Tag Archives: hope

The parable of the man saved by trash

Thank God it is no longer February! That was a hard one. But it is still Lent; it is a pandemic. Despair in is the air, in the country and in the church.  If you think you are drowning or barely keeping your nose above water, I have a little story for you after a few paragraphs.

Despair threaded its way through my feelings last week, too. A further reason, as if I needed one, was this: I kept encountering Christians hemmed in by the trash theology to which they were committed. I mean the kind of thinking that invited Trump, the unbeliever, to lead much of the Evangelical church as if he were Cyrus the Great now freeing Christian exiles. I mean the principle-based thinking that consigns devoted people to understanding the Bible as the end of faith when it is just the beginning. I mean the hierarchical thinking that constrains people to makes excuses for the church leaders who do them wrong, to the point where they can’t even feel their own loss or trauma without feeling guilty for having any and for not following the spin the leadership puts on their power plays.

Pollution in the ocean of grace

Maybe I am just despairing because I never seem to keep my mouth shut about these things and feel displeasing, as a result. I was in a class in which our teacher was giving a very effective presentation about being aware of power in a spiritual direction relationship. During the subsequent dialogue her students were sincerely self-aware of all the ways they might be at fault. They were ready to learn of any way they might cross a line that would diminish someone’s autonomy or impede their free choice. I thought controlling our little dyad with a commitment to “freedom” might be too small a context, reducing it down to something I could control might be a bit grandiose; it might betray some unprocessed philosophy. So I had to get in my two cents worth, as well, appearing a bit too passionate, I’m afraid (as passionate as one can get in a Zoom session, at least). I said something like, “Our teacher got interested in power because Jean Vanier was exposed for taking sexual advantage of his directees, among others. What’s more, an authoritarian president unleashed a wave of threat in the country and a return to unveiled white supremacy!”

My righteous anger kept simmering until I read a little news story that became a parable of hope for me. Even less-than-complete thinking might be a means of salvation for our miracle-working God — Lord knows I am not complete! So I want to share the story with you, along with my interpretation. You are probably clinging to some bit of trash theology in a sea of confusion, threat and chaos yourself. And I think we all probably feel very small in a very big ocean every day, even when there is no virus to fear.

Here’s the story

Before I start, let me remind you.  While the legislatures rush to spend time on restricting rampant voter participation, the Pacific Ocean is quickly filling up with plastic. In 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Pacific Ocean was “crying out in despair.” Scientists warn the pollution crisis could leave more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish by 2050.

Those two more cents being offered, here’s the parable.

Pitcairn Island

According to the Washington Post, a supply ship called the Silver Supporter left New Zealand on Feb. 8 for the 3,000 mile trip to the Pitcairn Islands (famously settled by mutineers from the Bounty in 1789). About seven days later, the crew discovered they were one member short. Their chief engineer was missing.

Around 4 am, during his watch on the night shift, Vidam Perevertilov from Lithuania felt hot and dizzy. He went out on the deck for some fresh air. Apparently, he fainted and fell overboard into the dark waters without a life jacket. He had trouble keeping his head above water as the sleeping ship steadily moved away. But he summoned enough energy to swim over a mile to a black object he could see on the horizon. The object turned out to be a detached buoy, a big piece of sea rubbish.

He was gone for six hours before someone sounded the alarm. The crew members studied Perevertilov’s work logs to try to pinpoint the coordinates of where he was last certified as on board. Distress calls were made to surrounding ships, and the French navy assisted in the hunt. A French meteorological service mapped a possible drift path. The ship’s captain continued to hunt for the missing crew member by steering the ship back and running various search patterns.

Despite his determination to pull through, as the hours slowly passed Perevertilov began to lose hope of ever being found. For sixteen hours he bobbed up and down in the cold and dark and then in the searing heat of the morning. He found himself using his final moments to reflect on his life.

Weak with dehydration, skin burning, and giving up hope, he was shocked to spot the Silver Supporter in the distance. He waved his arm and yelled for help. A passenger on board heard his cry, describing it as a “weak, human shout.” Everyone thought it was incredible someone heard a voice. The man’s ecstatic family thought the whole rescue operation was almost impossible to believe.

His son said his father’s will to survive was strong; even at 52, he was fit and healthy. When asked about the piece of trash he found, Perevertilov said he left the fishing buoy exactly where he had found it — just in case it was ever needed to save someone else.

