Sunday, July 28, 2002

No Spiritual Home

"Sheep that to the fold did stray
Pastor Ingqvist ran away."
(A Prairie Home Companion)

Recently, while visiting my daughter and new grandchild, I noticed that the Noah's Ark picture had disappeared from the wall of the children's bedroom. In addition, the children's Bible and her own Bible had disappeared. I was saddened, but not very surprised. She has had quite a struggle with religion and has been hurt badly by some very ignorant people from the church including a couple of pastors. She has chosen like many people, at least for now, to disengage from all of it.

A friend calls occasionally to keep in touch. We've had many long discussions about religion and spirituality, but he has not attended church in decades. He was deeply hurt by the church as a youth when his pastor made sexual advances to him. Another friend stopped attending mass after being denied communion because of her divorce. The news has been full of heartbreaking stories about sexual abuse by pastors and priests who played the part of predators instead shepherds. My parents were agnostics because they were unable successfully to reconcile their conservative religious upbringing with their vocation as doctors. Meanwhile, all denominations report plunging attendance and baptism statistics.

That the church is in deep distress and crisis is no news and not anything new. Throughout her history, the church has experienced many periods of dissension, division, scandal, abuse and failure to live up to her ideals. She has been found in the role of persecutor at least as often as she has been the one persecuted. In spite of noble intentions, the institutional church is, after all, a human institution and at best a reflection of the world in which she exists. A failure of the institutional church is a failure not only of her leadership, but a failure of culture as well.

It isn't only the Christian church that is experiencing crisis, but all religious institutions are in crisis. At the root is the enormous paradigm shift that has been taking place in the past couple of hundred years and that has escalated to warp speed in the past fifty years or so. We still are emerging from a world ruled by myth and magic into a world dominated by history and science, but we are not fully there yet. There are great discontinuities between the developed world and third world countries, between eastern thought and western thought, between the educated, less educated and uneducated, even in our own society. There is no consensus in America or elsewhere in the world about questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human and spiritual; questions about sexuality, environmental concerns, sociological concerns, abortion, economic concerns, ethics and science. Is it any wonder that religion is also in a state of confusion, especially since, as commonly practiced, religion is usually called upon to justify prevailing cultural norms? So our religious institutions are in as great a disarray as everything else. And the church moves at a glacial pace. Don't expect things to get any better anytime soon.

In the meantime, there are many people who no longer feel like they have a spiritual home much less a spiritual guide or shepherd. The seminaries that train our churches' leaders have failed in large part to identify a pathway through the labyrinth of conflicting cultural claims or to produce spiritually grounded and theologically sound priests and pastors. The biblical concept of a humble, sacrificial and spiritual leadership has almost been lost in the ego-centered, materialistic, corporate style of ministry that is the norm in the church today that is in itself a response to unspiritual, consumer-oriented congregations. Fifty years ago Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk asked in response to the assertion that the church was in the midst of a revival, "Where are our saints? Who keeps the fasts of the Church? Who does any penance? Where is the poverty of the religious? and what about our comfortable, well-fed, easy-going priesthood?"

I have taken pains to specify "institutional" church in my criticism because that is where the failure lies. Religion always has recognized that the popular manifestations of institutionalized religion are not the "thing in itself". From the very beginning, the sacred texts of all religions have warned against mistaking form for substance. (II Timothy 3:1-5) Jesus himself was
somewhat anti-religious and accused the religious leaders of his day of failing to serve their people, of placing on them burdens too heavy to bear and misusing their office. The concept of the "faithful remnant", the true church as the "mystical Body of Christ" and that the spiritual journey finds people in many different stages of advancement along the way helps us to understand that human failing is the reason we need religion in the first place.

