Monday, June 29, 2009

Turning Fifty

The voice that comes out in writing speaks from the depths of one’s aloneness to the aloneness of others.
Michael Eigen, The Electrified Tightrope, 262

I turned 50 last Wednesday, June 24. I was in Nashville for a meeting of the United Methodist Commission on Theological Education and no one knew it was my fiftieth birthday – and I was o.k. with that. That evening I had a very nice dinner with some members of the commission and it was a nice way to mark the day. Of course, it was also very nice to get home and celebrate this day with my family, which we did Saturday night.

So Wednesday was my birthday. On Thursday afternoon, I was on a treadmill in a hotel in Nashville when the news came on that Michael Jackson died, at age 50. Earlier in the day, the news about Farrah Fawcett’s death was also released – her death at age 62. Growing up I remember the music of The Jackson 5. Thriller was released the year after I graduated from college and I heard it often while working with youth as a seminarian. Whatever strangeness emerged in Michael Jackson’s life, his music touched the world with joy and hope. I also remember Farrah Fawcett from Charlie’s Angels, though truth be told, I had more of a crush on Kate Jackson. Farrah’s type just seemed too unattainable.

On the treadmill, with news of these deaths swirling around, with my fiftieth birthday only a day gone by, these songs came on one after another on my i pod:

But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too

Dream On
Everytime that I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face gettin clearer
The past is gone

Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears

Dream on, dream on
Dream yourself a dream come true
Dream on, dream on
Dream until your dream comes true

All these lines on my face are getting clearer. I’m getting older too. I hope time makes me bolder in good ways, and I hope I never stop dreaming – or singing.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Father's Day

Father’s Day was a week ago and I spent only a part of the day with my three children – David, Beth and Sarah.

Beth I did not see at all. She is completing her first year of medical school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and was in the Twin Cities studying for her final exams of this first year. She sent me a text and called me.

David was out working on a political campaign. He is the campaign manager for a candidate running for an at-large city council seat in Duluth. He has spent most Sunday afternoons distributing literature or knocking on doors for his candidate. That afternoon, our daughter Sarah went with him to help. They were home for dinner at which time we (Julie - my wife, David, Sarah and I) marked Father’s Day.

While I enjoy all the time I spend with my children, and if there is a lack of time together my schedule is often the culprit, I am not sure I could have had a better Father’s Day. To see my children as caring, concerned, compassionate adults – or on their way there, to see them working hard for things they believe in and things that will make the world a little better, is very special. To have them tell me that I have been of help along the way – there is no better Father’s Day gift than that.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Parker Palmer