Not a real island

I forget that God does a lot of good with “trash”

Don’t forget that he left the trash as he found it when he was found.

This story changed my mind about all the poor believers I lamented. Perhaps they had been overboard a long time and were about to give up. They swam toward some promising trash theology that kept them afloat. (I won’t go in to how relative my judgment of “trash” may be). They got spiritually dehydrated and often got burned, but it was better than drowning. In fact, the trash saved them until the big ship came and rescued them, brought them on board for healing and took them home. I can hear the Apostle Paul saying to me, “Would you despise the trash that saved your brother? Isn’t your sister’s life worth more than your estimation of goodness?” Well, no, I wouldn’t and yes, it is. Jesus is made known by a leaf in the forest, a small voice on a mountain or a Presbyterian sermon. A fine acquaintance from my youth started his journey of faith by pausing for a televangelist while flipping around the channels. God’s love is unrestrained.

I decided, once again, that I can afford to be a lot less critical of the dangerous debris floating around on the ocean of the collective unconscious. A lot of people have a will to live and not even trash Christianity can keep them from meeting God and growing into their fullness. I may be right to point out that the ocean of God’s grace is crying out in despair because it is polluted with a huge gyre of plastic, unnourishing, detrimental religious thinking.

But listen, there are all sorts of faint voices crying out and waving their hands for help. God sees. I should open my eyes, and my heart, as well.

Wrestling with rumors: WWJD with #WWG1GWA?

On March 20, President Trump retweeted a 2-year-old video of a teenager receiving a zealous pat down by a TSA agent in the Dallas airport while his mother filmed the incident, knowing she would be delayed that much more if she caused any more trouble with the security guards (WP). I don’t want to show you the video, because it just gives it more playtime, and by this time, the video is a meme.

Image result for qanon rally

We are in a season of rumor

But I can’t help talking about the source who belatedly brought the video to Trump’s attention, through a winding path of Twitter celebrities. It shows where he gets his information and makes me wonder why the president, and so many others, are so fond of spreading conspiracy theories. The TSA is branded as an instrument of the over-reaching government and Trump spreads the rumor its all part of a conspiracy.

In general, we are all figuring out what is going on by spreading and assessing rumors. For instance, last week an FB friend asked me if an old rumor about Circle of Hope is true: “I was told you don’t believe in dinosaurs.” She sent me a screenshot of the FB dialogue about us and one person chimed in to verify our “unbelief.” “Absolutely true!” he said. We are in the season of rumors becoming accepted facts. BTW, I had just been to the Natural History Museum in NYC and saw some of the dinosaur fossil record, which I don’t think is an elaborate fake.

I suppose “conspiracy theories” are graduate-level rumors. My acquaintance, Nicholas DiFonzo gave a brief outline of his extensive and helpful research on rumor on this video.

The video Trump shared appeared on a Twitter account called Deep State Exposed, which is operated by a man who pushes QAnon theories. I don’t pretend to know what is going on with QAnon since I just became aware of them. Although, being Anabaptish by persuasion, I’m probably in line with half their motivations. Regardless of my general ignorance, here is one man’s take on who the anonymous Q (and team) are: QAnon for beginners.

The man Trump retweeted has a Twitter bio which includes the phrase “WWG1WGA,” shorthand for “Where We Go One We Go All.” That hashtag is a rallying point for the narrative that ties together the Pizzagate conspiracy and a supposed “deep state” plot to control American politics (WP from last August). WWG1WGA is the main Q slogan.  It’s thought to come from the 1996 Ridley Scott film White Squall about a group of young people caught at sea in a terrible storm. “The Storm” is a common metaphor for Trump’s assault on the Deep State. Trump himself referenced it last October during a dinner with military commanders. People are painting the slogan on walls here and there.

Related image

The Washington Post sneers at such conspiracy theory purveyors, but it is useful to understand them. Once a rumor has been repeated enough and not debunked, it begins to build a worldview. Many QAnon people are persuaded Donald Trump is standing in the way of a cabal of the 1% who are determined to create a global police state that will take away their freedoms, and they are determined to be on the right side of history (an example of America’s doomsday obsession).

