video to me a few years back. We laughed.

(If you find yourself offended (I was a bit defensive!) remember that parody is a sign of health for any thought system, religious or otherwise. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.)

So if sacred stories are traumatizing and boring and colonizing and and exclusive and ridiculous what’s left?

I’d like to think a few  (maybe even important) things

Here’s a list for starters. You’ll notice that it’s based on my personal (i.e. limited) experience of having been raised on the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s not meant to be an exclusive or a promotional or exhaustive list, but it is what I know. I would love to hear where your own list merges and where it departs, especially those of you reading from other faith/spiritual backgrounds.

1) Sacred stories create a capacity for the soul to hold and live with paradox.                                                                                                      Good sacred stories are honest about the complexity of the human experience and challenge our polarized modes of thinking where everything needs to be divided into the good and the bad andd2e2bb50a89a2523f360385541684409 separated out into the categories of the deserving and the undeserving. The ability to understand reality as non-dual has been described as one of the hallmarks of mature spirituality.

Example: The stories of David contain paradox. He was a conflicted person, who failed himself and his people again and again, yet this did not disqualify him from deep personal encounter with God.

The Shepherd David (E.Bouguereau,1895)

2) Sacred stories carve a pathway through loss and death.
The changing leaves of autumn are a reminder that decay, death and rebirth are an integral part of life at both the micro and macro levels. People need stories that show us a way through death. A strong sacred story tradition gives us the template we need to journey through loss into renewal with an open heart.

Example: The Christian story of Jesus’ journey through death offers a narrative path.

7cdb01593fb27200f88d10d99664a6f1Christ in Gethsemane- by Michael D Obrien

3) Sacred stories enable us to face our “dark side”.
Sacred stories want us to grapple with the truest version of our self including coming face to face with the tyranny of our own ego and the death it must go through for us to live beyond our fears and defenses. We live in a culture where it is second-nature to blame everyone else for our problems. Good sacred stories insist that before we turn our need for “someone to pay” outward we img_0517ask whether the thing that is holding us back resides within.

Example: The stories of the Jewish prophets exemplify this spiritual
practice. The starting point for their careers was personal inventory, i.e. acknowledging their own insecurities and fears before God before making a single pronouncement about the shortcomings of others.                          

Isaiah: “I am undone.” (Loren Balisky, 1997)

 

4) Sacred stories provide an arena for grace.

785px-rembrandt_harmensz_van_rijn_-_return_of_the_prodigal_son_-_google_art_projectI think of grace as a processing plant for suffering and pain. Grace is a
huge spiritual concept which includes confession and mercy and forgiveness and sometimes even reconciliation. Good sacred narrative will hold this almost impossible space without becoming simplistic or silly about it’s potential.

Example: The story of the prodigal son and the embrace of the watchful, non-judgemental father.                                                              

                                                                                  Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

5) Sacred stories nurture a relational connection to God/the Creator        In a study to identify what it is people value when they speak of their”spirituality”, researchers identified two things:

  • a sense of close personal connection to God (or nature or the universe or whatever term each person used for higher power)
  •  a vital source of guidance

Relationship with the transcendent/divine is at the core of spirituality and sacred stories reflect this.  They provide images for what this relationship can look like and biographies of those who have embraced (or rejected) the relationship.

Example: The story elements contained in the Psalm 23 would be a classic example of this. That one Psalm alone sums up the spirituality img_0516of many who live very simple lives of faith. My great grandmother, Betsy is a good example. As my Dad tells it her life was unbearably hard. She was widowed young, raised six children on her own, laboured at back-breaking jobs in commercial kitchens to the point of mental collapse. Somewhere along the way she stopped going to church probably due to a combination of weariness and social stigma. Yet in her old age she would stop my Dad, then a teenager, in his tracks, and say, “Ronnie, not a day of my life passes when I do not remember that the Lord is my shepherd.”

6) Sacred stories create an enchanted universe where everything belongs. 
Children live in an enchanted universe when they know they belong to it and it belongs to them. Like the Kikuyu whose creation myth tells them their people were created on location at the foot of Mt. Kenya and the Haida whose origin story tells them “two-leggeds” first emerged from a clam shell on the beaches of Haida Gwaii. Myths and rituals hold children and youth. They give them a place to land their own lives and know that they have not been cut loose in the universe to figure it out on their own.unknown-1

In the story guild program that I developed the kids say a prayer that goes like this “Thank you God that my story is held in your story.”

Example: Most origin myths of traditional peoples including the origin myth found in Genesis 1.

In summary then, here’s my case for sacred stories:

First, what they are not.  Sacred stories are not political platforms. They are not morality tales. And contrary to popular opinion sacred stories are not inspirational stories advocating up-standing character traits.

Sacred stories are metaphorical narratives that speak to the deep-level questions and longings of our soul.  At their best they give us a symbolic roadmap that helps us find a way through struggle and separation toward wholeness and community. They hold our lives at a sub-conscious level and fortify our minds at a conscious level. Sacred stories are about the greatest of undertakings whether individual or collective: the journey of transformation into the fullest expression of what it means to be human. 