Writing last week I made a case for the importance of including Huston Smith in the company of Christians, though some might not want to do so because of his definition of what it means to be a Christian, and the way his own faith journey has incorporated Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Huston Smith is an important Christian companion for the way he stretches me.
Another Christian who some might consider at the edge of Christian faith is Parker Palmer – and I would want him in my community of faith for the way he stretches me, for the way he challenges me to think more deeply about faith and life.
A men’s group at my church is currently reading Palmer’s most recent book, A Hidden Wholeness and grappling with its discussion of bringing soul more fully into our lives. While this is his most recent book, since its publication, Palmer has reissued an earlier work (The Promise of Paradox), and the new introduction to that work written for the reissue is quite fascinating for the light it sheds on Palmer’s Christian faith.
Palmer’s first book was written from a more explicitly Christian perspective than more recent work, but in the new introduction he claims this faith. “I still understand myself as a Christian, and many traditional Christian understandings still shape my life” (xxi). He goes on to say: “I would be lost in the dark without the light Christianity sheds on my life, the light I find in truths like incarnation, grace, sacrament, forgiveness, blessing, and the paradoxical dance of death and resurrection.” Yet Palmer also says that his “relationship to Christianity has changed” (xiv). He finds using Christian language problematic.
In 2008, I find it hard to name my beliefs using traditional Christian language because that vocabulary has been taken hostage by theological terrorists and tortured beyond recognition (xxi). Strong words – words I may not use, but they cause me to pay close attention. What problems does Palmer see?
When Christians claim that their light is the only light and that anyone who does not share their understanding of it is doomed to eternal damnation, things get very dark for me. I want to run screaming out into the so-called secular world – which is, I believe, better-named the wide, wild world of God – where I can recover my God-given mind. (xxii) Palmer is disturbed by the lack of humility he sees in too many Christians, their “theological arrogance” (xxiv), their failure to acknowledge that we are earthen vessels. These earthen vessels – the containers that hold and convey the mysteries of faith – include every word in our scriptures and theologies, every doctrine in our creeds, every structure that holds up the institutional church…. All of them are clay pots, prone to crack and leak, crumble and break. And that’s a good thing because it reminds us we are embedded in a truth so vast that our mental constructs can never comprehend it; because it cultivates the humility required to look at that mystery through other people’s eyes, giving us a chance to learn more about it; because it keeps us from becoming theological fascists. (xxvi)
If humility is one problem currently plaguing the Christian community, or at least some parts of the public face of it, Palmer also believes the way some describe the Christian doctrine of atonement is troubling. What kind of God is it who demands blood – the blood of God’s own son – for atonement?... I don’t want a God to whom I can feel morally superior. And I don’t want a theology that advocates blood sacrifice as a way of setting things right. There’s way too much of that going around these days. (xxiv) Such a statement would mean that some Christians would exclude Palmer from genuine Christian faith, much as they might Huston Smith. Palmer does view the death of Jesus as redemptive. Jesus died on the cross because he got crosswise with the powers that be…. For me, his death is redemptive not because it fulfills the puppet master’s plan or works some kind of cosmic sleight of hand but because it represents God’s willingness to suffer with us in every moment of our lives, not least when we are willing to speak truth to power. (xxv) I appreciate the way Palmer pushes me to think more deeply about the significance of the death of Jesus. In a violent world, where religion has often encouraged violence, we should be uneasy with a doctrine that seems to justify sacred violence.
Palmer’s thinking about Christian faith is not simply critical, it is also constructive. “Above all God wants us to be alive: life, after all, is God’s original gift to us” (xxviii) Palmer argues for a spiritual life that is found in the midst of life, with all its messiness. We will find our spiritual lives in that mess itself, in its earthly realities, unpredictable challenges, surprising resources, creative dynamics…. We [need to] add a new prayer to the well-known short list of “Thanks!” and “Help!” The new one is equally simple: “Bless this mess!” (xxviii)
In order to live life more fully, to deepen one’s spiritual life, one must embrace paradox. The capacity to embrace true paradoxes is more than an intellectual skill for holding complex thoughts. It is a life skill for holding complex experiences. (xxx) Palmer writes insightfully about that in A Hidden Wholeness. The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love. (82-83) As I approach 50, the truth of these words has become clearer to me.
Above all, God wants us to be alive. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). I believe that those words, written to describe Jesus, name what all are called to do, wrap our whole selves around the truth given to us and live it out in our embodied lives. (xxxi) In reading Palmer, especially on the necessity of paradox for being fully alive, I am reminded of these lines from William Blake:

Twofold Always. May God us keep
From single vision and Newton’s sleep.

Parker Palmer, like William Blake, is a deep poet of the soul, and a deeply Christian one.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Is Huston Smith a Christian?