QAnon has a religious wing

Apart from the President’s collusion with them, my main interest in QAnon was generated by the following video from the blogger Sean/Cordicon (above). Through him, I learned about the QAnon manifesto. He also represents the religious wing to the movement which emerged out of the ooze of 8Chan. (You can see elements of the QAnon 8Chan  posts here). In the following video, Cordicon is a little disappointed with the marketing campaign for the movement’s seminal book, but he has more instructive things to say about the surprising connections being made with 1st century Christianity.

https://youtu.be/FHX9llcVHU4

Sean seems like a sensitive guy, and he is passionate about Jesus. At some point, he discovered a Jesus, promoted since the 1830’s or so, who is something of a prototype for himself: a person who has been denied his true existence by the powers. In case you did not watch the video (who has time for every link in this post!), I’ll tell you that, at one point, he held up the book below about the “Q” source for the gospels posited by some 19th century theologians. He claims this book represents the true Jesus.

Image result for the gospel of q

I suppose it was inevitable that QAnon and the Q Source for the gospels would meet and have a baby via the internet.

The Gospel of Q that has captured Sean’s imagination remains a hypothetical document. No intact copy has ever been found. No reference to the document in early Christian writings has survived. Its existence is inferred from an analysis of the text of Matthew and Luke.

James Robinson helped infer it. Robinson was part of the famous Jesus Seminar that began dialogue in the 1980s. He is also one of the main popularizers of the Gospel of Q. He says,

The Sayings Gospel Q is even older than the Gospels in the New Testament. In fact, it is the oldest Gospel known! Yet it is not in the New Testament itself — rather, it was known to, and used by, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the eighties and nineties of the first century when they composed their Gospels. But then it was lost from sight and only rediscovered in 1838, embedded in Matthew and Luke.

After all, Q is a product of the Jewish Jesus movement that continued to proclaim his message in Galilee and Syria for years to come, but from which practically no first-century texts have survived. The New Testament is mainly a Gentile collection, and hence only preserves the sources of Gentile churches.”

The “Gentile churches” got a reputation with a collection of mainly German scholars, not for following the Spirit of God, but for imposing a European, Greek and Roman gospel that eradicated the original Jewish, Syrian Jesus. You can see how this easily morphs into general QAnon thinking. The QAnon people are rebelling against the “new world order” imposed by some “Illuminati,” the same kind of people who buried the real Jesus!

Here’s a little more about the hidden “Q” source for Matthew and Luke. Scholars compared Matthew and Luke to Mark and saw when Matthew and Luke tell the story about Jesus, for the most part they both follow the order and often even the wording of Mark. But, into this common narrative outline, Matthew and Luke each insert extra sayings and teachings of Jesus. And although Matthew and Luke do not put these sayings in the same order, nevertheless they each repeat many of the same ones, sometimes word for word.

The scholars thought it unlikely that either Matthew or Luke could have copied from the other, so how can this sort of agreement be explained? The answer appeared to be that Matthew and Luke each had two sources in common: the Gospel of Mark and another gospel, now lost, a collection of sayings known only as Q. Q stands for “Quelle,” the German word for source. Although no actual copy of Q has ever been found, many scholars are convinced that such a document once circulated in early Christian communities. Here is an essay about it from The Atlantic: The Search for a No-Frills Jesus.

Should we think about Q or do anything about it?

I wrote this piece to try to give some context to what is brewing in the U.S.. You might run into QAnon and think the theories are facts! Rumors grow into conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories become division and wars.

Even more, I wrote to question what amounts to a rumor and then a conspiracy theory that the true, original Jesus has been lost with Q. You might come to think if we strip away the narrative of the Lord’s “supposed” death and resurrection and all the miracle stories, we would see the real Jesus in the wisdom sayings that are left. We would then have the purest Jesus, relieved of the burden of European domination, Greek philosophy and expectations of power.

To be honest, I agree with some of what the Jesus Seminar was trying to do as they searched for Jesus beyond the trappings of His Westernization, even if they were searching from a position of authority with their Western academic assumptions firmly in place and came to spurious conclusions. But I don’t think we need to throw out the “bathwater” of the Bible to find the “baby” Jesus again.

And while I can appreciate that Sean would love to have a Jesus who emerges from behind the veil of the domination system, I don’t think we need to embroil the Lord in the latest conspiracy theory, as if he can be reduced to a LARP. Sean does not think he is in a live action role play, but I’m pretty sure he would admit he has plenty of people jumping on the bandwagon who aren’t as serious as he is. Jesus has often been used as a pawn in some political struggle. We don’t need to collaborate with the latest.

