Earthdance

A photograph of this morning from the shore of Tulum on the Yucatan peninsula, on the Caribbean Sea. (captured by Kathryn Bagwell)

Bagwell Tulum MX

Stillpoint..that point in a dance where the dancer pauses. In that stillness, all that has come before in the dance is beheld by those privileged to see. Yet- simultaneously- the moment bursts with the promise of what will be. It is a point which cannot be contained in time; it is past, present, and future in a single breath of the dancer.

The moment passes immediately but it is enough. The clouds roll in tandem with the movement of the tide as both are guided by the Moon’s sweeping caress, toward landfall and the dissipation of their various and many forms. Yet nothing is lost. The water is still water, even as it raised upward, molecule by molecule by the rising and warming Sun into the clouds which are gestating the births of raindrops.

The Mayans, who first looked out on this great sea with the wonder of sentient beings, knew the cosmic dance before them as sexual, life-giving. The intimacy of the Sky with the Sea is what brought forth life. It was life that teemed within the Mother herself, and life which was poured onto the land by the Father. All that dwelled on the Earth- the people, the animals, the mangroves and trees, the grasses- all of life was a part of the continuing story of a creation that was at times both terrifying and beautiful.

But here, now, the transparent greens and turquoise blues are lifted in a crescendo against the gray promise of morning’s Light and a pink/magenta Sunrise. Silent thunder rolls across the eternal stage and pelicans begin their flights just above the waves, the clouds open in rippled separation, the Earth exhales in a warm western wind, and..Stillpoint.

And the Dance begins again.

 

 

The true shape of your face..

TILICHO LAKE by David Whyte

In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.

Step toward the cold surface,
say the old prayer of rough love
and open both arms.

Those who come with empty hands
will stare into the lake astonished,
there, in the cold light
reflecting pure snow

the true shape of your own face

tilicho lake

Tilicho Lake is located in the mountains of Nepal. Over three miles above sea level, it is one of the highest lakes on Earth; thus, one of the most difficult to access. The poet David Whyte uses it here as a metaphor for that place of transformation of which we all are aware, but may not be consciously able to either express or explain the necessity of our finding it.

That shared longing is for the place where we are able to begin to move from the adolescence of our lives to becoming an adult. Without that transformative place of passage, it is possible to be an adolescent trapped in an adult’s body, endlessly seeking to find a role to play, a way to sate the the hormonal beast within, and unable to discover the exact questions which will further the journey that the body and mind are capable of travelling.

We all need to find Tillicho Lake for ourselves. It need not be high in the Himalayas, or in what others may call a sacred place. It does not have to be a far away, difficult to physically access place, and it almost certainly will not be a place one can buy a ticket for with the promise that the maturation of the soul will occur.

It will almost always be “happened upon” as it was with David Whyte. He travelled there, wanting to see a place of great beauty about which he had heard and read. But, upon seeing it, he became a part of the lake. He opened his arms to everything new that he was experiencing, and in turn was astonished as the lake opened its arms to him as well. It became his new face, part of the permanent shape of his soul.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his Journal in 1857 of a dream in which he revisited a mountain he’d climbed years before: “What distinguishes that summit above the earthy line, is that it is unhandled, awful, grand. It can never become familiar; you are lost the moment you set foot there. You know no path, but wander, thrilled, over the bare and pathless rock, as if it were solidified air and cloud.” He is remembering the mountain, probably Mount Katahdin, described  in his book The Maine Woods, as a metaphysical place- a place where his mental and spiritual selves meet in transforming ways.

For Jesus, that sacred place happened during forty days among the rocks and crevices of the Jericho hills hard against the Jordan River. He left behind who he had been, and who he could have been, then opened his arms in astonishment  to his experience of the purest of Light.

It is there. If a person can remember that place, that time, even in a dream, then they have almost certainly experienced it a number of times since. It became a part of them, a mark on their being that has almost certainly been emotionally and spiritually enabling in the movement into their adult selves.

If neither the memory nor the dream seem to be there, I believe they will be, and soon, if one acknowledges the need for them.  Expectation and willingness are the insurance that the place will be discovered. There will be no need of its affirmation from an outside source. Tilicho Lake, Mount Katahdin, the banks of the Jordan: those places have been attracted toward the seeker even as the seeker has been attracted toward them.

It might also be the southeast corner of the neighborhood park, or the sight of a ginkgo tree in autumn as it becomes fluttering gold. Or the remembered blue wall of a childhood home where you first lost yourself in fixation and wonder.

Empty your hands, raise your arms in a rough prayer, and behold..

