The #1 complaint I hear people respond with when they hear this grace message is that God isn’t only loving, He’s also a God of justice and judgment. I think to myself, “Why can’t you shake your bi-polar concept of God? He’s the most loving being in the universe yet He’s got a hair-trigger temper?” God sounds like an alcoholic father.
Darin goes to great length debunking this harmful myth in The Misunderstood God…my friend Brian McLaren goes to great length debunking this harmful slander of God’s character in A New Kind of Christianity. I want to expose this naked emperor impostor-god via a couple of relatively recent songs. But first, a Bible break:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. - Jesus, in Matthew 5:43-45 TNIV.
God is not like us – we want to curse our enemies and misbehavors; we want to withold the best for the blest – which is, of course, us. But like the eccentric, argumentative Psalms of our Holy Writ, a couple of contemporary Psalmists wrestle with the character of the prodigal God, and show us what might be a better image of the Divine.
The first, and most in-your-face, example I’d like to offer is David Bazan‘s ‘Bless This Mess’ from the I-can’t-stop-listening-to-it album Curse Your Branches.
God bless the man who stumbles
God bless the man who falls
God bless the man who yields to temptation
God bless the woman who suffers
God bless the woman who weeps
God bless the children trying her patients
Trouble getting over it
Is what you’re in for
So pour yourself another
‘Cause it’ll take a steady pair of hands
Holy or unholy ghost
Well now I can’t tell, but either way you cut it
You should get some distance if you plan to take a stand
God bless the house divided
God bless the weeds in the wheat
God bless the lamp hid under a bushel
I discovered hell to be the poison in the well
So I tried to warn the others of the curse
But then my body turned on me
I dreamt that for eternity
My family would burn
Then I awoke with a wicked thirst
By my baby’s yellow bed I kissed her forehead and rubbed her little tummy
Wondered if she’d soon despise the smell of the booze on my breath like her mom
And it makes me want to be a better man
After another drink
God bless the man at the crossroads
God bless the woman who still can’t sleep
God bless the history that doesn’t repeat
This is an ambivalent song, to be sure. Evangelicalism’s erstwhile poster child grew up in the Assemblies of God and spent some time among Calvinists in an attempt to bolster the consistency of his faith – in both cases, just like me. He & I are approaching the life of faith from different trajectories now, but we both struggle with how to raise our little girls with integrity amidst a world that increasingly has more options. In the midst of it all, we’d like to believe in the God of Jesus – the God who loves, and blesses, indiscriminately – even when we’re hurting ourselves. (You can see other good versions of the song here and here, and perhaps download it here? For more on Bazan’s story, read these three excellent – but R-rated, just so ya know – interviews, in The Chicago Reader, eMusic, and Patrol.)
The most over-exposed man in rock – and perhaps period – Bono Vox Himself, has good reason for getting as much exposure as he does. Among other things, his tenacious vision of God’s peace and shalom over and against the legalism of his Irish youth comes through in his songwriting, album after album. ‘City of Blinding Lights‘ is a great recent example:
The more you see the less you know
The less you find out as you go
I knew much more then, than I do now
…I’ve seen you walk unafraid
I’ve seen you in the clothes you made
Can you see the beauty inside of me?
What happened to the beauty I had inside of me?
Time, time, time, time, time, time
Won’t leave me as I am…
But time won’t take the boy out of this man…
The more you know the less you feel
Some pray for – others steal
Blessings are not just for the ones who kneel
Luckily…luckily we don’t believe in luck…
Grace abounds…grace abounds…grace abounds…
Like me, Bono has wrestled with the world-affirming and world-denying in voices like that of Chinese mystic and church planterWatchman Nee. And like me, he’s had to say that what traditional Christianity has meant by “the world” we were meant to “come out of” and what Jesus (and Paul, and others) meant by this enigmatic phrase are two completely different – indeed, opposite – things.
Jesus was referring to the world of principalities and powers, those inhuman and dehumanizing forces of religion and empire. He wasn’t referring to culture-as-such, and certainly not to planet earth. Millions of friends-of-God are awakening to the reality that we live in a God-blessed and God-beloved world that God still thinks is ‘very good,’ however marred by egoic haze and degradation its become. We’re all connected – for life or death.
As the US Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori recently remarked, the idea of solely personal salvation is heresy. Our redemption begins in this world, its social and public as well as personal – at this stage, in 2012, salvation is planetary in scope. The ecology of new creation needs to be rooted in every aspect of our beings, from creative work to re-creation.
Bottom-line: God is love. Love is orthodoxy. (Agapetheism, as my friend Kevin Beck likes to put it) It’s God’s kindness that leads to repentance, not the big stick that you imagine God’s holiness to be. Let’s join together in the Great Work of our age – becoming the leaves of the Tree of Life for the healing of our relationships, our neighborhoods, our ecosystems, our economies – in short, our world. This begins, as Brennan Manning says, with healing our image of God – and the ones God loves. Which is all of us. God brings abundant blessings…not just for the ones who kneel. May we model this same lavish, indiscriminate, sloppy, positively promiscuous love.
Amen and amen.
PS: What songs, art, poetry and cultural artifacts remind you of God’s blessing breaking out of the confines of empire and religion?
It was the first time I’d met Troy; the second time I’d met Chris Seay I believe, and the third time I’d met Brian – I got up the courage to approach Brian afterward and ask him if he needed editorial feedback on any of his work; to my grateful surprise I got to informally work on The Last Word and the Word After That. Good times.
Soo, yeah. It was at this conference that Brueggemann presented his 19 Theses:
1. Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognized or unrecognized, but everybody has a script.
2. We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialization, and it happens to us without our knowing it.
3. The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative.
4. That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.
5. That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.
6. Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.
