Sunday, October 28, 2012

Be Not Afraid of the Dark (10/28/12)

Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Job 38:16-17

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a television show in the 90s that my kids watched.    It was a kids’ show on the Nickelodeon channel. The set up for the show was a group of teenagers, “the midnight society” telling scary stories around a fire at night.    Each of the characters told different stories and the stories reflected their personalities.    The message in that is that each of us has our unique dark side.     We are all struggle with and in the dark in our own way.   I think another message of the show was that you gain courage to face the dark when you share your stories with others.

The dark is a fearsome place.   You don’t know what might jump out at you in the dark.    As a child I remember that scary moment between turning off the light in the bedroom and running for the bed to get undercover as soon as possible.   Apparently, I was safe in the bed from whatever dark creatures lurked about in my room.    As long as you get undercover, you are OK.

Last week we explored the metaphor of silence.  This week darkness.   Both silence and darkness point toward the spiritual path of via negativa.    We tend to think darkness is a bad thing.    Even the Gospel of John that we read at Christmas sees darkness as something that wants to get you and take you over.  The promise is this:   
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
True enough.  But darkness is also a path.   For those acquainted with the night, they know, like Robert Frost, that this acquaintance is "neither wrong nor right."    There is something to be learned in the dark.   Poets, the strong ones, the ones we read, have dabbled in the dark.    I think it takes courage to be acquainted with the night and to spend time in darkness. 

In the darkness we keep the things that we don’t want everyone to know.    That is anyone to know, including ourselves.  The darkness hides our vulnerability.    Jung called this aspect of ourselves the shadow side or the dark side.    We prefer to keep that side hidden.  We create elaborate masks to wear in order to show the world that we are people of the light, happy and together and above average.   

The via negativa invites us to explore the dark places.   The truth is that if you don’t find what is in the dark, what is in the dark will eventually find you.    One of my favorite sayings of Jesus is from the Gospel of Thomas, which is itself a gospel that had been hidden in the darkness, literally in clay pots for 1700 years.   In this hidden, secret gospel we find this from Jesus:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not bring it forth, what you do not have within you will kill you."
Every hero must go into the dark.  The great myths of the hero’s quest to slay dragons, find the holy grail, battle Voldemort, rescue the ring, face crucifixion and so on are about entering the dark and discovering the courage to take on what you find.    

The via negativa is not about defeating what is in the dark.  It could be that, but it is also about embracing what is in the dark.    In the dark is a treasure.    That treasure is an aspect of our own self.    The path invites us to find that and bring it into the light where it can be embraced and admired by all.
This is the sense of the passage in the Gospel of John.   The light shines in the darkness not to obliterate the darkness but so it can bring to light what has been hidden there.     When it is hidden we are overwhelmed, saddened, and dis-eased.     When brought to the light it is becomes a source of strength, joy, and healing.    That is the point of the path.  

So God asks Job:
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
The story of Job is the textbook for the via negative.    

There is a lot to say about Job, that I am not going to say today.   It is enough to know that the character “God” does not come off well.   He and his drinking buddy, Satan, have a spitting contest about who is tougher and Job ends up being the object of this wager.   God lets Satan torture Job to prove that Job will be loyal to God no matter how he suffers.  

Job is not in on this little game.  Neither of course are Job’s friends.    But we are.  Job rejects all of his friends’ theories as to why this might be happening to him.   Job is right even though he doesn’t know why he is right.    The reason Job suffers is because “God” behaves pathologically.   

We are not supposed to say that because we are pious.    We have been taught that the Bible is God’s Word and that God is good.  When we read the Bible we are told that no matter how barbaric God appears God must be right.    The price we pay for piety is that we put halos around bad texts and endorse harmful ethics.   

Once you get over that notion that the character “God’ in the Bible is always good, in fact, far from it, then you can appreciate the story of Job.  

God never comes clean to Job.     He never tells him the truth.  He never says,
“Hey Job, buddy.  The reason you were suffering is because, well Satan and I had a little bet about you.  I hope you aren’t sore.  And hey, you helped me win.  You were loyal to the end!  What do you say, still friends?”   
God says none of that.  Nor does God apologize for his ruthless behavior.  Instead God conjures up an impressive hurricane and speaks to Job from a position of power.  He goes on for several chapters about how tough he is.   He can drag around Leviathan with a fishhook.  He made the heavens and the mountains.   He tells Job in effect:
What have you done, little man?   How dare you question me!  
That’s God’s answer.  Might makes right.    In that speech from the whirlwind, God says to Job:
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Those are rhetorical questions to which Job must only answer, No.  No he has not physically entered the place below the flat earth where the water comes up.  Nor has he entered physically the gates to the underworld.   

