Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Mystic communion with the Ultimate is, by their own account, the core of every religious tradition. How this seed grows in a given case into doctrine, ethics, and ritual depends on the widely different historic conditions under which a given tradition originates and develops. Unfortunately, in the course of its history each tradition tends to get rigid. At the start, the function of doctrine is to point to the inexpressible. But soon it takes on a life of its own and, through comment upon comment, hardens into dogmatism. Ethical precepts originally want to foster a sense of belonging, but they, too, tend to become rigid, exclusive, and moralistic. With ritual, the emphasis shifts from celebration of the mystic event to ritualistic preoccupation with traditional forms. The living water of every tradition runs the risk of freezing to rigid ice in the cold climate of religious institutions and, thus, their innate happiness is lost.

At this point the question arises: Can religions recover their religiousness? Can they again become doors to that mystic happiness from which they spring? The answer is given by mystics. They thaw the ice of dogmatism, moralism, and ritualism by fiery joy in their own hearts. Ultimately this is the task of everyone who stands in a given religious tradition. Any tradition is as alive as the mystic happiness in the hearts of its members. And this mystic fervor melts also the barriers between traditions -- celebrating their variety, but strengthening their unity with each other." 

-- Bro. David Steindl-Rast

Monday, December 29, 2014

"I am a paradox, it seems. I am the contradiction of an untold number of sermons and messages preached from pulpits all across the land. I am not supposed to exist, the gay Christian.  But I do. There are a lot of us here, in fact."

-- Matthew David Morris

"Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts." 

-- Thomas Merton

Sunday, December 28, 2014

I tend to admire the ones who don't go along with the crowd...

"Where I grew up, the way to grow spiritually was: Go to church, read your Bible, witness, pray. It was a checklist, and it was clear a lot of people had done those things for years and hadn’t become less mean. Recently, more and more people, Protestants and Catholics, are asking how to become more Christlike, and realising that a checklist is not what brings change. ... Something that’s helping a lot of people is a rediscovery of monastic and contemplative practices."

-- Brian McLaren

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"… the Church has an enormous amount to learn from [groups like Alcoholics Anonymous]. I also believe that what goes on in them is far closer to what Christ meant his Church to be, and what it originally was, than much of what goes on in most churches I know. These groups have no buildings or official leadership or money. They have no rummage sales, no altar guilds, no every-member canvases. They have no preachers, no choirs, no liturgy, no real estate. They have no creeds. They have no program. They make you wonder if the best thing that could happen to many a church might not be to have its building burn down and to lose all its money. Then all that the people would have left would be God and each other." 

-- Frederick Buechner (via Brian McLaren)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace on earth,
to make music in the heart.

-- Howard Thurman

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"As a general spiritual rule, you can trust this one: The ego gets what it wants with words. The soul finds what it needs in silence. ... When our interior silence can actually feel and value the silence that surrounds everything else, we have entered the house of wisdom. This is the very heart of prayer. ... No wonder that silence is probably the foundational spiritual discipline in all the world's religions at the more mature levels. At the less mature levels, religion is mostly noise, entertainment, and words. Catholics and Orthodox Christians prefer theater and wordy symbols; Protestants prefer music and endless sermons.  Probably more than ever, because of iPads, cell phones, billboards, TVs, and iPods, we are a toxically overstimulated people. Only time will tell the deep effects of this on emotional maturity, relationship, communication, conversation, and religion itself. Silence now seems like a luxury, but it is not so much a luxury as it is a choice and decision at the heart of every spiritual discipline and growth. Without it, most liturgies, Bible studies, devotions, "holy" practices, sermons, and religious conversations might be good and fine, but they will never be truly great or life-changing—for ourselves or for others. They can only represent the surface; God is always found at the depths, even the depths of our sin and brokenness. And in the depths, it is silent."

--Fr. Richard Rohr

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"A crow once flew into the sky with a piece of meat in its beak.  Twenty crows set out in pursuit of it and attacked it viciously.  The crow finally let the piece of meat drop.  Its pursuers then left it alone and flew shrieking after the piece of meat.  Said the crow: 'It is peaceful up here now.  The whole sky belongs to me.'"

-- Fr. Anthony de Mello

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

There are so many points of rumination surrounding the tragic hostage situation in Sydney, Australia.  The fact that the perpetrator was not an Islamic terrorist (as some have claimed) but rather a deranged individual who channeled his anger at the world through religion.  The fact that, because of Australia's strict gun control laws, this was a tragedy but not a massacre (as it likely would have been in the U.S.).  The fact that the hero who sacrificed himself to save the rest of the hostages was a gay man who, in Australia, was not allowed to donate blood.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"The scope and reality of the United States' torture of detainees is now clear and undeniable.  We are anguished and humbly repent for the sins that were done on our behalf and in our name.  Torture is wrong.  It is a sin against God.  It is a sin against the humanity of those being tortured and those doing the torture.  We ask forgiveness for our nation."