7. It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, too enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.
8. The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.
9. The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.
10. That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature, its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.
11. That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence – [a] huge problem for us.
12. The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless. [I think the writer of Psalm 119 would probably like too try, to make it seamless]. Because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated. [This is my polemic against systematic theology]. The script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must betaken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.
13. The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so too debilitate the focus of the script.
14. The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?”
15. The nurture, formation, and socialization into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialization by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighboring of all kinds.
16. Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.
17. This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit. So that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.
18. Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that isequally present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.
19. The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one [see if that’s an overstatement]; there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and too manage a way through it. I think often; I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if youtook all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.
Want to see the talk for yourself? Here it is.
It’s interesting that what disturbs us sometimes the first time we hear it ends up comforting us the next time we hear it. More explosively than even his challenging theses, it was at this conference that Brueggemann wonders out loud if “God is a recovering practitioner of violence.” As Geoff Holsclaw summarizes – “By this he means that God used to think violence was a good idea, but then gave up on it. However, like all addicts, He has relapses. Of which the cross is either the final deliverance, or another relapse.”
Of course this is potentially disconcerting, as we don’t like to imagine the repentance of God – and yet, this is precisely what is suggested in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (thanks, Jack Miles!). Incarnation inaugurates a genuine new-ness in God’s new covenant with humanity & cosmos. As Geoff continues, “Concerning faith and knowledge, Brueggemann says: “We all have a craving for certitude, but the gospel is all about fidelity.” By this he means that certitude is an epistemological category while fidelity is a relational one. And the way of the Cross is to depart from our certitude, to die to our answers/desires/scripts.”
Part of the ‘inner reflex’ is Centering Prayer is letting go. For 20 minutes twice a day, it’s a continuous letting go of thoughts and emotions that well up inside – kind of like a fisherman catching fish, but not to eat – just for fun. She’s sitting in a boat (the mind) and her pole rests in the water (the field of consciousness). Little fish (thoughts, ideas, emotions) come up and nibble on the line (ordinary awareness) – the fisherman doesn’t shoot the fish with a revolver or cut the line. Instead, she pulls the little fish up, but doesn’t keep them in the boat – it’s catch & release.
Catch and release, catch and release, gently, graciously – because you recognize that even the lake is situated in a much larger ecosystem (God). You can let go because the earth is abundant; you will be fed. Centering Prayer is a journey of trust in God, even on the unconscious level, where all kind of mis-trustful thoughts bubble up to the surface. The life centered in surrender to & trust in God is a life of profound peace and productivity – and our Scriptures attest, in a myriad of ways, that such trust (faith) ‘pleases God.’
But when we’re faced with the disturbing truths that Brueggemann elucidates – God’s irascibility for instance – what do we do?
There are two ways to do handle this. One is the way of definitive, forceful – almost violent – denial that there is (or has ever been) anything troubling in God’s character or actions according to revealed Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. It’s the route of “trusting” God via suppression of the more unseemly parts of our sacred canons and sacred canopies.
But there is another route – more painful, more adult, more complex – but I think it can still end in deeply-rooted, childlike trust. It’s a path that I’ve learned from many guides over the years, including:
Bruggie Baby (sorry for the familiarity, but it’s really hard typing his name over and over again)
(Did you read that list, Ken Silva? Its semantic relations were practically tailor-written for you, LOL. If you don’t write about me, Discernmentalist Mafia will!)
And this is the path: As Grubb and Bill Volkman propose in a substantially panentheistic reading of Holy Writ: There is only One Person in the Universe. (Y’know, like “I Am the Lord your God, there is no Other?”) Creation unfolds inside of God. And within this unfolding, it moves from gross to subtle to causal (see Integral theory) – meaning that God, our our sacred history, once walked around and acted, anthropomorphically, as a human being. Gradually across the narrative shape of the Hebrew Bible, God began to withdraw God’s conscious presence in this way – “I will hide My face from them, and see what their fate may be.” God goes from walking around earth to appearing via angelic intermediaries; to public miracles, to dreams and visions and prophets, to private subjective experiences to interpretations written out in a Book. In Ruth and Esther, God is scarcely mentioned at all. (God then repeats this process again in Jesus – but the same progression from overt to subtle takes place on the pages of the New Testament and in Church history)
We could lament this move as somehow connected to God punishing us; withheld manifest presence as a result of our sin or some such thing. On the other hand, what if we as a human race are growing up, maturing, and therefore God appears to us in more mature ways? In this way, God is very actively involved in our history as a parent, but then gives us space to get older – not becoming more distant, but in fact closer than our very breath. God’s presence moves from the obvious to the sublime. (Which would explain, to me, why Monotheistic Western religion – in the form of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – starts out very concrete-operational in orientation and almost inevitably move to the mystical, with increasing circles of empathy for God, self, world, and others. The majority adherents might not make that leap, but it undeniably does seem like a leap forward.)
Now, here’s the same thought from another trajectory: God influences us, that we’ve always known; but what if we – the sum total of we, human and non-human life alike – influence God? If we’re bound up in God, marked off in God before our conception, our learning and growing is God’s learning and growing – what if? I don’t mean to rehash the entire Open Theism vs. Calvinism debate of the 1990s here, but I think that it’s possible to simultaneously hold that God is good, wise, and powerful while also affirming the ability of God to learn and (even) change God’s mind – we see so many examples of this in the narrative of Scripture, that it seems fool-hardy to deny this in order to preserve our cherished Greco-Roman structured systematic theologies.