But, of course,  we know that Job truly has seen the gates of death, the gates of deep darkness.  He has walked the recesses of the deep.   He has done so in the most real way possible.  He has suffered.  He lost everything and he has not given up in his quest to find meaning.   He has not given in to simplistic answers that are not true even as they might comfort.  

These primitive notions of God that are still prevalent today were inadequate to help the author of Job make sense of life.  Job is the story of what happens when one’s religion is too small for life.     Job represents the true hero.    In addition to refusing the easy answers of orthodoxy that his friends thrust on him, he faces the foundation of meaning itself.   He faces God, or the best understanding of God that he can imagine.     He finds God wanting.  

I am not sure if the author of the story of Job knew what he was doing.   His story of Job seems to me to be a deconstruction of monotheism.    God may be all good or all powerful but he can’t be both.    In Job’s story, he comes across as only powerful and not good.   

This is the translation of that pivotal passage in chapter 42 in which Job supposedly repents.   

According to the excellent book, God: A Biography by Jack Miles, that is a mistranslation.   It is garbled Hebrew that translators misused to make Job the bad guy.   According to piety, God can’t be wrong, so Job must repent.  This is the NRSV translation:
Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.’
That is the pious interpretation.    But that is inconsistent.  We all know that Job has nothing for which to repent.   God is the one who needs to repent.    This translation from Jack Miles is, I think, more accurate.  These are Job’s final words to God after God delivers his blustery speech:
Then Job answered the Lord: You know you can do anything.
Nothing can stop you.
You ask, “Who is this ignorant muddler?”
Well, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me.
“You listen, and I’ll talk, “ you say,
“I’ll question you, and you tell me.”
Word of you had reached my ears,
But now that my eyes have seen you,
I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.
The story of Job is the textbook for the via negative.

The author of Job is showing that the God they had inherited is all power and no love.  All power and no goodness.   It took a courageous author to create a courageous character to expose this idea of God as inadequate for meaning.   That opened the way for a fuller sense of God to develop. 

Job is a model of a spiritual hero.   His is a model for today, for the searcher, who is not satisfied with the pious explanations that hold no water, and who will search out in the dark places for a more fulfilling answer.

Job is a hero who is not afraid of the dark.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Sound of Silence (10/21/12)

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honour;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
Psalm 62:5-8

We returned last night from our vacation. Bev, Katy, and I went on a cruise. A Carnival Cruise on the cruise ship, Imagination. It left Miami stopped at Key West and then at the island of Cozumel where we took a ferry boat and bus to visit the Mayan ruins at Tulum on the Yucatan Penisula. I hadn’t been on a cruise before and it was as they bill it, “fun”!

Fun means they fill your senses with music, food, drink, dance, and entertainment, non-stop. This is about fun and getting out and being out in the sunshine. There are precious few moments for silence. You can hide in your cabin, I suppose, but that defeats the point.

This cruise is the exact opposite of a retreat to a monastery. Not that one is better or more holy or sacred or whatever. A Carnival Cruise and a Benedictine Monastery would represent two different paths. One would be the via positiva with the explosion of images and sounds, the other the via negativa with a silencing of all images.

The cruise ship was fun and good for us. I would do it again. You need a little positiva now and then.

This Fall we are exploring the via negativa as a spiritual path. This is the path of letting go and letting be. This is the path in which a metaphor is silence. The via negativa is not to be equated with suffering or bad things. It isn’t about being “negative.” On the other hand, loss and suffering can be invitations to find spiritual meaning on this path.

If the via positiva is about filling up with images, the via negativa is about emptying out.

For example, in speaking about God, if the via positiva says
everything is God,
the rainbow is God,
the sunshine, the clouds, the trees, you, me.
God is out there.
God is in here.
The stars are the face of God; beauty is God.
Or God is found through this creed or this system of doctrine.
This set of beliefs point to God.
Or I see God everywhere.
I hear God everywhere.
I feel God everywhere.
That is the via positiva.
That is a good thing.
God is a Carnival Cruise ship.
It is constructive theology.

The via positiva is about saying what God is.

The via negativa acknowledges the God constructed by the via positiva and says in addition to all of that Yes, God is also No.
God is not a rainbow, sunshine, clouds, trees, you, and me.
God is not out there.
God is not in here.
The stars are not the face of God.
God is not exclusive to this creed or that system of doctrine or those beliefs.
The sights are I see are not God.
The sounds I hear are not God. My feelings are not of God.
I feel no thing, not even God.
That is the via negativa.

This is the path of letting go even of God in order for God to be.

We might call it deconstructive theology.

An image for this is from 1 Kings 19. Elijah is in a cave. He is frightened. He is alone. People are trying to kill him. He hears the word of the Lord, who tells Elijah:
‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Then the Lord comes to speak to Elijah.