 

 

Connections

“There is another way to conceive of our life in God, but it requires a different worldview— not a clockwork universe in which individuals function as discrete springs and gears, but one that looks more like a luminous web, in which the whole is far more than the parts. In this universe, there is no such thing as an individual apart from his or her relationships. Every interaction— between people and people, between people and things, between things and things— changes the face of history. Life on earth cannot be reduced to four sure-fire rules. It is an ever-unfolding mystery that defies precise prediction. Meanwhile, in this universe, there is no such thing as ‘parts.’ The whole is the fundamental unity of reality.”1.

Our connections, each with the Other, each with all things here and there, past and present, are easily ignored or overlooked. The connections are too big to see, too small, too normal to examine objectively  or too extraordinary to regard as having anything at all to do with us. That we (me and you: our bodies, our hair and tongues and the rest of our physical beings) are somehow in the same ballpark as the planet Pluto, and both we and Pluto are players in the expansion of the universe and the gravitational warps of time, was not much more for most of us than a paragraph in a 12th grade science textbook.

Now, since last July, we’ve got photographs from Pluto. Not OF Pluto, but FROM Pluto.

Look closely enough through a microscope at the neurological connections in our brains and beyond to our toes and the patterns of ebb and flow look like nothing so much as satellite views of the Euphrates River Valley or the Mississippi Delta. And now we know those similarities of appearance are the antithesis of coincidence but a direct result of gravity’s dance with oceans and planetary orbits.

That we are all composed of starstuff was awesome news to most of us forty years ago, but now (thank you, Carl Sagan) it is the kind of truth that we must intentionally stifle lest we begin to destroy carefully crafted and “valuable” political/economic/cultural barriers between ourselves and ________ (fill in the name of another group of humans of your choice here).

We chew sunshine when we eat lettuce (or any green leaf), drink of the Arctic Ocean when eat at Whataburgers (or the Neiman-Marcus Tea Room), and breathe in (at an alarmingly high rate) the SAME atoms of oxygen breathed by pteradactyls, Alexander the Great, Jack the Ripper, and that jerk down the street with the always-barking dog. We humans and toadstools share 42% of a DNA template!

And on and on and on, ad infinitum..(literally).

The Connections are real. Between you and me and everything and everyone else pastpresentfuture, world without end, amen.

The gospel writer John described Jesus as the Word made Flesh. We know stuff that John didn’t know, though, and therefore couldn’t describe. It expands, widens, and deepens my , understanding and fascination with the Christ to know him as the Word made Flesh but also as the Word made starstuff in ALL of its forms: mountains, meteorites, quasars, synaptic receptors, lava, ice flows, bacteria, soil and..

Everything else: and it is all luminous. It is all filled with Light..

(amen, again)

1.Barbara Brown Taylor, “Physics and Faith: The Luminous Web,” Christian Century, June 2 1999, 612.

A New Year: Do This Now

Nobody has asked for it today; nonetheless, I offer this advice. It is spiritual advice, because that is the place from which it rises within me. You may receive it as a practical recommendation, but it is more. However, I am willing to say we are both correct. And you are free to disregard it. But I hope you won’t.

Thirty thousand years ago, in what is today France and Spain, people squeezed through openings in the earth, descended into dark (beyond dark) passageways with fire, paint, fuel, and the carcesses of small animals, in order to paint pictures on cavern limestone walls.

We don’t know precisely why they went to such dangerous, certainly uncomfortable lengths to do this, but they did.  There are caves throughout Europe filled with these paintings, drawings, and stencils of human hands.

The human urge to make a mark on something is (thus) at least thirty thousand years old. It is as new as the itching you and I feel to do the same. We feel that itch right now- for some it is a prodding, perhaps a scraping or worse. It is a feeling that ping-pongs between the hypocampus and our frontal lobes, back and forth between our ears and the sensory extensions of our consciousness into our surroundings.

We all want to leave a mark. We must pick up a brush, even when it is not the right brush. We must speak words, or write them to another though we know they are inadequate. We must plant a stone, a tree, a flag despite there being no exactly-right place to do so. We must crawl through the dark passageway, with fire.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo on October 2, 1884, this:

“If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes. To be good — many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm— and that’s a lie… That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

“You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

“Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’”

Don’t be afraid. There is a musical chord, a shade of magenta, a combination of words, a caress, a lathed piece of walnut, a stiched tapestry, a blown goblet, a braid of rope, an office-barn, a carved stick, a paving of stones, a cake of never-before imagined splendor and savor, waiting..

for your imagination, touch, and intent

no matter how unready you are or how untrained you may be. You can learn what more you need to know- and it may take years. But it will not happen years from now unless you begin right now.

