Spiritual Mentors: Barbara Brown Taylor

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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)

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Spiritual Mentors: Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi

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Rumi was born in what is now Afghanistan in 1207, but most of his life was in Persia and Turkey, where he wrote..voluminously. He was a jurist, a theologian, and a Sufi mystic who influenced writing in the Middle East for centuries and has become popular (and accessible) in the West through translating and paraphrasing in modern vernacular languages.

Sufism is a subset of Islam. (I’d call it a cult of Islam, but that word has become so loaded with negative meaning by many commentators that I resist its use.) Sufism is, let’s say, a mystical subset of Islamic beliefs, as Zen Buddhism is to Buddhism, as Kabala is to Judaism, or as Yogaism is to Hinduism. Mystical Christianity also flourishes, and- I believe- has been a primary vehicle for moving The Way of the Christ through the centuries, in its most well-preserved forms.

All of the world’s mystical traditions look toward the revelation of God around them (which is precisely what Jesus stated again and again is what he wanted to do: reveal God the Father).

Looking deeply for God requires discipline; the practitioners of the mystical disciplines are drawn to them by the unquenching and relentless and often uncomfortable desire to know more about God.

And what they learn, or experience, is often difficult to communicate to others. The “previously known” boundaries of what they knew about God begin to blur, even dissolve! There is a unity of all things that defies much of the language we have available to us as humans. Some will attempt to describe the Light they have perceived in poetry, or in painting, or even in dance.    

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The Sufis like to dance. I don’t know if Rumi himself was a Dervish dancer, but he would have experienced them often because even the watching of the dancing is participation in it.

Spinning in ectasy. Notice the hands: One hand is up and open for receiving from God, the other hand is holding and giving, sharing God’s blessings received, to others. The headpieces represent tombstones of their individual egos.

But we do know Rumi wrote poetry- reams of it. And that poetry, now accessible to Westerners (primarily in America through the paraphraser Coleman Barks), has made Rumi a favorite of all who seek a more intense experience of the Light. It is the Light which I understand as Christ, which is how the gospel of John describes Christ in its first chapter).

Examples and excerpts:

~from “Say Yes Quickly”

Forget your life. Say God is Great. Get up.

You think you know what time it is. It’s time to pray.

You’ve carved so many little figurines, too many.

Don’t knock on any random door like a beggar.

Reach your long hands out to another door, beyond where

you go on the street, the street

where everyone says, “How are you?”

and no one says How aren’t you?

~from “Unseen Rain”

Don’t let your throat tighten

with fear. Take sips of breath

all day and night. Before death

closes your mouth.

There’s no love in me without your being,

no breath without that. I once thought

I could give up this longing, then though again,

But I couldn’t continue being human.

~A Community of the Spirit (one of my favorites, in its entirety)

There is a community of the spirit.

Join it, and feel the delight

of walking in the noisy street and being the noise.

Drink all your passion, and be a disgrace.

Close both eyes to see with the other eye.

Open your hands, if you want to be held.

Sit down in the circle.

Quit acting like a wolf, and feel the shepherd’s love filling you.

At night, your beloved wanders. Don’t accept consolations.

Close your mouth against food. Taste the lover’s mouth in yours.

You moan, “She left me.” “He left me.” Twenty more will come.

Be empty of worrying. Think of who created thought!

Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?

Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence.

Flow down and down

in always widening rings of being.

All of these are from the collection-‘Selected Poems” (Penguin Classics), translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne. Many, many Rumi collections are in in print and available wherever books are sold. Well, maybe not..everywhere. But most places!)

Many of Rumi’s poems are not so easily understood at first. In that regard they are like Zen koans; they open the door to contemplation and thought on “heavenly” things or, at minimum, thoughts outside of one’s own jabbering ego-mind. So, call them poems of Sabbath, of rest and reflection.

And Light.

Spiritual Mentors: Brennan Manning

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Born in 1934, Brennan Manning became a priest in the Franciscan Order in the mid-50s. He held a number of positions in the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, in Louisiana, and in Florida.  It was while he was a campus minister in Florida in 1969 that he was engulfed by the alcoholism which had always lapped hard at the shores of his adult life.

Six months of drying out, rehab, and recovery followed. He then began writing of the grace of God which he, the most imperfect of humans (as he considered himself), had been offered. It was a love he didn’t feel was deserved, but was offered anyway. It was an acceptance by God for what he was, not for what he should be.