I was drawn to Paul again in 2 Corinthians 10 as a place to ponder what Jesus would do:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

We must not wage war as the world does, not with its philosophies and not with its weapons. That seems sure. We must develop a deep, Spirit to spirit relationship with God, live in an authentic community in Christ where we can discern together, and trust that our meager attempts to understand the truth and tell it will be met with supernatural assistance.

Maybe most of all, I think Sean reminded me that Jesus listens to people, even on the internet, with compassion and openness, ready to honor their value and deepen their understanding. We are all wrestling with rumors. No rumor tells the truth about Circle of Hope and no link on this page tells the past, present or future story of whoever it is from or about. Paul is talking about saving eternal lives, not winning an argument.

Our open hearts and listening ears weaponize our love. Long after the present realignment in the world order is over, Jesus will still be fighting His battle the way he does, with suffering love and a hope that transcends whatever the rebels think they will achieve with their hashtag army. Until that day is done, we wage war, with Paul, with resurrection power, not mere words and certainly not based on our right to bear death-dealing arms. It is a confusing moment in our history, so expending the energy to live in truth will cost us. But as we enter Holy Week we can see again what kind of story we are writing with our expensive love.

First Reformed: Is it the perfect movie for Lent 2019?

Ethan Hawke plays the disintegrating Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed.

Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.

That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.

The perfect movie for Lent 

This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building.  On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit.  Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.

One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.

  • Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
  • Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
  • Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
  • Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.

Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.

Image result for cedric kyle first reformed
Cedric Kyles (the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life Fellowship

I have hope in our alternativity

Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear.  In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!

But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.

I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.

If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.

Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

Last Saturday, I kept running into hope and it made me cry.

  • As I rolled in to the Good Business Oversight Team summit, Pie Jesus came on my player right when I was thinking about the epidemic of heroin-induced deaths in our city and country. My grief over the loss of hope among the victims (and now their families!) made me a dangerous, vision-impaired driver!
  • Then I went to the Love Feast and felt the worship team and the covenant-makers stoking our hope as they expressed theirs – we were, in fact, a Circle of Hope. It made me weep with joy.
  • Before we went to bed, we tuned into Netflix and watched the last episode of season six of the most Christian TV show ever: Call the Midwife. The sweetness of their hope in the middle of a changing world and troubling family situations unleashed my own hope – and the tears.
hope
Click the pic if you want to see the scene

What a wonder it is that so many of us are drawn away and turn away from the death-dealing world and find God “right under our noses” so to speak. We’re often like Dorothy waking up from her vision and realizing her heart’s desire was in her own backyard all the time and among those who love her.

As Cynthia Bourgeault ends her book Mystical Hope she tries to sum up her profound teaching about finding hope right under our noses, while rolling down Washington Ave, and especially in the moments of love we give and receive. She is teaching us to find hope in a new way, not as an object of desire, but as the subject who is as near as a turn of heart. I am going to quote quite a bit of it for you:

“I have tried to suggest a new way of picturing hope. In this new positioning, the underlying sense of corporateness is physically real, the that ‘electromagnetic field of love’ is the Mercy – and the Mercy is the body of Christ. Through this body hope circulates as a lifeblood. It warms, it fills, it connects, it directs. It is the heart of our own life and the heart of all that lives.

Hope’s home is the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth. When our innermost being is attuned to this pulse it will send us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives. Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender; that is through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to. And yet when we enter it, it enters us and fills us with its own life – a quiet strength beyond anything we have ever known.

And since that strength is, in fact, a piece of God’s purposiveness coursing like sap through our own being, it will lead us in the right way. It sweeps us along in the greater flow of divine life as God moves – and in the western religions, God does move – toward the fulfillment of divine purpose which is the deeper, more intense, more subtle, more intimate revelation of the heart of God.”

Long before we know Jesus, we have had experiences of being swept up in the flow of God’s good purpose. This “quality of aliveness” was called “righteousness” in the Old Testament, as in Psalm 23: “He restores my soul; he guides me in the paths of righteousness.” Unlike how many people read that couplet, the psalmist did not mean we should stay within the lines of a moral template so we will succeed at building an ideal replica of God’s kingdom and be justified by it. The poet was reminding us we live in a Spirit-charged “force field” (as we might picture it), a force field in which everything we do must move in order to come to fruit. The inner and outer need to sync up: our souls are restored and our feet are guided; as Jesus says, we become good trees that bear good fruit; as Psalm 1 says, we are good trees planted by flowing streams of righteousness.