What we need to do is to demythologize the church. An old joke holds that "Jesus promised us the Kingdom and what we got was the Church." In former times, people believed that the emperor or king was divinely appointed by God and owed unquestioned obedience merely by virtue of his office. This concept of divine appointment was taken over by the Christian church in the concept of a divinely ordained clergy and institutionalized in the concept of "apostolic succession" and the "magisterium", the teaching authority of the church claimed to be divinely inspired. Although different denominations hold varying views on just what is meant by an ordained clergy, the public at large has regarded pastors and priests as somehow divinely set apart and in possession of special charisms or powers inspiring allegiance and devotion. But pastors and priests are only human and as fallible as anyone else. In fact, the concepts of ordination and magisterium not only are not biblical concepts, but may even be contrary to the spirit of community and praxis Jesus sought to convey to his disciples. The primitive Christian community itself most likely was more a fraternity of equals rather than a hierarchy of power and privilege.

In his letters to new Christian communities, the apostle Paul was well aware of the fragility of popular religion and the ease with which church communities could fall into dissension and fail to foster faith. He admonished his disciples to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." It may be that the best stance many people can adopt for the forseeable future is a kind of hopeful agnosticism as far as the church is concerned. In the meantime, the great gift of the Reformation was to put the sacred scriptures into the hands of the people in their own language so they could read and study for themselves and seek spiritual guidance on their own without a priestly mediator. In fact, home based study and worship groups are on the rise as more and more people are discouraged by institutional religious power struggles, conflict, lack of a spirituality in clergy and the failure of the churches to teach its own scripture.

It is a testimony to the power of the Spirit and deep human need that there continues to be such a great hunger for and interest in spirituality in spite of the miserable failings of the church. Of course, because people are so vulnerable over spiritual issues and because of human weakness, the chance of being misled by self-serving prophets and self-appointed gurus who seek to take advantage is great. Religion is as vulnerable to quacks as medicine, but we aren't going to stop going to the doctor because some prescribe snake-oil. So we always will need our religious institutions just as we always will need our institutions of medicine, education, commerce and politics because that is the way complex societies operate and keep order. We just need to oversee them diligently and keep them in their proper place, ontologically speaking. Instead, if we remember that Jesus himself taught that love of neighbor was the essence of the gospel and that love itself is the test of true faith, we won't go very far wrong. Anything else doesn't really matter much.

Monday, July 15, 2002

Community: The Universe is Your Neighbor

"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him,"What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:25ff)

Three days ago our new granddaughter was born in Austin and our son-in-law called and said, "You can see pictures of the baby on the internet." Wow!! I can't go to Austin for a week and already this new baby is on the world wide web and I can go on-line to see her!! This is so incredibly amazing I am overcome with happiness. The whole world is as close as my Macintosh.

My grandfather built crystal set radios. That was an amazing technology in rural North Texas early in the 1900's when indoor plumbing and electricity still were a dream for most farm families. Neighbors would come to visit and sit and listen in amazement to these primitive transmissions from far away. My family had the second phone in the county. The only place to call was the general store which had the other one and they would call each other several times a day to pass on the news and chat. The telephone, radio and television turned our world into a global village. When the Mars expedition landed, we sat at our computer and downloaded pictures of the Martian landscape at the same time they were being transmitted to NASA. Mass communication has brought the whole universe into our living rooms and changed forever our concept of who is our neighbor.

Human community is made possible by communication and the understanding of our need to care for one another in order to survive. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:25-37) people had a limited concept of neighbor. My neighbor was my clan, others in my village, perhaps my religious group, my racial or national group at most. The man in the ditch who had been set upon by thieves in the parable was Jewish, but he was ignored in his distress by members of his own community who had more pressing affairs to attend to that prevented them from stopping to help him. This was a shocking story to Jesus' audience. The Samaritan who stopped to help would not have been considered a neighbor by those who hurried past, but a reviled foreigner whose religious practices were disapproved. If the story were updated in today's situation, the man in the ditch might have been a Jew, and the one who stopped to help a Palestinian, or the other way around. Jesus expanded the concept of neighbor beyond the acceptable boundaries of the day to include anyone in one's pathway and anyone who showed compassion.