So, today, in a secular age, we affirm that God is true and real, but we wrestle with what this means. We stake our lives on the goodness of God, but we recognize that ‘goodness’ might be different today, as it truly seems to be if you’re looking at Covenantal unfolding in Scripture. This simply seems developmentally apparent: If you’re someone who, like me, is committed to peace and justice work today but grew up watching the 700 Club approvingly as a kid, you’ve experienced the dissonance that God, just possibly, has experienced: What made perfect sense in the 1980s seems cruel and inhuman today. And this is precisely what Abraham and Moses are recorded as having argued to YHWH some 4,000+ years ago: “Don’t wipe out this-or-that people, LORD; it’s bad PR. It does not magnify the glory of Your Name; it does not add to the praise of Your reputation.” Sometimes, YHWH did what he was going to do anyway; sometimes, he listened and changed course.
What does this have to do with our lives today? Is this a wildly unstable theology of God? Is such a changeable God not worthy of worship? I don’t know about that. I think that, if the evangelical mantra is true, and we can indeed have ‘a personal relationship with G-D, then this relationship is a genuine one with real give-and-take, real learning on both sides. I think that I can be an orthodox Trinitarian Christian with a high Christology, and still hold that the Universe is one important aspect of the unfolding of God – and that we are the co-unfolding of God, within God. And that we recognize this unfolding, and respond to it, and even initiate its furtherance of it, on a deep, nourishing level when we learn to trust the God Who Is – as opposed to the fantasy God whom we fondly wish Would Be. This path is more difficult – but this is real trust.
Watch or listen to the complete 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation with Walter B. here.
This post originally debuted on November 21, 2009.
A couple of weeks ago was ‘Trinity Sunday’ in the Christian liturgical calender – an artifact of public worship that many contemporary Jesus-followers don’t pay much attention to. Even among those who do mark time in this way, “Trinity Sunday” often makes communities of faith squirm – it can be difficult to celebrate what might seem to many to be an obtuse doctrine.
Even so, I am an unabashed Trinitarian geek, to the consternation of some of my fundamentalist and uber-progressive friends alike. One reason for this is the unparalleled enthusiasm and scholarly work of Baxter Kruger. Another is an excellent teaching series done by Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bougeault. Recent, Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation have been re-presenting snippets from this series in their daily emails.
These reminders – God as community, God as weakness, God as giver and receiver of boundary – have been especially core to my spiritual energy during this recently-mentioned difficult period in my life. Also, 18 months ago, I discovered that I’m half-Turkish. Yes, there’s a blog post or two in that story – stay tuned!
For now, I’ll just say that I’ve been embracing my Turkish heritage, which contains everything from Saul/Paul of Damascus, the Cappadocian Mothers and Fathers who first lucidly articulated the mystery of God-as-Trinity, as well as originating the rich history of love-drunk Sufi poets and mystics, like Rumi and the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes. What all of these diverse influences have in common is an embrace of God that is both intensely interior as well as leaving nothing out of the wider world out of sense, absence, experience and surrender. God – as experienced and understood by Paul, the Cappadocians, and the Dervishes – is God-in-motion. This makes songs from my charismatic youth about ‘riding the wheel of God’ take on new meaning.
Because it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, I’d like to share with you this week’s reflections from the Center for Action and Contemplation on the Trinitarian revelation. If you like these, be sure to subscribe to Richard’s daily email. It’s the only “daily devotional” I have delivered to my main (eg, real) email address.
In the name of the Holy One
In the name of the Son
In the name of the Spirit
We are made one
God for us, we call You Father
God alongside us, we call You Jesus,
God within us, we call You Holy Spirit.
You are the Eternal Mystery that enables and holds
and enlivens all things
—even us and even me.
Every name falls short of Your goodness and greatness.
We can only see who You are in what is.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
~ Richard Rohr
Reality is Radically Relational
One reason so many theologians are interested in the Trinity now is that we’re finding both physics (especially quantum physics) and cosmology are at a level of development where human science, our understanding of the atom and our understanding of galaxies, is affirming and confirming our use of the old Trinitarian language—but with a whole new level of appreciation. Reality is radically relational, and the power is in the relationships themselves!
No good Christians would have denied the Trinitarian Mystery, but until our generation none were prepared to see that the shape of God is the shape of the whole universe!
Great science, which we once considered an “enemy” of religion, is now helping us see that we’re standing in the middle of awesome Mystery, and the only response before that Mystery is immense humility. Astrophysicists are much more comfortable with darkness, emptiness, non-explainability (dark matter, black holes), and living with hypotheses than most Christians I know. Who could have imagined this?
The Delight of Three
Our Franciscan Saint Bonaventure, who wrote a lot about the Trinity, was influenced by a lesser-known figure called Richard of Saint Victor. Richard said, “For God to be good, God can be one. For God to be loving, God has to be two because love is always a relationship.” But his real breakthrough was saying that “For God to be supreme joy and happiness, God has to be three.” Lovers do not know full happiness until they both delight in the same thing, like new parents with the ecstasy of their first child.
When I was first becoming “known,” people wanted to get close to me and be my friend or have a special relationship with me. I asked myself how I would choose between all these friends and I realized that the people I really found joy in were not always people who loved me nearly as much aspeople who loved what I loved. That helped me understand what I think Richard of St. Victor was trying to teach. The Holy Spirit is the shared love of the Father and the Son, and shared love is always happiness and joy. The Holy Spirit is whatever the Father and the Son are excited about; Sheis that excitement—about everything in creation!
A Participatory Verb
In our attempts to explain the Trinitarian Mystery in the past we overemphasized the individual qualities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but not so much the relationships between them. That is where all the power is! That is where all the meaning is!