In the New Testament, Paul calls this territory “in Christ.” In Christ we find that quality of aliveness we need.

To [his saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ….I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge…As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving…For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. – Colossians 1:27-2:10

“Christ in us” and “us in Christ” is the Mercy, that place of assured understanding, that mystery that continues to unfold as we experience it in our hearts “encouraged and united in love.” Christ in us is the “hope of glory.” In Christ we come to “fullness.”

Paul sounds a lot like Cynthia Bourgeault as she piles up metaphors and viewpoints, circling in on the mystical hope she can feel better than describe. Her everyday way to “in Christ” is meditation that turns her in toward that golden kernel of her true self, protected and saved by God. In a somewhat seamless movement, that everyday prayer then turned her out to write her book, knowing that no self-giving love is wasted in the world, not on her and not on us, either. Our prayer, especially the prayer of meditation, is not only what saves us from the world, it is also the key thing we do to save the world. It is our way to hope, our way to become a circle of hope, and our way toward encircling others with hope.

I have enjoyed sharing these five posts inspired by Bourgeault’s book. I’d love to hear how your own prayer was encouraged or developed as a result. Let me know. If you missed one, I think you can find them all by searching for “Cynthia Bourgeault” with the search bar.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it

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Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope

The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
Thomas Keating

If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”

That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers  and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.

we are drawn to meditation

Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not

The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.

Art often captures the turning of meditation
Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910.

Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving.  The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.

We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness

We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.

It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.

Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”

Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Next: There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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Mystical hope in a deteriorating world

We founded Circle of Hope in a ripe moment of history and the outcome has been beautiful. A few weeks into the process, we sat in a small circle discussing what our name would be. We ended up with several versions of a name with “hope” in it. But some people did not like any of those versions. A few people (and in a circle of ten, a few is relevant!) thought it was just too much to put “hope” right out there in the church’s name.

Barack copied us?

Maybe they were right to be cautious. Regardless, they were certainly representative of many others, since many people think hope is far-fetched, even dangerous — mainly because they think it is something tied to outcome. If you are a circle of hope you invite expectations that might not be met. So many people are laboring under all the “outcomes” required of them, and under all the “outcomes” that were promised and did not happen. For most people, “hope” is optimistic feeling, or at least a willingness to go on, because we sense things are going to get better. But is that sense about worn out  these days? What if you put “hope” right out there on your poster, like President Obama did, and then everything does not get better like you promised? What if you imply that Jesus is going to get you a job, provide a mate and cure your cancer and it does not happen? Won’t the name of your church just point out the fact that it did not happen?

We had people on our little team whose hopes had been dashed. What’s more, some of them had grown up in the church, where they even memorized Bible verses like in Psalm 116: “I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication…I was brought very low and he helped me.” But it did not always happen just like the verse promised. After a while, it is hard to figure out what to do with dashed hopes.

I have memorized some Bible verses myself and I am an optimistic guy — and God has repeatedly helped me when I was “brought low.” Even so, I have never thought it was wise to make promises God was not going to keep, at least act as if God were the Amazon of human need.

Another way of experiencing hope

I am reading a little book that beautifully points out there is another kind of hope represented in the Bible which is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at hope in terms of outcomes. We can see it in Habakkuk 3:17-19 where the prophet dances on the heights even though the land is devastated, or when Jesus offers water inside for outwardly thirsty people in John 4:13-14, or in the “total immersion course” in the school of hope that the book of Job is where he ends up singing Job 19:25-26: “I know my redeemer lives.”

Cynthia Bourgeault calls this hope “mystical hope.” And that is the title of her book, too. Mystical hope has three characteristics in contrast to our usual notions of hope. These usual notions, based on outcomes, are not bad, they just are not complete or entirely useful. She says, in light of the three biblical examples mentioned:

Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.

This kind of hope has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by someone intimately at hand.

This hope bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy , and satisfaction: and “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it produces them from within.

Mystical hope makes a Circle of Hope and allows us to act for good outcomes. This week the pastors passed around a couple of pieces that tested our hope. One was from the Census Bureau.

