Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Great Emergence

Whereas tracts singing the supremacy of Jesus leave me flat, statements placing Jesus alongside other seers stir me deeply.
God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky

A nephew of mine insists I’m not really Catholic because I don’t worship Jesus. I say I couldn’t stop being Catholic if I tried—and I did try, for a time in my life. I suspect more and more Catholics wear shoes like mine, Catholic in spiritual outlook but not obedient to hierarchical authority. We were formed by Catholic devotions—rosary, novenas, saints, Lenten resolutions, and fondness for Mary. We stood, sat, knelt, sang, recited, and received communion in many a Mass. But we follow our own conscience, not the conscience of the hierarchy.

We learned to do that after 1968 when Pope Paul VI rejected the conclusion of a commission set up to study the morality of “artificial” contraception, which advised him to approve it. Instead he repeated the traditional teaching against it. Lay people, theologians, priests, and even bishops dissented from his decision, and this opened the door of freedom for Catholics. It moved the locus of moral authority from the hierarchy to individuals.

Since that movement toward democracy in Catholicism, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to squelch it, but it can’t be stopped. Theologians publish works challenging central dogmas of the faith, and the Vatican’s efforts to silence them only help to spread their ideas. Vigorous dissent flourishes around issues related to sex—abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, women priests—but the most far-reaching questions pertain to the divinity of Jesus. If you can bear to question it, go to my book’s chapter, “The Only-Through-Jesus Stance” or click on posts in my blog index under “Christ divine,” “Trinity,” and other index categories.

In The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle states that Christianity renews itself every 500 years, the last cleansing being the Protestant Reformation. She states that Christianity “must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur."

Her book was reviewed in a National Catholic Reporter article, Christian crisis, which lists parish closings, the treatment of women and gays, enlivened lay activity, and resistance to hierarchy as examples of happenings that roil the waters. Today the adjustment is forming a church more “relational, non-hierarchical” and “democratized.” A priest added “experiential and relational.”

All true, but these adjectives don’t hit on the most significant change happening in our shrinking world. As Christians come up against other spiritual systems, including atheism, they're seriously rethinking Christian doctrine. How can we be so sure we know who and what God is when we see these other ways of relating to the Mystery? Literal belief in doctrine insults what we call God. Rubbing elbows with divergent beliefs, we are forced to place the Christian story in the context of other faith stories, to see Christian images as only one possible way of imagining the Invisible, Jesus Christ as only one God-image among others.

The archaic language of church liturgies—“Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord”—is challenged by the words of a Carrie Newcomer song—“I saw Jesus talking shop with the Buddha at the Starbucks.”

Great Emergence? It’s much greater than Tickle imagined.

In conversations with cradle Christians who have read and resonated with God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, I find a mix of attitudes toward Christianity. A few have given up on it, but most live on its fringes, warmly relating to the tradition while aware of its obsolescence. Like adult children with loving parents, they return the love, mind the conformist thinking, but indulge it and search elsewhere for enlightenment. And, like the mature Jewish voices, they nudge their tradition toward more openness. Slowly, slowly, a more inclusive paradigm is seeping into human consciousness.

Losing U.S. Catholics
More than a quarter of U.S. adults have left their childhood religion, according to a PEW survey. Catholics have lost the most, and “unaffiliated” have gained the most. While 31 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, today only 24 percent say they’re Catholic, and this last figure would be lower if it weren’t for the influx of Hispanics.

I can think of reasons for Catholic losses, among them the rigid hierarchy and the prohibition against women priests. But when I talk about myth and literalism, many who understand me are current and former Catholics. They “get” it, for some reason. A good number of Unitarian Universalists are former Catholics. I haven’t figured out if there’s something to this or just the towering presence of Catholicism in my consciousness.

Recent stories underscore my point about the hierarchy. Check out this report on Catholic bishops deciding that Reiki, a healing practice used by Catholic nuns, is a superstition! bishops on Reiki Scroll down to find the incisive and hilarious comments.

And there’s Richard McBrien’s report on “ominous rumblings” within the hierarchy itself over Pope Benedict’s stubborn refusal to heed warnings that could have prevented his blundering insults to other religious groups, such as his pardon of a Holocaust-denying bishop. Benedict blundering

The best summary of what’s wrong with the Catholic hierarchy comes from retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong
Besides their dodging of clergy sexual abuse, he faults Catholic hierarchs for being wrong on the celibacy requirement, on abortion, on the treatment of women, on end-of-life options, on gays, “and wrong on many of the great theological issues of the day.” Unwilling to discuss these differences, Catholicism identifies “its point of view with ultimate truth so that any disagreement is interpreted to be an attack on truth itself,” says Spong. He reminds us that, early in his pontificate, Benedict XVI even discouraged language allowing legitimacy to other Christian churches. “We own all truth”—a claim sure to create conflict in our global community.

Now an aside: People listening to me often bring up Spong, because we both debunk literal belief. I always add a description of religious myth, which I consider essential to understanding the religious impulse.