Crawl now. Be Active, Alive, and make the blank canvas Afraid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Mentors: Mary Oliver

aamary-oliverDon’t bother me.

I’ve just

been born. (1.)

When I discovered the poems of Mary Oliver, I realized I had known her all my life. Her poems- and she is, thank God, a prolific writer- are wrapped in a kind of awe and wonder which I thought were a kind-of handicap I bore. Through her, more than any other writer, I stopped feeling childish about wanting to see the moist underside of an embedded-for-eons rock, or wanting to linger over ant hills and tangles of vines.

when death comes

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

and I look upon time as no more than an idea,

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular.. (2.)

Mary Oliver sees- feels winding around her soul- the connectedness of all things. To know the wolf, one must know something about the clouds. To be able to truly write about the love of a dog, it is vital to know the trepidation we feel when entering a darkened room. To know even a little bit about God, it is necessary to know much about how and why and when a flower reaches for the sun. Her poem “Praying:”

It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.(3.)

Ms. Oliver will 80 years old next year, lives in Massachusetts,  and is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection ‘American Primitive’ in 1984. She is America’s best selling poet, and it is for a reason: her work is accessible to all, but multi-layered and deeply satisfying at no matter what depth a reader chooses to plunge into it. Her writing is direct and clear, owing much to19th century writers like Thoreau and Whitman.

Poetry is a river; many voices travel in it; poem after poem moves along in the exciting crests and falls of the river waves. None is timeless; each arrives in an historical context; almost everything, in the end, passes. But the desire to make a poem, and the world’s willingness to receive it- indeed the world’s need of it- these never pass. (4.)

In speaking, writing, thinking about God, words will (because they are only words) fail. Images, feelings, smells and tastes must be carried on the backs of metaphors and images before they can be pushed and prodded into that particular formation of information which can then be handed from one person to another. Communicating about God is both a marvelous task and an impossible task, a repulsive task and a seductive one.

Mary Oliver, more than any other writer, gave me the courage to write that last sentence. And to now leave it alone.

aa Mary Oliver

(Her many collections are all still in print and will be for decades to come. There are many on- line as well. In fact, right now, Google “Mary Oliver Wild Geese” and read for yourself her most beloved poem!)

1.from “One or Two Things,” ‘New and Selected Poems,’ Beacon, 1992

2.  from “When Death Comes,” ibid.

3. “Praying,” ‘Thirst,’ Beacon, 2006

4.from Oliver’s ‘A Poetry Handbook- A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry,’ Harcourt, 1994.

Spiritual Mentors: James W. Fowler

aafowlerPic

Sometimes people think they are losing the faith of their fathers and mothers as they examine more closely the texts, traditions, and history of their faith. And in one sense, they are. The faith of our childhood, just as our preferences for particular foods, changes over time and the maturing of our minds. Just because I no longer consider Dreamsicles the ultimate and best of all foodstuffs, does not mean I don’t like them anymore! It simply means I have had the opportunity to experience other foods, while understanding much more about nutrition and health.

I still like to eat!- that’s the point. But the food that satisfies me now is different than when I was six years old. So, too, my faith in and understanding of things godly and divine.

James Fowler is a professor at Emory University’s Candler Divinity School. His Ph.D. was earned in Religion and Psychology and he is also a United Methodist minister. His initial research toward his Ph.D. was published in 1981- ‘Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.’

There have been other such lists of faith-stages written about over the centuries, but Fowler’s was based on objective criteria gathered within scientific, sociological parameters.  His is the go-to beginning of any objective investigation into the “kinds” of faith evidenced in any faith system.

I think I could best summarize what I’ve learned from his first book and other subsequents books and articles by him and his team, with this basic statement: We don’t all ‘believe’ the same way.

That sounds elementary, and it is. But it’s antithetical counterpart is heard in various forms of this doctrinal statement all the time: We must all believe the same way. And, it turns out- of course- that that is a humanly impossible thing to do.

The only solution to the natural movements of human minds and perceptions and abilities to draw conclusions about what we perceive are various forms of brain-washing! Some of those forms of coerced “homogenizing of thought and action” are pleasant- choral music is such a homogenizer. But most coercive brainwashing is based on suppression of information by punishment, threat, or fear.

Brainwashing can and does happen in faith circles, too. The deepening of faith, or the growth of it in an individual or group can sometimes be mistaken for non-faith or even faith-abandonment by those persons who have not experienced such growth or depth, or have not allowed themselves to be open to the possibilities of such growth or deepening of faith. If those persons are in positions of leadership, charges of doctrinal impurity may be leveled, with the threat of real or spiritual “punishment.”

Objective studies, like Fowler’s, can help all believers to understand the movement of one’s cognitive understandings through faith in such a way that change can be welcomed, even encouraged.