The storyteller has captured the via negativa.

The sound of sheer silence.

Have you ever heard the sound of sheer silence?

That is the sound you hear when the foundations that have held you have been shaken. When the beliefs you inherited are like a bowl that is filled with holes and it holds no water. It is the sound of your experience of life being too real for your religion. When your religion becomes too small to hold your life, your spiritual path is the via negativa.

It doesn’t matter what religion or philosophy, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist even. You notice it when you begin to struggle with the tradition and with others and finally with yourself. It is an exciting if unnerving, perhaps even frightening, and possibly lonely path. It is a path that many resist because it requires that “you walk the lonesome valley by yourself.” It is a path that calls you to say ‘No’ to the tribe. When the tribe or its spokesperson says this is what we believe and you say well…maybe not me, you are on the via negativa.

You may not know what it is you can affirm. You have to stay with that. The via negativa invites you to stay with that not knowing, with that uncertainty, with that letting go and not knowing if there is anything, but trusting that that is the path to take. It is the way of silence.

From Matthew Fox, Original Blessing:
The need for silence that Zen speaks of, that wisdom literature celebrates, that Eckhart praises, and that Merton calls for is not just about oral silence. Silence means the letting go of all images—whether oral ones or auditory ones or visual ones or inner ones or cognitive ones or imaginative ones. Whether of time or of space, of inner or of outer. It is a radical letting go of language. A letting language go. A concentration on what is non-language, non-music, non-self, non-God. It is being. A being still. Eckhart puts it this way:

One should love God mindlessly, without mind or mental activities or images or representations. Bare your soul of all mind and stay there without mind. Pp. 136-137

How do you do that? How do you let go?

At times our life situations are invitations to this path. We may be on it whether we want to be or not. The challenge then is not to try to fill it with noise too soon. Suffering and loss alone is not the path. They can be invitations to the path. We have to be with the loss. Honor it. Honor the silence that comes with it.

Every week in worship we do something counter-cultural. We have an extended moment of silence during our time of meditation. It can be discomfiting. We are not used to periods of silence, especially in a group setting. Someone needs to entertain us, do something, say something, show us something. Meditation invites us to sink into the very moment we are actually in. As opposed to thoughts ahead or thoughts behind, we are invited to be with ourselves. Silence is that vehicle.

The via negativa or the way of silence is also an opportunity to be honest with ourselves about our doubts, our own alienation, our vulnerability and our struggle.

I want to read to you a section from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is an introduction to the Twelve Steps. You may say, "I don’t need that. I am not an alcoholic."  That’s fine.  I don't insist.  But you may find it resonates.

I think it captures the essence of the via negativa, the spiritual path of letting go and letting be…
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps.

At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way, but we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.

Remember that we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that one is God. May you find Him now!

Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.

Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery….

The book goes on to list the twelve steps. This Twelve Step program, developed in the 1930s has been adopted by and adapted to fit other programs of recovery. In many respects, it is a good spiritual path for anyone. It is a path of rigorous honesty. That is the heart of the via negativa.

After the 12 steps, the Big Book continues:
Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it." Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.
The via negativa is a spiritual path. It is a path in which the emphasis is on progress not perfection.

It is a path that begins with the sound of sheer silence.

It is a path of
willingness to wait,
to be,
to enter the silence,
to be honest with who you are and where you have been,
and to let that self be embraced,
and loved.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Becoming Wholehearted (10/7/12) World Communion Sunday

We celebrated communion as part of World Communion Sunday. We had special guest musicians, kRi and Hettie. They sang three songs that fit right in with the service, including You Matter to Me that I found on youtube.

Mark 12:28-34
And one of the scholars approached when he heard them arguing, and because he saw how skillfully Jesus answered them, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus answered,
“The first is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.’
The second is this:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.”

I order worship along the four paths of Creation Spirituality. A path for each season of the year. These paths have been described by theologian Matthew Fox in his book, Original Blessing. Fox was formerly a Roman Catholic priest, but because of his views he was silenced by the Vatican. He is now an Episcopal priest. Fox challenged some traditional doctrines such as original sin. He suggested that we might instead embrace original blessing.

He also wrote about the spiritual journey in a different way. Rather than Fall, Repentance, Reunion, which is the common three-fold path of traditional Christianity, he saw the experience of life as more nuanced and complex. He articulated a stream that was present but underground throughout the Christian tradition. Known as Creation Spirituality, this way of seeing the universe, God and ourselves affirms creation not as fallen but as wonderful and awe-filled.