Although “this is a church walking steadfastly into yesterday” (Spong’s superb summation), I find most Catholics more capable than evangelicals of cutting through dogma’s outer shell to the core of meaning inside. While the official church squelches ideas and fusses about externals in the liturgy, ordinary Catholics practice their religion in heart-warming, life-giving ways. The Catholic Church has both sides— its shameful history alongside a glorious history of spiritual nourishment.

One more example of the shameful comes from Joan Chittester, a Benedictine sister. Chittister Here she writes, “it was a Papal Bull that authorized both conquest and slavery in the New World for hundreds of years" and “that women were labeled [by the Church] as witches from the 16th to 18th centuries influences social systems to this day."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Ascension

Today in liturgies is read the beginning of Acts, which tells the story of the Ascension. Since Easter, liturgical readings have included the resurrection appearances in the gospels. These stories gain new significance in light of contemporary resurrection appearances such as those I tell here and term “paranormal” in my blog index.

Contrary to the assumptions of our materialistic culture, the inner world regularly breaks into this surface world, assuring us that life has larger, deeper meaning than keeping up with daily duties or amassing stuff. Birth and death often call attention to the inner world. The death of the extraordinary spiritual master Jesus gave birth to the great religion of Christianity. Appropriately, his followers at the time experienced him alive and elevated to higher status. Thus the Resurrection and Ascension.

Recently I heard this startling idea: When we learn how to die, we’ll learn how to live. Fr. Roger Karban in NCR reflects similarly that Jesus “was constantly taking [his followers] beyond the things which normally occupied their everyday lives . . . [new places] often more psychological than geographic.” They expected “things outside them would change,” an apocalyptic change. Instead, they themselves were moved beyond where they had been. “Jesus’ disciples were certain about one thing: he never let them stay put.”

We all are called to move beyond where we’ve been, to be elevated, to ascend.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The other side

Carol and her father had always been close, sharing with each other thoughts not revealed to others. While she was visiting him as he lay dying in the nursing home, he pointed to things he saw floating around the room and asked, “Do you see those?” She didn’t see anything. It saddened him that she could not see what he was seeing, and this went on for a good ten minutes. Finally he had one on his knee. “It’s right here,” he said, and gently placed her hand on it.

She felt only him but now it came to her. In a voice filled with wonder, she said, “Papa, I think those are the angels coming to escort you to where you need to be.” Without another word, he dropped into a deep, peaceful sleep. It was not yet the end, but a harbinger of the end.

They both loved Christmas, loved it. The December after he died, she was happily hanging Christmas decorations in her living room, two of them large jingle bells. As had happened before, she felt her father's presence. He had been with her often when she hiked the Arizona mountains or the trails in Death Valley, where she communed with him with ease. But this time he spoke. She had walked to the other side of the room, her back to the bells, when they clearly gave a short ring. There was no person there, no breeze, no physical explanation, and no fear in Carol. Instead, peace and comfort surged through her. “Papa, is that you?” she said, smiling.

I told my hairdresser of many years some of the stories I've told here. It motivated her to tell me about visitations from her deceased mom. She had been afraid to credit them and my belief gave her a warm and relieved feeling. She hadn't known how to interpret them and our talk cleared up the meaning for her.

Her mom had always been deathly afraid of hospitals and, as she lay dying in one, Sandy worried aloud to the nurse that her mom was screaming inside without being able to say, “Help me!” As she left the hospital and looked up at the bright, bright moon, Sandy suddenly felt and heard her mom saying, “I’m OK.” Clearly her mom was assuring her worried daughter that she was all right. There were more such visitations of assurance, the others in her dreams. Sandy still sees the moon as it looked that night when she felt the thrill of her mom’s presence.

I’m convinced incidents like these are fairly common because I have heard many such stories, but in our hyper-scientific culture people are afraid to talk about them for fear of being thought weird or naïve. No, maybe that’s not entirely true—why do I hear so many? I suspect the silence imposed on such talk exists mainly in public media.

Carol emailed me a sequel to her story above:
Yesterday my sister-in-law, my husband, and I were visiting my mother in her residence. She is just so teeny tiny these days, Jeanette, and is moved about only by wheelchair. But she was just awakening from a nap when we entered her room, so we transitioned her into her wheel chair and brought her into the living room so we could visit.

Mostly our visits are simply listening to her chatter, if that, and no sense is made, but in the midst of that chatter yesterday she reached out with her frail little arm and hand, said "Look, do you see that?", and then seemed to be trying to grasp something. I wish I had said to her exactly what I had said to Papa...those are the angels, etc....but I was so startled I could only look at her dumbfounded.

Later, when I was getting ready to leave, I was hugging her and kissing her good bye, and so I told her that I thought she was ready to go, that Don (her husband, my father) was waiting for her, and she said, "Will I see my mother?" (Please do keep in mind that this is a woman who has not tracked a comment or conversation for years!!) I assured her that she would and guess what??? She was sleeping quietly when I left just seconds later!!!