- Statement from North Seattle Friends Church (Quaker)

Today, in the Catholic church, is the feast day of the 16th century mystic, John of the Cross--perhaps best known for coining the (often misunderstood) term "dark night of the soul."  Here are a few quotes from John of the Cross:

"Contemplation is nothing else but a secret, peaceful, and loving infusion of God, which if admitted, will set the soul on fire with the Spirit of love."

"The soul feels its ardor strengthen and increase and its love become so refined in this ardor that seemingly there flow seas of loving fire within it, reaching to the heights and depths of the earthly and heavenly spheres, imbuing all with love. It seems to it that the entire universe is a sea of love in which it is engulfed, for conscious of the living point or center of love within itself, it is unable to catch sight of the boundaries of this love."

"The flame of love
grows as it is divided
it increases by being shared
from one, then two, then three
and darkness is transformed into glory
and the walls reflect its light
Share your flame!
Share your flame!"

Friday, December 12, 2014

"The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state..."

-- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

The Sisterhood

Carla told me recently that if I died before her she would be tempted to become a nun and enter into a life of uninterrupted religious devotion and service.  I chuckled and told her that I had pondered something very similar: that if she died I might enter a monastery.  We're both attracted to the idea of lives of profound simplicity and contemplation and service within intentional community.  The fact that we're Quakers and not in the least attracted to ritual and liturgy is a bit problematic, however.  But I have great admiration for monastics, be they Catholic, Anglican, Buddhist or whatever. 

A few years ago the BBC ran a reality show entitled The Big Silence in which a group of average (and not particularly religious) women and men were whisked off to an eight day silent Jesuit retreat in Wales.  The sudden removal from the hustle and bustle of daily life caused the participants to initially climb the walls in withdrawal from sensory saturation, but ultimately they were each deeply transformed by the experience.  The BBC also ran a related reality show called The Monastery in which five guys (again, most of them not particularly religious) spent six weeks in a Benedictine monastery.  Again, the men were profoundly effected (and the show was a surprise hit, which resulted in monasteries and convents in the U.K. being flooded with inquiries).  A U.S. version of The Monastery was also produced, which I haven't seen.  I think all of these can be viewed on Youtube.

Last night I watched a new American reality show (via Amazon Instant Video), that is another take on The Monastery concept, entitled The Sisterhood.  In it, five reasonably devout Catholic women in their early twenties spend six weeks in a convent in order to discern if they are called to become nuns.  Each woman wrestles with the tension between her desire to enter religious vocation and the allure of life outside the nunnery.  As with all reality shows, one wonders how much of the drama is contrived by the producers and editors.  The young women tend to come across as annoyingly shallow and naive.  For example, they balk at being asked to eschew their make-up and surrender their cell phones upon entering the convent.  But the real treat of the show is the nuns.  They are joyous and centered and marvelously down-to-earth.  Their interaction with the five worldly young women is gentle, patient, non-judgmental and compassionate.  The nuns remind me very much of those depicted in the BBC drama Call the Midwife.  They seem to live more fully in the present moment and give their full attention to those they interact with.  They talk frankly about their pre-vocational pasts (including romances) and the challenges of living in close community.  "I'm surprised there hasn't been a murder," jokes one veteran sister.

It is nice to see men and women of religious orders depicted in this way, rather than as the stern and bitter and repressed caricatures so often served up by central casting.  I wonder if programs like The Sisterhood and The Monastery and The Big Silence and Call the Midwife are tapping into a growing hunger in 21st century Western culture.  As Europe and the U.K. and the Americas transition into post-Christendom and the Church-at-large loses its entitled authority and credibility, many people of faith seem to be seeking out that which is deep and true and real.  The last few decades have seen a steady increase in interest in contemplative practices, including those from the rich Christian tradition that fell into neglect around the time of the Reformation.

I wonder if we might see a movement analogous to that of the Desert Monastics where, beginning in the late third century, men and women left the cities in droves to go into the wilderness and form communities in pursuit of genuine and intense spirituality.  But even for those of us unlikely to enter the desert or the monastery or the convent, there does seem to be a movement of withdrawal from shallow religion (as evidenced by the phenomenon of "the Nones": mature Christians walking away from their churches and not returning) in search of something more authentic and transformative.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"I am especially struck with the idea of the purposeless life, 'filling the well with snow.'  I suppose all life is just that anyway, but we are obsessed with purpose."