He considered himself to be a ragamuffin, like the prostitutes, sinners, soldiers, and tax collectors that Jesus had gone to, embraced and accepted as his own. It was the ragamuffin gospel of perfect love for the most imperfect of humans.

The more Manning wrote- and he wrote prolifically, and the more he proclaimed this gospel- and he spoke often, the larger became that group of ragamuffins who were able to perceive God’s love for them, too..even them. They didn’t have to be special, act special, or do anything other than accept the transforming love of this ragamuffin-loving God.

“Ragamuffins are simple, direct and honest. Their speech is unaffected. They are slow to claim, “God told me…” As they make their way through the world, they bear wordless, prophetic witness.” (The Ragamuffin Gospel)

“I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery. ”

“The confessing church of American ragamuffins needs to join Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter in witnessing that Christianity is not primarily a moral code but a grace-laden mystery; it is not essentially a philosophy of love but a love affair; it is not keeping rules with clenched fists but receiving a gift with open hands.” (The Ragamuffin Gospel)

Brennan Manning knew his God as Abba, the diminuitive form of the word Father. In other words- Daddy. It was the same word used by Jesus for his father in the earliest manuscripts of the gospel.

He revealed that child/Daddy relationship to thousands of people during the many years he travelled the world speaking of it. His words were secondary to his “ragamuffin-ness.” Through him, many learned of the gentleness of God they had not before known. Me among them.

Brennan Manning died in April of 2013.

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“Do you believe that God loves you as you are and not as you should be?”

Here’s a brief video of Manning speaking. If you like this one, there are many more..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQi_IDV2bgM

Spiritual Mentors: Thich Nhat Hanh

a thich understanding-in-breathToday, Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and author, was scheduled to speak at the Vatican to the Summit of World Faith Leaders to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. Instead, he is recovering in Paris from a brain hemorrhage suffered on November 11 at the Plum Village monastery in the south of France where he lives.

Among the remarks he had prepared to say today were these:

“Each of us, according to the teaching of our own tradition, should practice to touch deeply the wonders of Nature, the wonders of life in each of us, the Kingdom of God in each of us, the Pure Land, Nirvana in each of us, so we can get the healing and nourishment, the joy and happiness born from the insight that the Kingdom of God is already available in the here and now. The feeling of love and admiration for nature, that we all share, has the power to nourish us, unite us, and remove all separation and discrimination.”

Thich came to prominence during the war in Vietnam when he began speaking publicly there for peace. He urged Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against American involvement in that war, which he subsequently did. Thich Nhat Hanh, who had been speaking out against the war during those war years in European and American cities, was denied re-entry to Vietnam after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, because of his outspokenness. He found refuge in France, which is now his home.

It was his ecumenical writings which caught my attention, particularly his book, ‘Living Buddha, Living Christ.’ In it, he shows the similarities between the Christ’s and the Buddha’s messages of peace and pleads for a united cooperation among peoples of various faiths, based on those specific and universal similarities. That “people kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies” remains a heart-breaking reality toThich and those who choose to live in respect, rather than fear, of others’ beliefs.

The consistent core of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and teachings are found in the quote above from the talk prepared for the Vatican. Our human commonalities are shared with all of life. All living things are dependent not only on the earth itself but on all other life. When we look closely enough, we see the edges of individual lives begin to blur into relatedness to other life, and it is that acknowledgement of our brotherhood and sisterhood with all living things that is the only true basis for lasting peace, and for the Kingdom of God to be perceived and accepted rather than merely spoken of.

The illusion that we are separated one from the other is a cultivated one, proposed by those who want power, encouraged by those who are greedy, and fertilized by our easily manipulated fears of that which is is different from ourselves. Our proclivity to regret past mistakes or to worry about future circumstances, negates much of the enjoyment of many people for living right now, in these present moments.

Meditation and practiced contemplation are methods for any person to see themselves as part of a much larger and encompassing unity of all things. We are not separate from each other; we are each part of the other.

“Call Me By My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1989

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —

even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his “debt of blood” to my people

dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up,

and so the door of my heart

can be left open,

the door of compassion.

Share your compassion now, in this moment, with Thich Nhat Hanh. The world is better because of his presence in it. That is because he has taught so many others the same thing about themselves.

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Spiritual Mentors: Etty Hillesum

I met a remarkable person about ten years ago in two too-short collections of her letters and journal entries. 2014 is the centennial of her birth. She died when she was only 29. As I read from the two books which contain her writings, my heart simultaneously breaks and soars. My tiny gift to her memory and legacy is to pass her enormous gift on to others who may not yet know of her.

