Monday, June 20, 2011

It's Not the Answers, but the Questions that Matter

In the little book of Habakkuk, the prophet faces a crisis of faith. It was a common belief among Habakkuk’s people that plagues and invasions from other nations were indicative of God’s displeasure or judgment. Undoubtedly, Habakkuk shares this belief to some degree. Most of us share the beliefs we are socialized into through family and culture.

The Babylonians are coming. They are a ruthless and violent people who worship might and power. They will sweep down and set their hooks and nets into the land and gather the people of Israel in like a fisherman gathers in his catch, to be used and disposed of at will (1:5–17).

The prophet cries to God, “We cry for help but you do not listen. We cry out for deliverance but you do not save. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted” (1:2–4).

It’s a question of justice. How can it be, cries the prophet, that God would use a more wicked people to punish a less wicked people? Israel wasn’t innocent, but they were not as vicious and ruthless as the Chaldeans. This baffles the prophet and sends him into a quandary. The old theology, the standard answer no longer works.

I heard about a man traveling on a dinner flight who found an enormous roach on his salad. Back home he wrote a harsh letter to the president of the airline. A few days later he received a letter from the president explaining how that particular airplane had been fumigated and all the seats and upholstery stripped. There was even the suggestion that the aircraft would be taken out of service. The man was very impressed until he noticed that quite by accident the letter he had written had stuck to the president’s letter. On his letter there was a note that said, “Reply with the regular roach letter.”

For more and more Christians today, especially critically-thinking Christians, the old answers, the generic responses are no longer sufficient.

Unfortunately, there are still many Christian communities that try to smother the questions. Questions arise that either you are not encouraged to ask or perhaps not even allowed to ask. And when you do ask them, you are given short, simplistic explanations or the questions are dismissed or ignored as insignificant. Or even worse, you are condemned for your lack of faith or treated as a heretic for asking the questions.

For many Christians in faith communities across the country there are teachings that dare not be challenged and questions that dare not be asked. The old answers are supposed to be true because someone in authority says they are true. The answers usually are given as: “This is what the Bible says” or “God says . . .”

If the answers come from people we love and care about, like our parents, family members, faith community and friends in our social network, we may live with those answers for a long time, until they no longer work or make sense to us anymore.

Sometimes it takes an experience of unusual suffering or loss to jar us awake—the death of a love one, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of employment, a debilitating disease. Or it may come about, as it did in my faith journey, through a growing feeling or gnawing sense that the old answers are simply not true; that the “old time religion” is not spiritually healthy or personally transforming.

At some point in our faith journey it is necessary to find our beliefs/theology lacking. Otherwise, we would never question and grow. Healthy, holistic, and transformative spirituality is not about having the right answers; it’s about asking the right questions—better questions.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Spirituality of Mindfulness

On the night of his arrest, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him into the garden to pray. Jesus wants their support, but this is also to prepare them for the trial to come. Jesus tells them to stay awake. It was important that they see his struggle and participate in it. But they could not. They went to sleep.

Jesus calls Peter out especially, because he had been the most outspoken and boastful, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?” Then he says, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial,” that is, “that you may not be overcome when you enter the trial coming upon you.” “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” he says (see Mark 14:32–42). Jesus knows that they need to nurture the spiritual fortitude, strength, courage, and endurance that comes from being discerning of God’s will and awake to God’s presence.

When Jesus tells them to stay awake and pray, he is telling them to be reflective and discerning. If they are to ask God for anything, they are to ask God for discernment and understanding, for inner strength and courage.

To be awake is to be mindful of God’s mind, and part of this involves developing the capacity to think. One of the great challenges in American Christianity is to get Christians to think.

I read somewhere that in the third century, the one known as Julian the Apostate was determined to blot out every trace of Christianity. What he discovered, however, was the principle of spiritual thermodynamics; the more he applied the heat of persecution, the more the church seemed to expand and multiply. Frustrated with his efforts to wipe out the Christian movement he made this assessment. He said, “Christianity provokes too much thinking. Even the slaves are thinking.”