The spiritual path of embracing creation in its wild beauty is the via positiva, or way of awe and wonder. Fox is a Roman Catholic so he knows his Latin. Via means path. The way of "wowing" at this amazing and expanding universe is a path to the Sacred.

Three other paths are the via creativa, the way of creativity. We are creative beings, making all kinds of things, wonderful things, and destructive things. We are generative and creative. All of us. That is a path to the Sacred. Another path is the via transformativa, or the way compassion and justice-making. This is the way of channeling our creativity toward the good, toward wholeness, toward peace and well-being for all creation. This is the path of the activist and the prophet within us. This also is a path to the Sacred.

The path that we are exploring during the season of Autumn as the leaves change color and fall, is the via negativa, the way of letting go and letting be.

These four paths are ways of dancing with the Sacred. We move in and out of them. Not a ladder climbed, but a spiral danced, says Matthew Fox.

This via negativa is trickier than the others in some respects. It is sometimes equated with sin and suffering. But that isn’t quite correct.

The via negativa or the spiritual path of letting go and letting be is a spiritual path.

I emphasize path.

It is a way to the Sacred.

The via negativa isn’t to be equated with suffering, tragedy, or moral evil. It is possible, however, that those experiences can present a path through which we receive grace, touch the holy, discover the sacred, and find our heart.

It is a path in which the traveler refuses to be defined by experiences or events but finds the heart to face, reflect and walk through these experiences to an unknown future.

The word heart comes from the Latin cor from which we get the word courage. If we are lucky in life we will meet courageous, big-hearted, whole-hearted people. If we are blessed in life we will be inspired by them to find our own heart.

If you want to know where to find these people,
I would say look to your left and right.
Look in front of you and look behind you.

Go ahead.
Take a moment right now and look around
and see big-hearted people in your midst.

From my vantage point I see the faces of wholehearted people
who have found the heart to move through a difficult experience and grow from it.

That courageous big-hearted, wholehearted person is your neighbor.

That courageous big-hearted, wholehearted person is you.

Somewhere along life’s path,
ou found the courage whether or not you called it that
and you found the heart, to move through a challenging experience.
It may have been with fits and starts.
It may have been with pain and bleeding.
You may have the scars to show for it.
On that path,
you found within yourself a previously untapped skill,
gift, virtue, or strength of character.

Somewhere along life’s path,
you had to let go of some image of yourself.
A piece of armor or protection was removed
and you saw yourself vulnerable and exposed.
While painful and frightening
that you is of great worth and deserves great love.
That is the sacred.
That is the holy.
That is the pearl as in Jesus’ parable:
The kingdom of heaven is like some merchant looking for beautiful pearls. When he finds one priceless pearl, he sells everything he owns and buys it. Matthew 13:45-46
“Selling everything he owns” is a metaphor for letting go. The pearl is you. It is your sacred self. The via negativa is letting go of what we are supposed to be so we can embrace who we are. "Let Go of Who You Think You are Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are" is the subtitle of a book by Dr. Brene Brown. The title is The Gifts of Imperfection. She writes about wholehearted living:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It is going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. P. 1
The ancient wisdom for that is found in the words of Jesus when he was asked,
“What is the greatest commandment?”
What is all about, Jesus? What is the main thing we should know to make it through this life? What is the answer?
Jesus says:
“The first is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.’The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
Now we can fight with each other over the meaning of “God” and who worships the right “God” or which religion worships “God” right. I don’t think Jesus was worried about that. You can define God how you need to do it. I say with serious jest that we are a BYOG church.  Bring Your Own God. According to the via negativa you will be wrong. As are we all. The via negativa in regards to God is the path of saying everything we can about God and then saying,
"God is not that."
A healthy via negativa in regards to God
  • allows you distance when others try to force their idea of God onto you and 
  • it keeps you from clinging to your favorite image of God as if that image is the real thing. 
The via negativa keeps us humble, vulnerable,
and open to new possibility.
So we love this God whom we cannot name
with our whole heart, says Jesus, and
with our soul, and our mind and our strength.

Love life, love the universe, love all.
Then Jesus says, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
It is all together. Neighbor, self, God.

Do you want to know how to love God?
Love your neighbor.
How do you do that?
Love yourself.

Who is yourself?
That is where the via negativa comes in.
All those images we think we are.
Those images we have inherited from culture, parents, religion.
All of those ideals.
All of those expectations.
All of those “shoulds” and “supposed tos.”
Not that.
Something deeper.
Something more beautiful.
Something more tender.
Something more holy.
 A pearl.
A treasure.
That is you.
That is also your neighbor.
When we can discover the fleeting grace to connect at that level,
we experience what Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Communion is a symbol for that.
On World Communion Sunday, we dare to hope,
we dare to live the reality that such a kingdom is possible.