The map above shows the increase in the number of young adults (18-34) in the United States living at home with their parents in 2015 compared to 2005. The changes in society in the last ten, certainly the last 40 years are staggering. More than 1 in 3 young people lived in their parents’ home in 2015. That is a huge increase in one decade. What’s more, of those people, 1 in 4 are idle, that is they neither go to school nor work. Many people see this as a poor outcome. Are all these people hopeless?

The other piece was about alone and lonely men. A journalist who researchers psychology was pondering the Las Vegas shooting. An apparently completely alone man was the shooter. As a “lone wolf” he is not that unusual among men. The author says:

As a man, you might be thinking, “Not me, I’ve got drinking buddies. I play poker with the guys. I’ve got friends.”

But do you have confidants? Do you have male friends who you can actually be vulnerable with? Do you have friends whom you can confide in, be 100% yourself around, that you can hug without saying “No homo,” without feeling tense or uncomfortable while you’re doing it?

For many men, the answer is “no.” So, we spend our time posturing instead.

From an early age, we have an unhealthy ideal of masculinity that we try to live up to. Part of that ideal tells us that Real men do everything on their ownReal men don’t cry. Real men express anger through violence.

The byproduct is isolation. Most men spend the majority of their adult lives without deeper friendships, or any real sense of community. Not to mention a complete inability to release anger or sadness in a healthy way.

Many woman might feel exactly the same way, of course. And the evil ways of late capitalism has made a perfect environment to create unhealthy, isolated people.

I want to say more about Cynthia Bourgeault’s book in the future. But for now, let me end with a quote that speaks back to twentysomethings who feel that their future is bleak and parents who feel their children are hopeless cases, and to men and women who feel isolated and friendless, stuck in some pattern that feels hopeless. There is something deeper than your situation.

Hope is not intended to be an extraordinary infusion, but an abiding state of being. We lose sight of the invitation – and in fact , our responsibility, as stewards of creation – to develop a conscious and permanent connection to the wellspring. We miss the call to become a vessel, to become a chalice into which this divine energy can pour; a lamp through which is can shine.

But what if we are intended to become this vessel, this body of hope? What if, in fact, this effervescent, “lightness-of-being” energy is the fuel that drives our human life toward its divine fulfillment? What if our insistence on treating it as a rare and exceptional phenomenon is a way of ducking the invitation that was permanently extended at the Samaritan well that blazing midday?

The journey to the wellspring, the to secret of Jesus, the Master of Galilee, is the great inner journey to which we Christians are called.

I am glad we put hope right out there in the name of our expression of the Church. It almost dares people not to meet Jesus. On the one hand, God has produced outcomes that are far greater than we imagined as we sat in a little circle of ten in my living room. We hoped good things would happen and even more than we hoped happened. So that’s great. But what about all that did not happen? What sustained us when we failed, broke up, died, lost faith, were betrayed and confused? It was that mystical hope, that turning toward the living water that energizes us to get up and follow Jesus.

Other posts on Mystical Hope:
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

Subscribe to Development! Hit the “follow” button after you type in your email. Thanks for reading!

Hope — an orientation of spirit

It is almost 2017. Last night in our meetings we were talking about Mary and her miraculous Child, born under the domination of the Roman Empire, even more, born of sinful parents and destined to take on their sin — and ours too.  Advent contains an amazing, hopeful story. But do we have any hope left, this year? Really, is there a circle where hope is alive?

It would have been a discouraging year even if Donald Trump and the Russians had not won the election, as it appears they will. It was a year full of arguing about whether black Iives matter and a year when people put “blue lives matter” signs on their lawns to talk back — in neighborhoods minutes from our meeting place in South Jersey. People of privilege scolded us that “all lives matter,” even as it became more and more obvious that such a thought is just a good idea, not a reality. Among us, we passed around great books and films that told us the horrible truth again: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow about mass incarceration, Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen about racism in the church, Netflix’s 13th about the amendment that is perpetually subverted, and I finally just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. just mercy

Bryan Stevenson’s great book

I would love to write a lengthy review of Stevenson’s book, if only to  solidify everything I learned from him about the prison system, about a corrupt and broken justice system, about unjust incarceration, about sentencing juveniles and the mentally ill and about the slow eradication of the death penalty. But I won’t. I know you feel too busy or beaten down to even read this blog post, much less read a long review or even more, a book, so I won’t go there.