But once Christianity stopped being persecuted by the establishment and became part of the establishment, thinking was not as necessary. Once Christianity gained favor and cuddled up to the powers that be many Christians simply stopped thinking. It was too risky.

Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink has done some rather extensive research and study on the concept of the “principalities and powers” as it is found in Scripture and manifested in society. In the mythical world of biblical times the reference is often to demons, but it could also refer to the domination system of the world. Wink concludes from his study that all the outer, visible organizations, institutions, systems, and structures of the world have an invisible, inner, spiritual reality. He says that while we may not be accustomed to thinking of the Pentagon, or the Chrysler Corporation, or the Mafia as having a spirituality, they actually do. He contends that what people in the world of the Bible called “principalities and powers” was actually the spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day.

The capacity to resist conformity to the Domination System, to the powers that be, is difficult and must be nurtured. If we are spiritually sleepwalking there is no way we will have the inner strength and courage to resist conformity to the will of the powers that be, let alone be able discern what is good and right and just and loving.

Prayer is not intended to be our way of getting what we want; it’s our way of staying awake and being open to the Divine Spirit. It’s our way being present to the Presence of God. It’s our way of drawing upon the discernment, wisdom, compassion, grace, and inner strength of Christ to resist conformity to the Domination System and to work towards transforming it.

In prayer we discover our mission as collaborators with God and as agents of the Spirit. We discover how to be peacemakers and advocates of restorative justice and to work for the renewal of the earth. In prayer we learn to be humble servants and we learn how to see through the veneer of lies and deceptions that coats so many of our religious and political and social institutions. In prayer we open up our minds to what is good and true, so that we can be transformed, rather than be conformed to the mold of the world.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Finding Our True Vocation

In the Gospels, Jesus’ sense of vocation—his conviction about what he was called to do—emerged from a clear sense of who he was.

Before Jesus began his public ministry he may have been a follower of John the Baptist. He was baptized by John in the desert. In the context of his baptismal experience Jesus was given a vision, a revelation of his true self. The Gospels employ symbolical language to describe Jesus’ spiritual encounter: The heavens opened, the Spirit descended in the appearance of a dove, and the Divine Voice pronounced, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Immediately after this experience Jesus faced Satan in the desert, that is, Jesus faced the temptations of his calling (temptations he would encounter throughout his ministry). And then, in the power of the Spirit, Jesus began proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, welcoming all manner of sinners into his fellowship and manifesting healing power.

Jesus becomes the Messianic agent of God’s new world after he hears the still, small Voice of the Spirit affirming him as God’s Son. Jesus provides for us a pattern for coming to realize our true vocation.

Dennis Lynn is an author and spiritual retreat leader. Having been brought up in a very strict religious environment, his primary goal in life as an adolescent was to avoid hell. He tried to avoid the long list of sins that he had been taught would lead to his eternal banishment. He grew up hating himself and not liking anyone else much either.

A major change took place in his life when he joined the Jesuits. His novice master had instructed him to make a general confession of his sins. He wrote twelve pages of all the things he didn’t like about himself. At his confession, Dennis started with page one and talked non-stop for thirty minutes.

At the end of his confession his novice master said nothing. Instead, he came over and gave him a big hug. It was then that the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and he heard the Voice of God affirming him that he was God’s son, that God loved him no matter what.

Dennis’ experience of being loved unconditionally as God’s child led to his conviction about his true vocation. From then on Dennis felt he could be a brother to all people, that he could love a lot because he had been forgiven a lot—at least twelve pages worth.

I have often contended that doubts and questions are essential and necessary for our spiritual growth. My doubts and questions certainly spurred me to dig deeper and to come to a deeper faith and more compassionate life.

However, there is one truth that I hope I never doubt: the truth that God loves us as we are. We belong to God and are God’s daughters and sons, no matter how many faults and failures mark our path, no matter how destructive our addictions and problems.

Regardless of how much we achieve, how many accolades or honors or awards we earn, God will not love us any more than God loves us right now. And no matter how badly we mess up or how many sins characterize our lives, God will not love us any less than God loves us right now.

As we claim our identity as God’s beloved children, our vocation (calling) begins to take shape. Knowing who we are, we are awakened to a clearer sense of what we are to be about.