Television and the internet have made it impossible for any of us to live any longer in isolation or ignore the needs, agendas and miseries of the world. When the centennial celebrations were held around the world at midnight, January 1, 2000, we were able to follow the festivities in simultaneous broadcasts via satellites. Those same satellite transmissions also bring us heartrending pictures of children and adult civilians in a Kurdish village killed by poison gas. I see those lifeless little bodies and I see my own grandbabies lying there and I weep for the whole human race.

A good part of the anxiety and cynicism of our times is due to the fact that we are overwhelmed by the sheer multitude and complexity of the world's problems that defy understanding and seem intractable. We are aware of the need, but the magnitude of the problems, our geographical distance and lack of organizational capacity to address the situation leave us feeling frustrated and isolated in our distress. We have enough problems of our own never mind trying to deal with the problems of people across town, let alone half way around the world.

But if we are unable to find solutions, we CAN enter the process. Every problem on any scale begins with an individual decision not to be a neighbor. Multitudes of such decisions by multitudes of people over extended periods of time result in the crises and miseries of the world. If each problem begins with an individual decision, multiplied many times, the solutions also begin with an individual decision, multiplied many times. Finding solutions may be no more complex than a simple individual decision as this.

Begin with yourself and commit yourself to a once for all decision that you, at any rate, will try to understand everything of every other person, rather than try to make others understand you.

Simple to say, not simple to do, but an important first start. Spiritual discipline begins with this kind of commitment. It doesn't matter if we don't understand how such a commitment will work, but as time passes and each day this same decision is consciously made by a single individual, over and over again in multitudes of different situations, eventually a different kind of consciousness evolves and a different understanding is reached about the nature of the world and it's inhabitants, about people and their problems, about forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a decision that says, "This problem has a long and complex history and I may never understand all its ramifications. But this day I personally make a decision that the problem stops here, with me, and I, for my own part, will not participate in the continuation of this problem. Instead of seeking to justify myself and having my own point of view understood and accepted, I am going to do my part by doing everything in my power to listen, understand and promote an atmosphere of reconciliation. This is a decision I make this day with no expectation of outcome."

After a bitter quarrel, some resentment must remain.
What can one do about it?
Therefore the sage keeps his half of the bargain
But does not exact his due.
A man of Virtue performs his part,
But a man without Virtue requires others
to fulfill their obligations.
(Tao Te Ching. 79)

Sunday, July 7, 2002

Community: Forgiveness, Part 3

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44)
"Hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal." (The Dhammapada 1:5)

A scene from the movie, "Gandhi" has etched itself in my mind. Muslims and Hindus have been fighting one another as the country strives to gain independence from British rule, and animosities as old as time have fanned the flames of civil war. At the height of the conflict a Hindu man confronts Gandhi who is trying to make peace. The man's son has been killed by a Muslim and he is full of rage. He never will accept peace with the people who have killed his son but Gandhi tells him that he must be willing to forgive the atrocity or peace will never happen. In his anger and grief, the father insists he never can forgive but Gandhi tells him there is a way. The man, who is Hindu, must find a Muslim boy who has lost his father and take him to his home and raise him as his son. But, adds Gandhi, the man must raise the boy as a Muslim.

The origin of pain and suffering, the roots of conflict are many and ancient and often defy understanding or resolution. Usually the people involved have long since forgotten what started it all. The Bible teaches that the sins of the fathers are passed on to the sons, even to the third and fourth generations. My parents were divorced when I was young and my sister and brother and I grew up in a fatherless household. Years later after my father died, another family member told me about the resentment he had harbored toward some family members over the treatment of himself and his brother. His father, my grandfather, had died when my father was only four years old so my father also grew up in a fatherless household. My great grandfather had been the youngest of twelve children who was forced to leave home when he was sixteen to make his own way in the world because he had no inheritance. Perhaps his own early difficult experiences made him less than compassionate toward my father and uncle. Although my family is strong and successful in many ways, like many families, we have experienced our share of suffering and dislocation.