To ask the question, “Is Huston Smith a Christian?’ strikes me as terribly impudent. He and I, after all, share a significant year together. This year, he turns 90 and I turn 50. Yet I think the question is important as I think about the meaning of Christian faith for the twenty-first century.
I have recently finished reading Huston Smith’s newly published autobiography, Tales of Wonder. Whatever one thinks about Huston Smith’s religious faith, this is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable read. If there is such a thing as a beach read for the intellectually and spiritually inclined, this book may be one. It is a page-turner with sex (or at least love and marriage and children), drugs (psychedelics with Timothy Leary), murder (one of Huston Smith’s granddaughters) and “adventures chasing the Divine” (the book’s subtitle). In its pages you meet (or hear about Huston Smith meeting), besides Timothy Leary, Henry Nelson Wieman (who is Smith’s father-in-law), Martin Luther King, Jr., Aldous Huxley, D. T. Suzuki, Eleanor Roosevelt, David Bohm, Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, Bill Moyers.
Huston Smith is the child of Methodist missionaries to China. He has practiced Christian faith for ninety years. He writes of himself: Of most of the things that happened to me, had they not happened, I would still be the same person. Erase Christianity from my life, though, and you will have erased Huston Smith. (97) Huston Smith clearly sees himself as a Christian. He can articulate succinctly what he thinks is required for person to be Christian. What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel an affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you can consider yourself a Christian. (109)
That definition would not be sufficient for a number of my fellow Christians, making Huston Smith suspect. His daily practices would make him more so. He begins each day with exercises for body, mind and spirit. For his body he practices hatha yoga. For his mind he reads “a few pages from the Bible or a bible (the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Quaran, the Sufi poems of Rumi, and so on” (xxi). Then he prays. In his memoir, Smith writes of his Christian faith, and then of his “three other religions” – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I never met a religion I did not like…. I practiced Hinduism unconditionally for ten years, then Buddhism for ten years, and then Islam for another ten years – all the while remaining a Christian and regularly attending a Methodist church. (113) Such religious practice would take him out of the family of Christian faith, at least as some would define it.
I have never met Huston Smith, but reading his autobiography I could almost feel his spirit – kind, generous, curious, deeply in love with life and with the Divine. I see in his Christian faith such depth that he can incorporate other religious practices into it with integrity without losing that faith. His openness to and wonder about other religious traditions seem genuine virtues in a world where Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims are not half a world away, and may not even be half a block away. Can Christians share the good news of Christian faith while acknowledging that other religious traditions might also lead to genuine encounters with God, with the Divine? I believe so, and I think Huston Smith serves as a wonderful example of a Christian who lives, thinks and shares his faith while learning from other faiths. Somehow the Christian community would be a much poorer place if our definition of Christian faith excluded this kind, thoughtful, deep soul.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Polyglot Spirit

I returned from annual gathering of the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church on Friday. Seeing friends and worshipping together are always highlights of Conference for me.

Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, that day when we tell again the story of God’s Spirit sweeping among the Jesus community like a strong, driving wind, and the creative chaos of multiple languages being spoken simultaneously, yet each person hearing of God in a way they could understand. God’s Spirit is polyglottal.

I experienced something of the polyglot Spirit while at Annual Conference. I especially experienced it on the last night of conference through two very very different gatherings. Thursday night was the ordination service – often a deeply meaningful and moving experience. I and many colleagues donned our clergy robes and processed into the service together. Singing, praying, walking, sitting together reminds us that we are a community, we United Methodist clergy in Minnesota, and on this night we welcome new members into that community. We often recall our own ordinations. I have developed a deep fondness for that part of the service where we sing the chant Veni Sanctu Spiritus – “Come Holy Spirit” as each person is ordained. The Latin chant, sung repeatedly, evokes for me the mystical dimension of God’s Spirit, the Spirit inviting us to transcendence, to deep transformation, to plumb the depths of the heart and mind and open them to new life.

After ordination, my friend Dale, my son David, and I met a few other friends at an off-conference site, a small establishment a couple of blocks from the convention center where the conference was being held. We talked and laughed for awhile, then musicians took the unobtrusive stage. The first was a sort of Tom Waits folk singer who played guitar and sang, accompanied by a single drum drummer. The drummer stayed on while a talented blues guitarist played and sang. This folk/blues music was another voice of the Spirit – reminding me that God’s Spirit works in the midst of all the circumstances of our lives, integrates into our spirituality the earthiness of our bodies, our sexuality, our friendships, our laughter, our disappointments, our failures, our loneliness. The work of God’s Spirit is integrating and integrity, it is wholeness and holiness. To paraphrase Tillich, a man is no bigger than the amount of diabolic in himself he can assimilate (Michael Eigen, The Electrified Tightrope, 9).

God’s polyglot Spirit continues to speak to me, and in me – uttering the prayer that I might be both more holy and more human.

With Faith and With Feathers,