The Mystery of God as Trinity invites us into a dynamism, a flow, a relationship, a waterwheel of love. The Mystery says God is a verb much more than a noun. God as Trinity invites us into a participatory experience. Some of our Christian mystics went so far as to say that all of creation is being taken back into this flow of eternal life, almost as if we are a “Fourth Person” of the Eternal Flow of God or, as Jesus put it, “so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:3).
Interbeing: The Weakness of God
Paul says, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). That awesome line gives us a key into the Mystery of Trinity. I would describe human strength as self-sufficiency or autonomy. God’s weakness I would describe as Interbeing.
Human strength admires holding on. The Mystery of the Trinity is about each One letting go into the Other. Human strength admires personal independence. God’s Mystery is total mutual dependence. We like control. God loves vulnerability. We admire needing no one. The Trinity is total intercommunion with all things and all Being. We are practiced at hiding and protecting ourselves. God seems to be in some kind of total disclosure for the sake of the other.
Our strength, we think, is in asserting and protecting our boundaries. God is into dissolving boundaries between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet finding them in that very outpouring! Take the rest of your life to begin to unpackage such a total turnaround of Reality.
Boundless Boundary: A Waterwheel of Love
A Threefold God totally lets go of any boundaries for the sake of the Other, and then receives them back from Another. It is a nonstop waterwheel of Love. Each accepts that He is fully accepted by the Other, and then passes on that total acceptance. Thus “God is Love.” It’s the same spiritual journey for all of us, and it takes most of our life to accept that we are accepted—and to accept everyone else. Most can’t do this easily because internally there is so much self-accusation (self-flagellation in many cases). Most are so convinced that they are not the body of Christ, that they are unworthy, that we are not in radical union with God.
The good news is that the question of union has already been resolved once and for all. We cannot create our union with God from our side. It is objectively already given to us by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (Romans 8:9—and all over the place!). Once we know we are that grounded, founded, and home free, we can also stop defending ourselves and move beyond our self-protectiveness, too.
Just As I-AM-ness, Without One Plea
Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who was a major contributor to quantum physics and nuclear fission, said the universe is “not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think.” Our supposed logic has to break down before we can comprehend the nature of the universe and the bare beginnings of the nature of God.
I think the doctrine of the Trinity is saying the same thing. There is something that can only be known experientially, and that is why we teach contemplative prayer and quiet. Of all the religious rituals and practices I know of, nothing will lead us to that place of nakedness and vulnerability more than forms of solitude and silence, where our ego identity falls away, where our explanations don’t mean anything, where our superiority doesn’t matter and we have to sit there in our naked “who-ness.” If God wants to get through to us, and the Trinity experience wants to come alive in us, that’s when God has the best chance. God is not only stranger than we think, but stranger than the logical mind can think. Perhaps much of the weakness of the first 2000 years of reflection on the Trinity, and many of our doctrines and dogmas, is that we’ve tried to do it with a logical mind instead of with prayer.
Prayer: God is a circle dance of communion.
Join the dance of mutuality, love, and endless giving and receiving that is the Mystery of Trinity.
Listen to more wisdom on the Trinity from master teachers:
The Divine Dance: Exploring the Mystery of Trinity
with Fr. Richard Rohr (CD, MP3)
Shape of God: Deepening the Mystery of Trinity
with Fr. Richard Rohr and Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault (CD, DVD, MP3)
I’ve been revisiting Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes‘ brief-but-powerful poem “Dream Deferred.” It evokes so much for me in this season, from marriage to eschatology to relationships to community. I’ll let it speak to you:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Dreams need to be translated into fulfillment, into reality, before they simply die, or worse. Mr. Hughes echoes the proverbial wisdom “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but fulfilled longing is a tree of life.”
So to all my friends who are hurting and hoping: Here’s to sweet dreams, and the salty journeys that evoke our thirst for fulfillment–only in sugar and salt can we be parched enough to drink together of Life’s Common Tree!
A couple of weeks ago I was dog-sitting for my friend Jake who was out of town. At one point after breakfast, I found myself prostrate on the ground, weeping and talking with an intimate stranger…the Goddess, in fact.
But before I go into all that, it’s probably helpful if I rewind a bit and share a less-known slice of my personal history with the Good Lord.
As longtime readers of this blog might know, my family and I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we moved from our native Atlanta are in 2006. We moved here with over a dozen of our friends from undergrad days at Berry College, as well as with new friends and co-dreamers from across the country to ‘seed’ the planting of an ‘organic’ expression of church life – what some variously know as house church, simple church, or intentional community. We were part of a national movement that began to come apart at the seams right around the time we moved; we lasted ‘till about 2008.
Back to me and the Goddess for a second: What caused a nice Jesus-lovin,’ evangelical-reared boy like me to be weeping in front of the Sacred Feminine on my friend’s linoleum floor, a Lassie-looking pup looking docilely on? I was going to write an original explanation of all this, but then I looked back into my ‘Writings’ folder here on the computer, and found something I shared with our house church community back in 2007, on the topic of…
What You Might Not Know About The Lord & Me
You see, our church structure (ideally, at least) was open, participatory, egalitarian and interdependent with others in our ‘family’ or network of churches. Our typical gathering was initiated by singing, and then any number of us sharing for 3-5 minutes, drawn from what we reflected on throughout the week – our “portion of Christ” as we saw it. From time to time, we were given outside direction. We were ‘planted’ and ‘watered’ by those we called ‘workers,’ what those in other traditions might call anything from ‘circuit riders’ to ‘apostles.’ (But we in the Watchman Nee/T. Austin-Sparks post-Brethren lineage that we were, we called them workers.) Our worker at the time, who had a day job as an influential financial manager in the Northeast, challenged us to get to know one another better by having a series of gatherings wherein one person would ‘take’ the majority of the meeting, sharing on What You Might Not Know About the Lord and Me. It was a rich time of hearing new facets of people who lived among – some whom we’d known for years. What follows are rather detailed notes on what I shared:
I’m sorry, but this question just lends itself to some rather shady pronouncements. Like “When I was eight, the Lord beat me up and threw me behind a dumpster…” [Dark, Mike. Dark.] But no. I appreciate the impetus behind this question. Many of us have secret pasts and presents with God; dark and mysterious and wondrous things, and it would be good to share.