Pastors become acquainted with the pain and suffering of many people and hear many family stories. Most families have struggled to overcome hardships and faith plays a major role in how well they succeed. People who harbor resentment toward others often display a pattern of resentment toward many people and over many different things. Resentment poisons their relationship with others and interferes with their life and work in many unforeseen ways. It is a fact that the world is full of injustice and many people never experience justice or relief from their injuries in this life. Many problems simply don't offer ready solutions, so how is it that some people are able to move past them anyway and get on with their lives while others seem perpetually bogged down in the swamp.

Many people misunderstand the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness does not mean one is required to forget the injury or excuse it and feel all good again. Some injuries are impossible to forget or should not be excused. Forgiveness does not mean we never suffer again because of the injustice or feel the loss or pain again that was inflicted on us. We can't help how we feel, but we can help how we think, and that is the key to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a choice, a decision that we can make. It begins in the understanding that when I am angry, I injure myself all over again. Buddha spoke of someone shooting an arrow into your chest. The first arrow hurt a lot, but nothing compared to the hundreds of arrows our anger and resentment shoot into the same wound over and over again. We may never know why the person shot the arrow, or maybe we do. It doesn't matter. We have a choice to draw our bow and fire back and keep the conflict going, or to put away our weapon and refuse to fight back. We can understand that whatever the origin of the conflict, it has a history that probably goes a long, long way back. Way past our understanding or even involvement. Who knows why that person who hurt us did it. The person probably doesn't even know himself. Who knows if we inadvertently invited the barb. The Psalmist wrote, "Who can discern his own errors?"

Whatever the reason, we can make a choice to say to ourselves, "This anger has a long history and I probably am not even a part of it. I am going to make a decision that the pain stops here, with me. I can pass it on, but I choose to let it stop here. I'm not going to give this pain any more food, any more history." When I feel the anger rising in me, I will say to myself, "Okay, here is the pain again. I acknowledge the pain. Hello pain, we have been together a long time. But now I am ready for you go away, so I am going to think about something else now." We can't help painful thoughts from catching us off guard, especially when we are not feeling strong. It is when we are having an off day, or maybe coming down sick or had a disagreement with someone else that the old pain chooses to rush back in and take sides the the new injury. Then the conflict in our mind escalates and we find we have a civil war on our hands. It takes strength to say, "Okay, break it up!. That's enough for now. Go back down there in the swamp where you belong and quit trying to spoil my day." Then we must make a conscious effort to substitute a good thought for the bad and there are lots of different ways we can do this. What is important is that we acknowledge the pain and send it on its way with the determination to focus our attention on something positive.

As time goes by, this becomes easier and easier. But remember, the forgiveness I'm speaking of is a conscious decision to substitute something good for something bad. As time goes on, the old injury has less and less power to ruin our day. As time goes on, and we make the person who injured us small enough to fit in our heart, we begin to understand that they are caught up in a cycle of inward and outward violence and to feel pity for them. We may begin to be able to see them as that small child who was hurt so deeply once that the child is going on into its adult life striking out again and again and to put them in our prayers. Then some day we may even begin to be able to see ourselves in that small hurt child and feel more than pity, perhaps even love and compassion and we take that little hurt child home with us and raise him as our own, but we allow him the freedom to be whoever he was created to be and we will discover that hate kills, but love fulfills and recreates itself endlessly. Then some day, we will come to understand that the only real enemy we have is ourselves, the only injury we suffer is self-inflicted, when we are unable to forgive.

Monday, July 1, 2002

Community: Forgiveness, Part 2

"The one who is forgiven little loves little." - Luke 7:43)
"Where there is perception, there is deception." - Diamond Sutra

I needed to work more on the forgiveness angle, so one day I was talking with Sister Joyce about my problem. This man had done me a great deal of harm. Every time I thought about it, I got angry all over again. If I tried not to think about it, he would intrude into my thoughts before I realized what was happening. The anger just kept rising to the surface in spite of anything. I had practiced saying, "I forgive you with the forgiveness of Christ", and that was an important first step. It certainly brought some relief, but I wanted to be able to do more.