Those who are sensitive to Spirit acting in our surface world will note incidents like these in their own lives. I pass on these encounters with the other side for the reasons stated in my welcome—to liberate spirituality from religious rules and to liberate those who, in their determination to be "scientific," reject Spirit's work in and through us.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Peace & Mother's Day

From Gather The Women comes this message:
Mother's Day was originally started after the Civil War, as a protest to the carnage of that war, by women who had lost their sons.
Here is the original
Mother's Day Proclamation from 1870 by Julia Ward Howe

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Death and Providence

“Oh, this is what that meant!” said Sabrina at the wake. She was being mysterious again. A few months before that, she had started reading about death and told her mother, Beata, who thought it was strange but forgot about it. After that, Sabrina mysteriously called one day and asked, “Is anyone sick?”
“No. Bill and Larry have health problems, but that’s all.”
“I have weird dreams about the family.”
“What do you mean? Tell me what you mean.” As Beata asked for more information, Sabrina grew angry and obnoxious—not like her at all.
“Just tell me what you’re talking about,” pressed Beata, irritating Sabrina further.
“You don’t tell me when I’m going to tell you. I will tell you when I will tell you.” Rudely. It was like something made her not tell.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you hear me? I’m not going to tell you. Do you understand? We’re lucky that nobody’s sick and nobody’s died.”
“Well no, nobody’s died.”
“A lot of families have those things.”
“Oh, I know that.”
Beata felt she should have known better, she should have connected the dots. Then she could have done something to avert the hideous car accident that killed her favorite and most devout grandchild, Connie. She could’ve prayed, if nothing else. But death in the family when no one was seriously ill, and the death of a grandchild, and, most especially, the death of Connie did not occur to her. It was so foreign. How could God be so cruel?

Sabrina’s uncharacteristically rude response to her questions disturbed Beata. She asked Dee, another daughter, to try to pry it out of Sabrina, but Sabrina didn’t tell her either.
“That’s just Sabrina,” said Dee, and Beata was relieved, thinking if it was serious Sabrina would tell Dee.

At the wake, Sabrina’s outburst started an unpacking of the “death dreams” as she called them. Now she saw the significance and told the whole story. Months earlier while reading a book about death, she thought, “Everyone seems to be doing all right in our family.”
And then she heard the words, “Yes, they are now, but not for long because there’s going to be a death in the family.”
A week and a half later she heard the words, “There will be a loss in the family. It’s imminent.”
Beata asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I didn’t know if I was right.”
“It didn’t matter if you’d been right. It would have been better if you’d been wrong.” Beata thought, if she’d known, she could have told the parents and they could have kept it from happening somehow. She went to the cemetery and cried at Connie’s grave, and was angry at Sabrina. If she had told, thought Beata, she might have saved Connie. She cried and cried.

The thought of someone in her family dying had never occurred to Beata when Sabrina was asking about sickness in the family. Now she wonders why. She says it was just so unthinkable, and she feels guilty. She says, “Maybe if I’d been wiser and able to figure it out, I could have stopped it.” She could have prayed. She could have told the parents. During the wake and funeral she was a wreck because she kept thinking she should have done something to avert it. “A Grandma is supposed to do that. If I tried harder . . .”
Beata is guilting herself and her daughter for something that nobody could have stopped. As happens often when calamities strike, Beata is forced to release her Sunday school image of a sugar-daddy God who grants our wishes—what we think is best for us and those we love as long as we’re good and pray a lot. It’s a simple morality that rewards good in ways we can easily understand.

Beata is not unique. All of us come up against this painful gap between our expectations and reality. A religious background can cushion the blows, or not. Not if we refuse to let God be God. Beata says she now is more open to my alternative interpretations of religious language. She agrees she has grown through this experience. This story really happened but I changed the names. More heart-wrenching aspects of the story I’m not allowed to report even while hiding identities—they’re too personal and sacred.

The following true story I can tell. Big brother Chris and little brother Johnny shared time together every Thursday, their “guy day.” Chris had joined the mentoring program despite being in a wheelchair with paralyzed legs, the result of a car accident. Chris cheered Johnny at his soccer games. Together they enjoyed math and science, looked for rocks and agates, flew kites, and went fishing. They shopped, Johnny riding the back of Chris’s wheelchair and learning to operate the lift on Chris’s van.

One day Johnny asked his family, “If you could have one wish, what would you wish for?” He took his turn last and wished that Chris would get his legs back. This had become his greatest wish after he learned it was Chris’s wish.

Then came the phone call. Johnny’s mom had to tell him that Chris was in the hospital and not doing well. More phone calls, and he wasn’t getting better at all. At about 6:00 o’clock on a Sunday evening, Johnny announced that Chris had died. Gently informed that they didn’t know this yet, he again said, “He’s gone.”

They learned that Chris had indeed passed away before 6:00 o’clock that evening. Through tears, Johnny said, “Chris got his legs back. He got his legs back.”

This true story, like the others I tell, support my conviction that the inner spiritual world breaks into our surface world with regularity and often it has nothing to do with religion.

I’m not saying that religions should stop trying to bring people to Spirit. With their mythical portrayal of the spiritual world, their rituals, and their supportive structures, religions offer community, dignity, and many more benefits impossible to detail. Their contributions would prove more beneficial if people understood certain distinctions—between faith and belief, between religious myths and facts, between religious authority and the supreme authority of incomprehensible Mystery.