The first thing you should know is that I don’t call God “the Lord,” not usually. While it’s utterly true that he is our Lord—our Master, the Maestro of the Art of Living—I find it ironic that we’ve picked up on this most formal of titles and made it our choice term of intimacy. The standard placeholder “God” works for me fine, though I also enjoy the Hebrew proper names, like the dynamic and revelatory YHWH, “I am as I shall show myself.” Or El Shaddai.
Let me say a few words about El Shaddai. It’s the most common way I address God while enjoying fellowship with God in Centering Prayer. Now don’t get the wrong impression; I don’t do this nearly as often as I want to; I don’t have a daily ritual of time ‘wasted’ with God like our brother to my right does, though I hope to soon. But when I can, I do the following:
I’ve chosen a name of God as the symbol of my awareness of God’s presence within, through and around me.
Sitting comfortably and with eyes resting, I briefly and silently introduce this name—El Shaddai—as the symbol of my consent to God’s presence and action within.
When I become aware of thoughts, I return ever-so-gently to “El Shaddai.”
At the end of about 20 minutes—I typically use a timer—I just sit for a moment or two. I might slowly say the Lord’s Prayer.
There are two reasons why “El Shaddai” is my most intimate of names for addressing God. One is that, with my proclivity toward eating God, it makes the most sense; one rendering of this name is “The God who feeds.” But there is a second reason. A deeper and more literal rendering of this name is “The God with breasts.” El Shaddai means provider precisely because she is the breast-feeding God. Also known as “The voluptuous God,” this is one of the many female depictions of God that has fallen by the wayside in popular use. (See my Appendix handout for Scriptural depictions of God-as-feminine.)
Why is this important to me? Well for one, becoming familiar once again with the many feminine faces of God in Scripture and history gives dignity and power to our sisters in Christ; it is an abandoned memory that needs to be recovered in our words, in our worship, and in our reflections on who God is in our midst.
But for me as a man this has an altogether more close-to-home meaning: recovering the eroticism of God in my devotional life. About a decade ago—first with certain songs coming out of the Vineyard movement and charismatic renewal, and then from the teachings of our itinerant church planters—I was introduced to a vigorous, full-on God-eroticism via bridal language.
Drawing from the Song of Songs and the many bridal images in both Old and New Testaments, I saw painted for me a love affair between the God of Israel/Christ and the people of God, both Israel and the Church. It was illustrated to me as a male suitor pursuing his beloved with fervor that can only be described as sexual, finally culimanating in the saucy, sensuous repertoire we see in both Song of Songs and the end of Revelation. I’ve seen how this understanding has revolutionized the devotional lives of our sisters in communities across the globe; I’ve also seen men in our churches try to get in the game, with varying results. Jesus-as-our-lover has a kind’ve mixed resonance for men because we’re men – it’s even parodied in our larger church culture by men who are uncomfortable with this level of intimacy in contemporary worship songs as Jesus-Is-My-Boyfriend Music. (I wonder: Have any of these critics ever read Bernard of Clairvaux? Hildegard of Bingen? Teresa of Avila?) We recognize that “In Christ there is no male or female,” so in a real sense we too can enter into the ‘bridal experience’ and feel what it’s like to be ravished by our bridegroom via imaginative prayer and resting in divine fellowship. But for those of us who happen to be heterosexual men happily inhabiting our bodies, this is never quite an intuitive experience, is it?
So for me, seeing the sacred feminine as Sophia in Proverbs, or El Shaddai in the Old Testament, or Jesus-as-Mother in several New Testament depictions (not to mention in the writings of mystics like Julian of Norwich) gives me back something I’ve never had as a man: the Voluptuous God, the female creator and nurturer who is comfortable with the space she inhabits. El Shaddai is self-possessed with a powerful, seductive eroticism, one that can both initiate and follow. When I spend time with God, she can ignite my senses with insight and proposition; she can also receive everything I have to give. When our workers encourage us to “Make love to your Lord,” guys, it’s worth reframing this!
The early Genesis poem recounts that both male and female are needed to fully bear the Imago Dei, the image of God on earth as s/he is in heaven. I have taken this to heart, and have sought to incorporate both the male and female in my multi-faceted relating to a many-splendored God.
* * *
That’s what I shared in 2007. So. Many. Words. These days, words are failing me. I feel like Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life, when he fell into a profound silence that lasted weeks. When prompted by one of his assistants to continue writing the thousands of pages of analytical theology had was known for, he replied: “I cannot write anymore because all that I have written seems like straw to me, compared to what has been revealed to me…”
Recently, I’ve been through a dark and challenging time in my life. It isn’t over quite yet. And no, dear readers, I will not be disclosing. Some things are best not blogged. But it really doesn’t matter: If you’re breathing air, you know what I’m talking about: The dissolution of something you once held dear, or thought was solid – perhaps in an outside relationship or job; perhaps within yourself. Changes are taking place; sometimes it feels invigorating, sometimes it feels scary.