The following are Wikipedia’s synopses of Fowler’s six stages of faith. Only when a person is coerced or makes the choice to “stay within” a level can any level be determined to be the wrong level for a person. Nor are the “higher” stages the “best” or “only” stages to which to aspire.

Inevitably, however, some persons will move into a stage of faith, because of age and/or the maturing of the mind, or by simply having more knowledge than they did before. Their forms of faith change. To some it may appear that another’s faith is evaporating when, in fact, its form is changing.

The Six Stages of Faith (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fowler%27s_stages_of_faith_development)

  • Stage 0“Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
  • Stage 1“Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. [1] Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.
  • Stage 2“Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.
  • Stage 3“Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
  • Stage 4“Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefsand feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
  • Stage 5“Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
  • Stage 6“Universalizing” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment.” The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.

All of these descriptions are intended here to be only a basis for thought and discussion. They are valuable when talking to or teaching others who may be in different stages of faith. It can help avoid frustration when communicating with someone (or some group) who is in a different stage of faith and understanding. It is possible to “adjust” one’s language and use of metaphors so as to better be heard by others. It is possible to listen to what is behind basic statements of faith that a person may be having a difficult time expressing.

Again: The stages are NOT a means of “grading” one’s faith, depth of faith, or orthodoxy. They ARE a way of understanding that another’s understanding may be different than yours. One would not hand a Sunday School comic book to a person like Mother Theresa and expect her to stay interested very long. Nor would someone be very nice at all in trying to explain the loss of a loved one to a someone who had just gone through catechism or confirmation by showing the relatedness of Judeo-Christian thought to Neo-Platonic or ancient Babylonian philosophies. All of those expressions are valid ones at a certain stage of faith, but it may not be proper  in presenting them to someone at a different stage.

Jesus spoke in parables to those who weren’t yet ready to hear a discourse on the ontological bases of God images in the Hebrew scriptures. In doing so, he enabled them to hear great truths that they may not otherwise have been able to learn and be illumined by.

The “stages” presented by Fowler are important lessons for all persons of faith. We must know that everybody doesn’t think, see, hear, understand the same way we do! Understanding that, adjusting to that reality, and respecting where the other person is can lead to greater understanding and deeper faith, prevent countless arguments and many hurt feelings. They even stop wars before they ever have a chance to start!

aa fowler stage

Spiritual Mentors: Barbara Brown Taylor

aa BBT

What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life–and are never the same again?  I mean, what don’t people run into in the Bible?  Not just terrifying clouds and hair-raising voices but also crazy relatives, persistent infertility, armed enemies, and deep depression, along with life-saving strangers, miraculous children, food in the wilderness, and knee-wobbling love.

That  describes what I appreciate most about Barbara Brown Taylor: she never allows the Bible to become an idol. She reminds us that the Bible, indeed religion itself, is simply (however marvelously) a window through which the light shines in, and through which darkness at times may also be perceived.

I know the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the reality they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out since, at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to set the written world down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, the willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.” (from ‘Leaving Church, A Memoir of Faith,’ Harper, 2006)

Barbara Brown Taylor was once named by Time Magazine as one of the best preachers in America. Then, after twenty years of being an Episcopal priest, she left the church for academia. She is still teaching, and is still a sought  after speaker. She now qualifies as one of the best religious writers in America.

She is a splendid crafter of words, able to turn the words about faith- a nebulous and abstract subject- into concrete images that give rise to enhanced understanding on the part of her readers and, often, real action in the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Because she was a great preacher, she is now a teacher that inspires prophetically, and illuminates her instruction with the always changing, but ever-constant Light she perceives shining through the world around her. She describes believing in Jesus as leading to believing in more-than-Jesus: believing leads to seeing Jesus in all kinds of places and in all kinds of people.

Hers are eyes always opening wider, and her preaching and teaching has enabled many, many people, inside and outside of The Way, to experience that new and more Light as well.

Brown has affected how I do ministry, and I hope it shows, and if it does, I want others to know her role in it: “Too often, I believe, preachers get into the business of giving answers instead of ushering people into the presence of God who may or may not answer. We [preachers] have somehow fallen into the trap of believing we are responsible for God’s silence- that if those under our care do not have a sense of God’s presence, then it is because we have failed them somehow- failed at Bible study, failed at prayer, failed at our preaching to bring the invisible God close enough to touch. When God falls silent, we too often compensate by talking more, which may be the very worst thing we can do.” (from ‘When God is Silent,’ Cowley, 1998.
Her books are all in print. Her newest book is ‘Learning to Walk in the Darkness,’ HarperOne, 2014)

aa  BBT2