-- Thomas Merton

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke

Monday, December 08, 2014

Saturday, December 06, 2014

"God and the Gay Christian is scholarship with purpose, seeking to uproot the alienation and rejection too often caused by misinformed religious belief. It confronts evangelical Christians and the entire Christian church with the damage caused by anti-gay teachings....  Given the power that both evangelical Christianity and Catholicism possess to influence global culture and politics, I pray many will read God and the Gay Christian -- particularly those who struggle to accept same-sex relationships. Vines lays the foundation for Christians to create inclusive church communities where all are welcomed as made in God's image."

--National Catholic Reporter review of God and the Gay Christian

Thursday, December 04, 2014

My Favorite Books of 2014

As the holidays are upon us, end-of-year "best of" lists begin to proliferate.  Here is my list of my five favorite books for 2014.  This list is of books that I read this year that had the greatest impact on me.  They were not necessarily published in 2014, however.  Some were, but some are older.

#5 - Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

Nadia Bolz-Weber is the pastor (er, pastrix) of Denver's House for All Sinners and Saints, a thriving Evangelical Lutheran church that describes itself as "..a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice-oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient / future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination."  Bolz-Weber is easily recognizable for her lanky frame, punk rock hair, clerical collar, copious tattoos and sharp sense of humor.  She has a real pastoral heart for marginalized and outcast people.  I have visited HfASaS and found it to be as advertised: radically inclusive, egalitarian, worshipful, liturgical, fun, a little bit messy, deeply spiritual and very much a loving community.  Pastrix is primarily a memoir of how a wild teen who grew into a crude, substance-abusing comedienne ended up becoming a Lutheran pastor (hint: Grace).  This is also a memoir of how the community of HfASaS came into being and how it functions--how they live out their Christ-centered values.  Like Bolz-Weber herself, this memoir is challenging, honest, thought-provoking, encouraging and funny (literally, the very first word in the very first chapter caused me to laugh out loud).

#4 - Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian

Paul F. Knitter is a theologian's theologian:  He graduated from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1966 and then earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Marburg, Germany, where he studied under Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Rahner, Knitter was for many years Emeritus Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio and is now Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  Much of Knitter's scholarly work over the decades has been in the field of interfaith dialogue.  For all of his lofty academic credentials, Knitter's writing in Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian is remarkably humble and personal and self-deprecatingly humorous.  He is willing to explore challenging and risky questions with an attitude of honest and open inquiry.  He shares transparently about his own faith struggles.  In his introduction, Knitter writes, "I've come to be convinced that I have to do my theology--and live my Christian life--dialogically.  Or in current theological jargon: I have to be religious interreligiously.  I've tried to practice and understand my Christian life through engagement with the way other people--Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans--have lived and understood their religious lives.  Though I have found my conversations with all the other religious traditions to be fruitful, my deepest, most enjoyable, most difficult, and therefore most rewarding conversations have been with Buddhism and Buddhists. ... Over the years I have realized that this conversation with Buddhism has really been one of the two most helpful--really indispensable--resources for carrying on my Christian and theological task of trying to mediate between my religious heritage (the Bible and tradition) and the culture that has marked my humanity. ... My conversation with Buddhism has enabled me to do what every theologian must do professionally and what every Christian must do personally--that is, to understand and live our Christian beliefs in such a way that these beliefs are both consistent with and a challenge for the world in which we live.  Buddhism has allowed me to make sense of my Christian faith so that I can maintain my intellectual integrity and affirm what I see as true and good in my culture; but at the same time, it has aided me to carry out my prophetic-religious responsibility and challenge what I see as false and harmful in my culture."

#3 - Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach between the Church and the LGBT Community

Kathy Baldock is a heterosexual Evangelical Christian and mom of two adult straight children who several years ago began showing up at Gay Pride parades wearing a T-Shirt that said “Hurt by Church? Get a Straight Apology Here."  What followed were hundreds of grace-filled conversations with LGBTQ persons and a life-mission for Kathy to repair the breach between the LGBTQ community and the Evangelical church.  Kathy's background as an engineer is reflected in the way her book is meticulously organized, researched and footnoted.  Her book is divided into sections on History and Culture, Religion and Politics, Science, The Bible, and LGBT Christians and Their Allies.  Within each section are chapters that thoroughly explore pertinent topics. What Baldock particularly excels at is providing panoramic context.    She devotes chapters to the history of views regarding sexual orientation in Western culture, the development and evolution of scientific and psychological understandings about homosexuality, the rise of the Moral Majority and American fundamentalist attitudes towards gay people, the tragic saga of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the beginnings and growth of gay pride movements, the ins-and-outs of the now discredited reparative therapy fad, the often overlooked reality of "mixed orientation marriages", the Biblical passages associated with same-sex behavior, etc., etc.  I learned so much from this book.   