To this end I would include epic narrative like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as contemporary forms of sacred story.

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Though I wonder how tellable they are, i.e. sitting on grandfather’s knee? (That’s a different blog).

Sacred stories were once considered essential guides into and through life’s so-called Big Questions. They are now on the endangered list in western, secular culture.  Good? Bad? Inevitable? Will it make any difference human development and thriving? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Outpost Spirituality

Ever felt of two minds when it comes to your religious adherence?  Perhaps you recognize the limitations of your faith tradition on one hand yet can’t imagine your life without it on the other?  Or maybe you are on that roller coaster of certainty one day and complete doubt the next (and the feelings of guilt for “lack of faith” or indecision that goes with it)?  If this describes you then you are not alone and outpost spirituality might be a fit.

I’ve adopted “faith in the outposts” as a type of metaphor for my own spiritual location at this point in life. Here, let me explain what I mean….

As a kid I loved to read stories about people who lived in the outposts. Some were soldiers or scientists, others exiles or missionaries or explorers.  In order to survive these outpost dwellers had to negotiate the remote landscapes they found themselves in. They had to learn what was over the next horizon and where to take cover during a storm. They had to learn the norms of local culture and how to navigate in foreign languages. They had to learn what crops survive in unfamiliar soil and how water distributes itself across the land.  In short, they had to step well out of their comfort zones and take risks that were both exhilarating and terrifying.

Yet equally fascinating to my childhood imagination were the homes that these outliers built for themselves in the seeming “middle of nowhere”.  Whether their abode was a canvas tent or a log cabin or a bamboo hut these interior worlds provided much more than shelter.  They were “homes away from home” – havens containing elements of a cultural heartland faraway: a bedside table with a well-worn book of familiar prayers, a china mug from the family collection, a knotted rug made by a pioneering ancestor kept beneath a foot stool, a fiddle above the door and all the associated dance floor tunes, a book of dog-eared poetry at the hearth, a cherished painting by a favourite artist above the kitchen sink.

To my young heart, the familiar furnishings of these interior spaces made the world safe again. They provided an all-important grounding point for engaging the unknown beyond. A place to leave from and come back to.

Without these “landing pads” the world beyond would overwhelm or dissolve into some form of chaos.

Living deep inside the known and the unknown is where I find myself with regard to my own (Christian) tradition. This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on my tradition or hold it in disregard.  Quite the opposite.  It does mean that I’ve journeyed with it out onto horizons of the human spirit that lie beyond the comfort zone of my own religious boundary lines.

As the world shrinks and the collective human imagination grows I feel compelled to take risks engaging emerging contours that are equal parts terrifying and exhilarating :

  • A growing practise of mediation and mindfulness cutting across religious and even secular lines with implications for collective consciousness and human intuition.
  • A trend toward slowing life down and living with smaller footprints as a counter movement to the frenzied materialism and resource-guzzling lifestyles many of us take for granted.
  • A profound softening on the part of the scientific community toward the importance of imagination and story and art in developing new paradigms.
  • An increasing interest in and recovery of indigenous wisdom and earth-based spirituality.
  • Implications for justice and compassion with the proliferation of social media, especially in a world where greed (mine included) can so easily seem like the trump card
  • The network of personal friendships and business connections in real time due to technological advances no longer bounded by geographical limitations
  • A growing awareness around the globe of the vulnerability of the one home that all humans regardless of race or creed share in common: planet earth.

These emerging spiritual horizons don’t seem to be religion specific.  They appeal to the human spirit as a whole.

I cherish my Christian tradition (I’m Protestant by birth, Catholic by choice).  It’s my starting point. It’s what I know. It’s how I pray.

I’ve seen a lot of spiritual seekers suddenly abandon the faith moorings that have nurtured them for a lifetime.  I understand their departure. Many are frustrated with the limitations and exclusions they were raised on. Yet with no home-away-from-home many give up and loose their way altogether. For many it’s only a matter of time before they get lost on a frontier that in the end overwhelms them.

So I’m going to take my lead from the outpost-dwellers of my childhood books. I’m not going to head out into the frontier without a cabin to come home to.  Inside this simple abode are going to be elements of all the things in the tradition that I value and love:  hymns about the love of Jesus, ancient prayers of the church,  the stories of the Bible and of the heroics of the saints, weekly eucharist, the practice of confession, and the adopted family with whom I share this tradition.

IMG_0126For now this interior world is a critical place for me to leave from and to come home to. I would lose my way without it.

Yet at the same time I’m not going to hunker down here. I’m going to venture out and explore the unfamiliar landscape I find myself in. I’m not going to assume that my starting point is the only starting point or the best starting point. I will allow for other practises that nurture the human spirit no matter how different it may be from my own.

And who knows?  In the end the points of connection and overlap may be far more significant than I had previously imagined.

Are you an outpost-dweller?  If so I’d love to hear from you.  What are your discoveries? Cautions? Fears and hopes?

 

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