I was in just such a place while dog-sitting for my friend Jake – doing dishes, listening to music via my iPhone dock, wondering what was next. I was specifically listening to Krishna Das, an American Kirtan singer – his album Live on Earth. Das’s voice is deeply masculine and totally enchanting all at the same time, the depth of devotion he infuses in his songs is hauntingly beautiful. I’d bought his memoir Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Goldat one of the liquidation sales of the late, lamented Borders, and started reading it recently. As far as coming-of-age-in-the-1960s-and-now-being-an-enlightened-superstud stories go, I enjoyed the writing and pacing of Keith Martin Smith’s A Heart Blown Open: The Life & Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi better. But still – Krishna Das’s story of finding grounding and expansiveness through a life of chanting the Names of God is inspiring – and challenging, as stories like these from varying faith traditions threaten to make me a perennialist yet.
But here I go again with words, words, words – layers of interpretation. Let’s return to the heart of the story: A song came on, Das’s rendering of the Devi Puja, or Goddess Prayer.
From the first notes of his harmonium (an instrument I first heard with powerful effect by my friend, the street-smart yogi and Kalachakra monk Kir – aka Kirantana – at last year’s inaugural Wild Goose Festival), and the repetition of the words He Maa Durga, I stopped drying a glass and froze. Then, I dropped to my knees. I knew that I was in the presence of God, but in this familiar-but-still-culturally-foreign form of El Shaddi, Ruah, Sophia…and more particularly still, Shakti, Shiva, Kali – but more generally, The Goddess.
If you’re one of those people who needs to know what the words mean, here’s an approximate translation of the Devi Puja. But I didn’t know this at the time:
Oh Goddess, you are the one who conquers all
You are the One beyond time
The auspicious One beyond time
The bearer of skulls who destroys all difficulties
Loving forgiveness and supporter of the universe.
You are the one who truly receives our sacrificial offerings
To you I bow.
I did not know, but I had the sense of this personified feminine Love, upholding the universe – and yet being difficult (or perhaps I was the one being difficult). And I was certainly bowing. I began crying – a little bit at first, and then weeping. Who was this One I was in the presence of? Somehow familiar, yet utterly foreign. Goddess. A complex swirl of thoughts, memories, and emotions began to swirl within me. Last May, I was initiated into the ManKind Project – a totally awesome secret society (we aren’t really, I just like to call us one); my initiation and subsequent, consistent time spent in a local circle of men has done wonders for digging deep into and integrating my experience of masculine energies – making peace with the idea of being both a real man and a good man. And now, it seems, that Femininity herself is knocking on the door of my heart. My integration continues.
After ten minutes or so of weeping and verbally asking questions of the Goddess, I decided to write them down. I picked up my journal. This is what I wrote:
Goddess, I can’t be a man without you.
Who are You, who’s been refracted so imperfectly through the women of my life?
Abandoned Smothered Wounded Unattainable Complex
…why is Your energy so inaccessible, O cruel archetype?
I long to know You as Mother, Lover, Friend.
But You are aloof – You play games with me.
The absence of You divorces body from soul, heart from access and flow.
In my life, I’ve idolized You, and I’ve hated You.
I want neither.
Instead, I want to flow into You – to be lost in Your warmth, intoxicated in Your sensuality, recognizing and honoring Your essence in all things.
I also want to feel like a man in Your presence, to give you my essence and have it received, with gratefulness and joy.
In many ways, my journaling strikes me as being like a Psalm – structured in complaint and collapse into Love. Clearly, I have some issues with feminine energy – and clearly, I long for her. At times, I am misogynist and feminist: This is my confession. Both are true.
The Devi Puja ended, and so did the experience. But she has lingered.
In so many ways, I’m at a crossroads of life and experience. While composting the best of my past, I feel like the first-century church at Pentecost, watching and waiting for the Spirit to hover over the face of my waters. And sometimes, this Spirit comes to me in distinctly feminine form. My prayer – for healing, wholeness, integration, and fresh creation in the world – is summed up in many ways by this song from the band Live at the turn of this century:
Sitting on the beach The island king of love Deep in Fijian seas Deep in some blissful dream
Where the Goddess finally sleeps In the lap of her lover Subdued in all her rage And I am aglow with the taste
Of the demons driven out And happily replaced with the presence of real Love The only one who saves
I wanna dance with you I see a world where people live and die with grace The karmic ocean dried up and leave no trace I wanna dance with you I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds And lead us back to a world we would not face
The stillness in your eyes Convinces me that I I don’t know a thing And I been around the world and I’ve Tasted all the wines A half a billion times Came sickened to your shores You show me what this life is for
I wanna dance with you I see a world where people live and die with grace the karmic ocean dried up and leave no trace
I wanna dance with you I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds And lead us back to a world we would not face
We would not face We would not face We would not face…
I’m not much of a “proof-texter.” I don’t like using the Bible as a weapon to fight out my outlook on life versus someone else’s. Further, I’m committed to the ‘progressive hermeneutic’ of ongoing revelation/unpacking the riches of God in our midst. Even so: I don’t, in celebrating the feminine face of God (and sharing my experience of the same), think I’m going ‘beyond the Bible.’ Here’s a sampling of the wealth of feminine images of God in Scripture, including the Apocrypha.