S. Joyce could identify with my problem because she had been having her own trials with a colleague. We were walking in the park and she saw some young children playing nearby and we sat down on a bench and watched them for awhile. Occasionally a quarrel would break out or one child would push another off the playground equipment and their mothers would have to intervene to settle things. We talked about how we all were like that once. We were just children living chiefly by instinct and relying on our mothers to settle our disputes. We find it easy to forgive our children because we love them and feel protective toward them and we know they are impetuous and immature and the damage they do is slight. We aren't threatened when they say hurtful things because we know they don't know any better. It takes a long time for them to grow up and learn to behave in socially acceptable ways. Some children have a harder time than others because perhaps they aren't disciplined well, or loved as much as they should be loved. Some children are deprived of the essential things they need to grow physically and emotionally well and others are allowed to grow into bullies. We know that many of their behavior problems are the result of poor parenting and we want to forgive them and hope they will learn to do better.

This person who has hurt us so much once was a small child. What can the life of that small child have been like? Children respond so well to love. Is it possible that this person who has hurt us had a serious love deficit as a child? What could have happened in that child's life that he grew into such a unpleasant adult? If that person could be a small child playing once again in the park, what would we see that could give us a clue about the adult that child would become? Did that child experience forgiveness or did he feel lonely and unacceptable.

Most of the time we don't have a clue why people turn out like they do, but if it were possible to go backward in time in a time machine and visit in the childhood home of a person we would learn a lot. I grew up in the South where there was a lot of racial prejudice, but I was fortunate because my parents were not prejudiced and taught me that all people should be treated equally. More important, they demonstrated in their own lives acceptance of people and appreciation of differences. But I had many friends whose parents were intolerant and said untrue and hurtful things about people who were different. If I had been taught the same things my friends were taught, I would have been prejudiced also.

Buddhists teach that humans are composed of Five Aggregates (skandhas): form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. These five aggregates comprise everything there is about us. When we watch children at play, we see their physical forms running, jumping, swinging, sitting or talking. We soon observe they demonstrate different feelings about their play. They are happy, irritable, tired, sad, provoked or calm. In another minute their feelings may change into other feelings. As we watch them, we begin to develop perceptions about whether or not they are friendly or bullies or outgoing or fearful. Our perceptions are based on what we see in our limited observation.

If we come the next day to the park, we may see a child and think, "Oh, there is the bully child again." This is a mental formation about the nature of a thing that is based on bits of information we have filed away in our "store consciousness", the fifth aggregate. Our information always is very incomplete, but we use it to make value judgments about people and things all the time. When we first meet a person, we draw upon bits of information in our store consciousness to form a picture or opinion about the person. Our store consciousness contains everything we ever have experienced or have learned or felt. Later, every time we see that person, this mental formation rises up to the surface of our thoughts and forms the basis for other bits of information we add as we interact with the person. Unless we learn to look deeply and truthfully at our perceptions, we may form a very hurtful and incorrect opinion or picture of a person and if we act on negative information, we may even perpetuate pain and suffering.

All the Five Aggregates are of an impermanent nature. Spiritual Wisdom is the discerning nature that recognizes the impermanent nature of our opinions about people and things and looks deeply to see the truth. When we look deeply enough, we learn that we all are the same. We all are children playing in a park experiencing joy and sorrow, love and forgiveness or rejection and anger. These feelings and perceptions are seeds that sink deep into our store consciousness for all our lives and grow and surface when they are watered and nurtured causing us to experience joy or sorrow, love and forgiveness or rejection and anger. But at the very deepest of our being, we all are the same. Some of us are more or less fortunate than others. When we are feeling distress or sorrow or anger, it is because of mental formations arising from the negative seeds in our store consciousness as a result of an incident or painful memory. We can say to ourselves, my feelings and perceptions are impermanent and I am not going to allow them to take root and grow into a big tree. We have positive seeds in our store consciousness that can help us build more positive mental formations. We can make a conscious effort to understand and change how we think.

My friend said to me, "When someone has caused us an injury and we are having trouble forgiving them, it helps to think about them as a little child playing in the park. Why is that child not happy and wanting to cause pain. What is happening with that child today? By doing this, we make the person small enough to fit into our heart. Then we can forgive them".