#2 - The Bible Tells Me So...: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It

Peter Enns has Master's degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Harvard and also a Ph.D. from Harvard in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.  He has taught at Westminster Theological Seminary, Harvard University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Biblical Theological Seminary, Temple University and Eastern University on subjects dealing with Biblical Theology (Old and New Testament, Second Temple literature, etc., etc.).  He belongs to the Society of Biblical Literature and the Institute for Biblical Research.  He has been a major contributor to several Bible dictionaries, Bible commentaries and Bible study guides.  In other words, Enns knows his Bible and, if need be, can write dense and weighty theological tomes backed up by rigorous scholarship.  But The Bible Tells Me So... is neither dense or weighty (though it is built on a solid foundation of Biblical, theological, linguistic and historical expertise).  I can't recall the last time a book by a world-class theologian caused me to repeatedly laugh out loud and turn each page with relish.  Imagine humorist Dave Barry as a Biblical scholar.  The Bible Tells Me So... is a brilliant little book of about 250 pages broken into bite-sized chapters.  In spite of its brevity and wit Enn's book manages to provide a deep and relevant overview of the entire Bible and a guide for how to appropriately read it.  His central point is that we need to read the Bible on its own terms and not try to impose our expectations upon it.  As he puts it, "This book is really about having an attitude adjustment concerning the Bible and God in light of how the Bible actually behaves."  Enns not only knows the Bible well, he loves it and respects it and has devoted his life to understanding it.  "Hold on to the time-tested wisdom that in order to know God better, we should keep reading and wrestling with the Bible.  It's God's Word and that's what he wants," says Enns.  But, he adds, "The Bible is not, never has been, and never will be the center of the Christian faith. ... That position belongs to God, specifically, what God has done in and through Jesus.  The Bible is the church's nonnegotiable partner, but it is not God's final word: Jesus is."

#1 - Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation

Martin Laird is an Augustinian monk and professor of Early Christian Studies at Villanova University.  He specializes in the history of Christian contemplative practice: from Pseudo-Dionysius to the Desert Mothers and Fathers to the Cappadocian Fathers to Evagrius to Augustine to Benedict to Aquinas to Meister Eckhart to Julian of Norwich to Teresa of Avila to John of the Cross to Thomas Merton and all points in between.  Laird writes in a lyrical, winsome style and often references poetry in ways that bring clarity and depth to his expositions.  This little book (142 pages) is rich and expansive and inspiring and deeply spiritual and utterly practical.  It is not just the best book I've read all year, it is one of the best books I have ever read, and one I expect to re-read many times over the remainder of my life.  I only wish I had discovered it sooner.  Here is an edited excerpt:  "There are two contemplative practices of fundamental importance in the Christian tradition: the practice of stillness (also called meditation, still prayer, contemplative prayer, etc.) and the practice  of watchfulness or awareness.  These contemplative skills are not imports from other religious traditions, and the Christian contemplative tradition has a lot to say about them. ... [T]he foundational assumption [is] that union with God is not something we are trying to acquire: God is already the ground of our being.  It is a question of realizing this in our lives. ... [M]ost of us spend most of our lives more or less ignorant of this.  It is precisely this noisy, chaotic mind that keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of our being. ... The grace of salvation, the grace of Christian wholeness that flowers in silence, dispels this illusion of separation.  For when the mind is brought to stillness, and all our strategies of acquisition have dropped, a deeper truth presents itself: we are and have always been one with God and we are all one in God (Jn 17:21)."

Honorable Mentions:

A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation by Martin Laird (the companion volume to Into the Silent Land)

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll

God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships by Matthew Vines

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee

Discernment Matters: Listening with the Ear of the Heart by Sister Mary Margaret Funk

Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Bruce G. Epperly

God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy by David Ray Griffin

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

"And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress."

-- Isaiah 5:7

"The friend of silence comes close to God." 

-- St. John Climacus

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

“… contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do:  it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.  To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter."

--Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Address to the Catholic Bishops, 2013

Monday, December 01, 2014

I discovered that over the weekend my blog surpassed 100,000 visits (which is not all that impressive when you consider that I've been blogging since 2003).