Take a moment and let these sink in*:
First nine chapters of Proverbs focus on Wisdom
Proverbs 4:13 she is your life, giver of life
Proverbs 8:35 whoever finds me finds life
Proverbs 8:15 decrees what is right
Proverbs 8: 22 – 31 like Wisdom herself, before the foundation of the earth I was there. Wisdom comes from God, was created by God
Wisdom 7:22 – 8:1 She is the fashioner of all things; 21 attributes which is the product of two perfect numbers 3 & 7. Wisdom is perfection multiplied by perfection. Intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all powerful. Overseeing all, penetrating through all other intelligent spirits
Wisdom 8:1 She orders all things
Wisdom 7: 24 She pervades and penetrates all things
Wisdom 7:27 She renews all things – renewable energy
Wisdom 9:10 She shares the throne of God
Wisdom 7:10 – 14 She’s the source of all things new
Sirach 1:1 – 8 It is God who knows wisdom and pours her forth upon the world
Sirach 24: 1 – 27 Hymn of self-praise sung by Wisdom in which she describes herself, her origins, her relationship to God and the good things she does for human beings. She came from the mouth of God, she is God’s word, breath, Spirit; as the spirit/wind that hovered over the waters of creation and as mist / steam that covered the earth at the beginning; she is universal, everywhere. Her image as a tree echoes Proverbs 8 – she strikes root among God’s people. She feeds all who long for her. Her food is sweeter than honey. Her food is herself. All who eat of her will hunger still, who drink of her will thirst for more. One will never be able to get enough of what she offers. What she offers is life. She concludes her song with a promise similar to Proverbs 8:35 – 34 – those who obey her will not be shamed. Those who serve her will not fall short. I believe she is the personification of God’s wisdom as the feminine archetype.
Birthing God – womb
• Gen 7:1 – Breasts illuminate a feminine image of God
• Deut. 32:18 “You forget the rock who begot you, unmindful of the God who gave birth to you”
• Job 38:8 “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”
• Job 38: 28-29 God’s fathering of rain and giving birth to ice from her womb
• Isaiah 42:14 “I groan like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant”
• Isaiah 46: 3-4: “You who have been carried since birth, whom I have carried since time you were born” – incubating in God’s womb
• John 1:12: Those who believe in God are born of God
• John 4:7: Everyone who loves is born of God
• John 16:21: God is bringing forth a new humanity like the pangs of a woman in labor; her hour has come
• Acts 17: In God we live and move and have our being
• Gal 4:19: God’s womb is in pain
• Romans 8:22 From the beginning to now the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth (creation)
Creator God of Israel is also imaged as the shaper, maker and mother God who formed Israel in the womb and birthed Israel with labor pains:
• (Deut. 32:18; Psalm 90:2; Proverbs 8:24 – 25; Isaiah 43:1,7,15; 44:2, 24; 45:9, 11; 51:13; 54:5 From the word “womb” (rehem) comes the verb “to have compassion” (raham), and the phrase “Yahweh’s compassionate (rahum) and gracious” repeatedly appears in the Hebrew scripture to describe the merciful and saving acts of God in history. (Deut. 4:31; 2 Chronicles 30:9; Nehemiah 9:17; Ps 78:38; 86:16; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8; John 4:7 These verses show images of God who demonstrates “womb – like compassion” for her child Israel.
• God creator is sometimes depicted as woman giving birth and sometimes a reproductive image of God as both male and female: Deut 32:18; Job 38:28 – 29; Is 42:14; Acts 17; John 16:21; Gal 4:19; Rom 8:22; John 1:12
• Isaiah 49:15 does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son (daughter) of her womb
• Numbers 11:12 was it I who conceived all this people, was it I who gave them birth that you should say to me, carry them in your bosom like a nurse with a baby at the breast
• Psalm 131:2 – 3 But I have clamed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul within me is like a weaned child.
• John 7: 38 From his breast shall flow the fountains of living water
• 1 Peter 2:2 – 3 You are newborn and like babies you should be hungry for nothing but milk – now that you have tasted the goodness of Christ
Nurturing God – mother:
• Gen 1 :2 nesting mother
• Deut 32 : 11 – 12 mother eagle
• Hosea 11:34 I myself taught Ephram to walk, I took them in my arms
• Hosea 13: 8 I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs
• Psalm 131 image of repose – like a child in its mother’s arms as content as a child that has been weaned
• Ps 17:8 guard me in the shadow of your wings
• Ps 36:7 all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings
• Ps 57:1 in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge
• Ps 61:4 find refuge under the shelter of your wings
• Isaiah 31:5 like birds hovering overhead, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem
• Isaiah 46:3 – 4 who have been borne by me from your birth carried from the womb… even when you turn gray, I will carry you. I have made and I will bear, I will carry and will save
• Isaiah 66: 10 –13 comforting mother…… as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you
• Luke 15:8 woman tirelessly sweeping for her lost coin, for what is important to her
• Luke 13: 34 (Matt 23:37), how often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings
• Ruah – Gen 2:7, Ps 104: 29; Jn 3:8 presence gives life; feminine Hebrew word meaning breath, wind, inspiration or spirit.
• Rahamin Hebrew word for compassion – root word, rahan, means womb.
• El Shaddai – God of the mountains or God of the breasts
• Seamstress – Gen 3:21
• Washerwoman Isaiah 4:4, Psalm 51:7
• Midwife Psalm 22:9 – 11, Psalm 71:6; Isaiah 66:9
• Woman baking bread Matt 13:33
• Seeks justice Proverbs 8:18
*I’m pretty sure I originally derived this list from somewhere, though now I forget where. If you know where, please share in the comments and I’ll attribute.
Recommended Reading if you want to explore the feminine imagery of God more fully:
Update: Due to some unfortunate-but-understanding channel issues, the current host of my Blue Like Jazz interview has been switched to password-protected mode. We’ll be moving it to our Wild Goose Festival Vimeo channel soon; in the meantime, you can watch it by entering the password “miller.”