Let me give you just one quote in honor of Mary, whose son would be unjustly condemned and receive the death penalty. Let me give you one quote that speaks into our time and tries to encourage people who want to make a difference but who just get tired or cynical and who often end up in despair with few places to look for encouragement.

Stevenson is talking about a case he worked on for years in which a man was serving time on death row for a crime he did not commit. He says,

“I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.

I’d started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I’d grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that ‘hope’ was the one thing that  people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.

Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted more money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather ‘an orientation of the spirit.’ The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.

Havel prescribed exactly what our work seemed to require….Together we hoped.”

We certainly have our work cut out for us as followers of Jesus right now, don’t we? Stevenson and Havel are great examples of what Jesus followers  do when they are called to give their gifts in the cause of truth justice and mercy. Mary is a prime example of a less brilliant person, Iike most of us — too young, too poor, too powerless to do anything, who gives herself to God’s calling. We need an orientation of spirit that makes us individual witnesses, and we need to live in a circle that gives a larger witness than our individual capacities. In the face of abusive power we need to hope in a future promised and won by God-with-us, God-continuing-with-us.

Let’s be strong, not in our own capacity or even our mutuality, but in our hope — hope clutched Iike the lifeline it is, hope in Jesus who has blazed our way through the fearsome and relentlessly evil circumstances we face. We are a circle where hope is alive; but it is a flame that needs air and fuel; it needs tending and, like Mary knew when hope was recognized in her womb, magnifying.

The Golden Globes stoke my hope

The embarrassing Ricky Gervais usually convinces me to skip the Golden Globes award show that aired last night. This time, Viola Davis looked so spectacular she was a good reason to tune in. As it turns out, there was another reason, as well. Did you notice a theme running through the nominated dramas?

CAROL
1950s married women find unexpected love and complications.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Furiosa frees sex slaves.

THE REVENANT
Vengeance in the frozen north. Hugh Glass frees a native sex slave.

ROOM
Sex slave and her son escape.

SPOTLIGHT
Sexual abuse in the Catholic church is finally exposed.

I am not sure what is going on. But if the movies reflect our reality at all, we appear to be very angry and sex is not working out for us. We have been abused and our imaginations run to the most heinous of situations. Our master movie makers are creating stories that focus on the horrible. We are desperate for connection, but not that hopeful.

Continue reading The Golden Globes stoke my hope

Seven mental ruts where unhappiness runs: Offramps from the Bible

There are things we think and do that everyone knows lead to anxiety and depression. Even though they are somewhat obvious, we still need to list them periodically so we can retrain our rutted brains. If you feel stuck in self-destructive behaviors, unhealthy relationship patterns, behaviors dictated by fear, or you feel like changing your life is a hopeless cause, then one place to start is meditating on changing your mind. If you are a cell leader or a people helper, sympathizing with what is making you feel uncomfortable around someone rather than reacting to it might help them find an alternative way of life.

Our minds can be just as rutted

Here are seven things we might say from the depths of a mind rut for which we need an off ramp. Following each statement are some of those basic things the Bible writers teach as good for making our ways straighter and smoother.

Continue reading Seven mental ruts where unhappiness runs: Offramps from the Bible

Eight reasons to feel better about what is happening in your ruined place

When I was on retreat last week, I felt guilty about being on retreat. Then I read an entry in my journal that said, “I am probably better for the church on retreat than I usually am in my office!” It was a good reminder. I felt less guilty about my luxuriant silence.

My review of my journal kept demonstrating other troubles that disturb my peace. Like how I swing from utter confidence in God to being “daunted” (that is the usual word). Silence overcomes what daunts. To be confident in God in the face of what is daunting takes enough silent time to recognize how God is present as I am present.

I am not sure I had enough time. I stayed in town, so now I remember why people go to the desert. But making the effort to retreat into some silence was richly rewarded, if only for the eight reasons I am about to share with you.

see what sprouts in ruined placesAs I meditated on my journal, looking for how Jesus has been leading me, these remarkable moments of grace kept popping up. Sometimes I feel, overall, like life is kind of overwhelming and my journal reflects that. It is like one of David’s Psalms where he is stuck in a cave somewhere and Saul is looking for him —  but then there is a paragraph in my journal entry that looks like the end of one of David’s laments when he, too, remembers how God has worked and praises him. “This is troubling…BUT God is glorious.”

Continue reading Eight reasons to feel better about what is happening in your ruined place