In the context of the late 1930s and early 1940s, she was a young woman with modern attitudes. Her professional endeavors were intellectual ones, in research and psychology. Her lifestyle was decidedly outside the narrower views of morality which predominated in Western cultures of the time. Perhaps it was the untypical themes in her life before the rise of Nazi Europe that were the fertile soil in which the great spiritual fruits of her life were able to grow. My only hope here in this offering is to pique the interest of some to spend more time with her in her writings and, in so doing, know something new and more of the God that Etty came to adore.

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In 1941, Etty Hillesum, then a 27-year-old Jewish woman living in Amsterdam, began to write a journal, portions of which were finally published in 1983. The journal covers the period from March, 1941, to October, 1942- not a very long time. But, with the Third Reich in Europe at the time serving as a terrifying backdrop, the journal records the spiritual transformation of a somewhat self-absorbed intellectual into someone in deep communion with the God of her understanding. Etty has been called the Mystic of the Holocaust, but any attempt, however well intended, to categorize her spirituality is diminishing of it.
Her writings span that time period from when the Nazi oppression in the Netherlands began to worsen, and continue through to her family’s relocation to Westerbork, a holding camp for various “undesirables” being shipped weekly to Auschwitz in Germany. The last record we have of her writing is a postcard she threw from the train which carried her from Westerbork to Auschwitz. It was found by some farmers along the train’s route and mailed and mailed to the address penned on it by Etty. On the postcard were written her words, “We have left the camp singing.” Odd words, one might conclude, to have been written by someone who knew well what that train ride to Auschwitz meant. But they were words written after months of profound and wonderful discoveries about God, even in the midst of circumstances that were destroying the faith of many others.
As she had months earlier watched the intentional and cruel destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam, she wrote in the journal she kept at the time:
“The jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days, its white blossoms are floating about in muddy black pools on the low garage roof. But somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as it ever did. And it spreads its scent round the House in which You dwell, oh God. You can see, I look after You. I bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, grey Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine.. I shall try to make you at home always. Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, while there is still the strength in me to do so.”
After several months at Westerbork, where conditions became more and more crowded and more deplorable as more and more Jews were passed through its gates, Etty wrote these words of almost unimaginable meaning:
“You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. .At night, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.”

Etty, her parents, and a brother and sister died at Auschwitz in November, 1943. The diaries and journals written by Etty before and during her time at Westerbork were not discovered until 1981. They have been published under the title An Interrupted Life-The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. The book has since been translated into 14 languages and deserves to be read by many others for years to come. Others, many others, need to know that, even in the worst of circumstances, it is possible to leave “the camp singing.”
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Here are some other quotations from Etty Hillesum’s journals. They are part of a spiritual feast, served by Etty, which will be nourishment for spiritual seekers for generations to come:
“ALAS, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”
“We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.”

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What I believe (in case you’ve been worrying about it!)

An oldie, from October of 2008. And still a valid (for me) Statement of Faith

The First Morning

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you. 1Peter 3:15

About my faith:

1.God is. I can’t even begin to describe God, let alone define God. Anything I say about God must fit inside my mind, and the one thing I can say with authority and absolute assurance: God is bigger than my mind. (Psalm 139: 7-18)

2.I can’t see God. I can only see where God is passing through. (Exodus 33:23) Thus, I see God’s methodologies and systems much more often than I see God’s direct interventions. Those methodologies include breath-taking scenes like Mt.Ranier, an ocean storm, and a baby’s cooing and laughing. But they also include the chaotic explosions of stars, the ripping apart of a live songbirds by hawks, the chomping down on innocent baby turtles by sharks, and tsunamis. And…

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The Womb of God

The First Morning

The Womb of God

One of my favorite biblical authors is Abraham Heschel who, in 1962, wrote the definitive book on the prophets, called The Prophets. He described the time period around 400-500 B.C. when some of the great Old Testament prophets had begun to write and speak in alarming, revolutionary, and largely unlistened-to ways (I’m going to paraphrase just a little, because his words can be difficult at times):

Heschel wrote of that time- “Religion had declined not because it had been successfully argued against, but because it had become irrelevant, dull, oppressive, uninteresting. When faith is replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crises of today are ignored because of the remembered splendor of the past; when faith becomes an inherited heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority and rules rather than the voice…

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