You should check out theaters in your area this weekend to see if Blue Like Jazz is playing; supporting an independent production like this in its opening weekend is crucial for its overall success. And you should really join us this June 21-24 at Shakori Hills campground in North Carolina. We’re going to have so many amazingly gifted artists, musicians, community organizers, spiritual wisdom-holders, ragamuffins, agitators, and ne’er-do-wells. And most of all, plenty of new friends and community that you can take with you. This week only, enter “bluelikejazz” at checkout, and get 15% off any Wild Goose registration! Our way of saying thanks for supporting good films and good festivals.
Without further ado, here’s the 30-minute interview between Steve, Don, and myself. I think we all had a good time.
(Remember: “miller” will let you watch this video.)
It’s 11:20 PM; I just wrapped up another stressful day of work. And now, almost automatically, I find myself microwaving and eating a bowl of ramen noodles – two bowls to be exact.
What am I doing?
I’m not in college anymore.
I should know better.
I do know better.
So what gives?
Tonight is just the latest round in my life-long tug of war with food, fitness, and health. What is it that Paul says? “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate.”
Yeah. That’s me.
I know “the good I ought to do.” I was raised in a family that ate “all-natural” food back in the 80s when it tasted like cardboard – I actually enjoyed carob chips! And my wife is an excellent cook; we eat mostly organically-grown and/or locally sourced foods – fresh! Not canned! We don’t drink carbonated sodas. I snack on apples.
And I love my life; there’s so much to be thankful for. I have a beautiful wife and an amazing four-year old daughter; I’m part of some vibrantfaithcommunities. I do meaningful work; I’m a successful multipreneur (which is ADD-speak for having lots of interlocking gigs and businesses). And yet, there is this core of self-sabotaging behavior that works its way around food and eating. It looks like this: I eat really well all day long, but then “cheat” “just once.” This “cheating” works its way into a habit over a couple of weeks, and the next thing I know my clothes are fitting tighter. Then I work out harder, try and eat better, and a few pounds melt away. But then, they come back.
Here’s the thing: I know a lot about what makes for a good diet. And I’m even blessed to be someone who can afford to eat a good diet in the convoluted foodscape that is 21st century America. I don’t need more food rules; I actually need food grace. I don’t need a complicated set of dos and don’ts; I need a re-start button. I want to drink deeply from the fountain of Life, and let my body and mind be renewed and rebuilt on a molecular level.
Thankfully, I’ve discovered something called Living Fuel, a remarkable whole-food based superfood meal replacement that keeps friends of mine 10-15 years older than me in amazing shape. I’ll be saying more about this in my next health-related post, but for now suffice it to say that I have a grand ambition: Lose 80 pounds and be in the best shape of my life – body, mind, and soul.
In the coming months, in addition to blogging about faith and culture as usual, I’ll also be blogging more about health and fitness. Because it’s all related, isn’t it? It’s a step into greater vulnerability to be sure (kinda like that post I wrote a year or so ago where I confessed to you all that I’m nuts), but if Mike Morrell dot org ain’t the place to come clean with you, I don’t know where (online, at least) I would. Because good theology, spirituality, strategic foresight and cultural analysis isn’t done in some kind’ve gnostic vacuum: I’m a body as well as a brain – what bodies do, matters.
So – this should be a fun next few months. Please feel free to keep me in line if you feel like I’m becoming an info-mercial, or dangerously mirroring those seductively-slick media barrages about the ‘perfect body.’ I want to do neither, and yet I do want to honor bodies, and embodiment, as I seek to incorporate a more integral life practice.
Feel free to weigh in with wisdom and encouragement in the comments!
In the meantime, I leave you with some weight-loss wisdom from KC Craichy, the founder of Living Fuel:
Regular centering prayer encourages our direct knowing, without which there is no actual living Jesus tradition.
While we call Jesus our ascended master, our risen Lord, we act like we’re absentee landlords. Why do we invoke Eucharist in third person as though he’s not here?? Why not second person? Surely he didn’t go away when he died!
[Mike's note: I love how Cynthia says Jesus “is” and “does” rather than “was” and “did” like so many of her fellow progressive Christians, who do indeed see themselves as absentee landlords presiding over a Jesus Christ estate sale!]
Surely our hearts can pick up a connection with our living master if we’re only shown how.
The heart is the original spacecraft, for time travel – connecting us with all that is true, beautiful, and real.
Recognition of power is a profound kriya; Peter walking on water is the perfect example of this. If we want this connection in a similar fashion, we have to become serious students of the heart.
Nondual consciousness must be carried by the heart. Orthodox (Eastern) Christians have known this from the start. “The mind must be in the heart.” If you talk to a good Buddhist, they’ll say they know through the mind, but this carries inherent limitations. Unitive oneness, compassionate action, the grace & clarity we attribute to the saints – this is never attained by the mind alone.
In utero, the heart & brain begin as a single organism (according to an embryologist she spoke to). There can be a feedback loop between the two of them. We are becoming students of the magic of this extraordinary cardiology, opening up a unitive way of seeing.
(A humorous aside – Cynthia visited some older monks who knew Thomas Merton. Their take on Merton: “Oh yes. The little silence he knew, he spoke about very well.”)
I’m not trying in any sense to trash the mind; it’s a wonderful instrument. When the mind and heart work together, they’re brilliant. But anything which makes the mind rigid, fearful, simplistic creates a human being who uses neither the mind nor the heart.
If you’re interested in exploring the myriad of ways in which apprentices to Jesus can navigate change in the 21st century – in our worship, our spiritual formation, our way of engaging the crises and opportunities we face today – I hope you join me at Co-Creation 2012, happening this April 12-15 in the same space where I saw Cynthia. Brian McLaren, Diana Butler-Bass, and Integral Christianityauthor Paul Smith will be joining with the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina and a half-dozen artists and musicians to bring a truly unforgettable, interactive experience. To register, click here; to read more about this in an in-depth blog post, go here.