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Feb 132017
 

In this excellent Ted Talk, Sharon Brous, a Jewish Rabbi and mother talks about the problems of both Religious Extremism and Religious Routinism and challenges those of us who claim to be religious to deal with both.  She makes the point that we have become so used to the violence of Religious Extremism that we hardly even react to it, much less make an effort to do anything about it.  But she also makes the point that Religious Routinism has also become so common it is accepted as the norm in many religious institutions.  She encourages both our religious institutions and each of us to address both of these very serious problems.  She acknowledges that religion is a serious part of both problems and challenges religion to become a real part of the solution.

Brous points to four principles that all religions should be promoting:  Wakefulness, Hope, Mightiness,  Inter-connectedness.  Her take on these four principles is insightful and powerful.

I have to admit that this talk is one of the best “sermons” I have heard in a very long time.  Her discussion of “Routinism” perfectly describes my own experience of Religion in general and Christianity in specific.  Nobody has expressed my experience even close to that powerfully.  It moved me almost to tears, which almost never happens.

Listen, Reflect, Enjoy

 

 

I challenge each of you to add your own thoughts and comments to this post below!

Sep 112015
 
Photo by Winnie Southworth

Photo by Winnie Southworth

I have a small alter on the dresser in my bedroom.  The purpose of the alter is to remind me of my intent to listen to that still small voice where that Mysterious Other I call God speaks to me and gives me guidance, strength, and courage, and to be obedient to that voice as I go through the events of my day.  Each time I walk past that alter I make it a point to take just a second or two to center myself and to be present to myself, to check in with that still small voice, and to my current thoughts, emotions, and impulses.  Essentially I check to see if I am currently being obedient to that leading. Among the items on that alter is a bible that is currently open to the first page of the Gospel of Mark.  As part of that process I often just run my hand across the pages of the bible.

On one level this practice seems a bit hypocritical.  I seldom actually read scripture, and I haven’t for years.  As I reflected on this situation recently I realized that while the traditional approach to scripture I have been exposed to through Sunday school and church over the years does not speak to me at all.  In fact it turns me off.  Sometimes when someone is trying to push that approach on me it makes me downright defensive, and sometimes even angry.  It offers me “an opportunity to practice”, to center myself and let go of the judgements that are behind the defensive reaction, and have compassion for the other person.  Sometimes that effort is successful and sometimes not.

I know that there are other ways of reading and understanding scripture.  Periodically I have picked up the Bible with the intent of reading it again from that other perspective, but each time I do it either boors me or makes me frustrated or angry.  I simply cannot get past all of my negative reactions to the traditional teaching that has been drilled in me over the years in order to see anything new.

Yet at some deeper level scripture still speaks to me, even without reading it.  I still include it on my alter, and I still run my hand across it to center myself.  I have a very strong sense that there is something much deeper there if only I could let go of the traditional teaching and connect with it.  I know that, but in the end it still doesn’t work.

Jacob Needleman points to my own dilemma when he says:

…in my own academic work as a professor of philosophy and religion I had begun to perceive things in the Bible that I had never dreamed were there. I was beginning to understand that everything I had seen in the Eastern teachings was also contained in Judaism and Christianity, although the language of the Bible was practically impossible to penetrate, because it had become so encrusted with familiar associations.”*

For me the language of the bible really is “practically impossible to penetrate, because it [has] become so encrusted with familiar associations” (read traditional associations).  I sense that I need to get passed those “familiar associations” so that I can connect with that deeper meaning that I know is there and that leads me to keep that bible on my alter and run my hand over it as I pass by during my day.  I know that but so far I have not been able to actually do it.

In an effort to be obedient to that calling I have started reading the book Reading The Bible Again for the First Time:  Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg.

Much like Needleman Borg captures my issue:

“The key word in the title of this book—Reading the Bible Again for the First Time—is “again.” It points to my central claim. Over the past century an older way of reading the Bible has ceased to be persuasive for millions of people, and thus one of the most imperative needs in our time is a way of reading the Bible anew.”**

I honestly don’t remember that “older way of reading the bible” was ever persuasive to me.  A critical issue for me is captured in the subtitle of the book: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally.  When I reflect on my own struggle with the bible over the years it is clear to me that this is at the heart of my issue.  I very much want to take the Bible seriously, yet I do believe it is counter productive to take it literally.  We will see if Borg’s approach can take me past my deep seated resistances.

I Believe

I believe that the bible is a book about people and about how they understood and related to God in their own time and in their own culture.  It is not a book about God.  I do not believe it was somehow dictated by God.  I believe it was written by fallible human beings, and it should not be taken literally.  In our efforts through traditional bible study to interpret scripture literally we often miss the real point, and what is worse, we do a great deal of harm in the process trying to live that “truth” and force it on other people.  Some times we fight among ourselves, and sometimes we fight wars over those meanings.  I believe that many of the stories in the bible are metaphoric and have much deeper meanings when those metaphors are penetrated and understood.  I believe that there is much in scripture which is simply lost to us today, and we need to be open and accepting to that mystery.  I look forward to whatever insights Borg’s book can offer.

____________
*Needleman, Jacob, Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery.  (Pinguin Publishing Group, 2003) Chapter 1, Paragraph 4.  iBooks Edition. https://itun.es/us/hyyvv.l

** Borg, Marcus J., Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, (Harper Collins eBooks, 2009), Chapter 1, Paragraph 1. (iBooks Edition. https://itun.es/us/EFNFv.l)


 

Aug 252015
 

It was Sunday morning and I didn’t go to church.  The reasons are legion, but that will have to wait for another day.  After my wife and son left to go I took a long slow walk around our neighborhood.  As I walked I practiced attention.

I paid attention to what was going on in my body.  I became aware of my feet falling on the pavement, and of my breathing.  I began to count my breathing and to think of the sacred phrase I use in my time apart.  Breathe in — “Lord”.  Breathe out — “God”.  My breathing became coordinated with the steps I was taking.  I began to walk up an incline, and became aware of the subtle difference in the effort it took to take each step.  I felt peaceful, much like I do when sitting in meditation in my time apart.  When my mind would wander I would come back to my breathing and my sacred phrase.

Walking In The Neighborhood

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Then I noticed the trees.  I noticed that some of them towered over the houses in a way that was truly majestic.  There were all kinds of different species, both evergreens and other leafed trees.  Some looked healthy and some not so much.  Some were dead or dying.  I noticed the branches all interwoven with each other, and leaves that were all different shades of green.  There was a slight breeze, and the tree limbs were swaying back and forth, especially in the upper branches.  Sometimes my attention would return to my steps and my breath and my sacred phrase.

Then my attention spontaneously switched to the sounds.  I could hear the slight breeze passing by my ears.  My attention moved quietly between the sounds of locusts, crickets, and birds.  Then I became aware of the sounds of sirens in the distance, and I wondered what the emergency was.  Was it a fire, an accident, and illness, some kind of crime?  For just a moment I wondered about the people involved.  That concern became a kind of silent prayer without words.

Sometimes my attention switched to the houses and to the cars that came by occasionally.  I wondered about the people in those houses and cars.  I saw a young woman check her mailbox and walk toward the house.  What were these people thinking?  What were they feeling?  What was their life like?  And again that silent interest became a kind of prayer without words.  Again sometimes my attention would return to my steps and my breath and my sacred phrase.

But then sometimes all of the images and all of the sounds would fade into the background and I became aware of just the silence behind the sounds and images.  (See my previous post) Even the awareness of my steps and my breathing and my sacred phrase faded away.  There was no need for even that practice.  There were no thoughts, no emotions, and no impulses.  There was no need for any kind of prayer.  There was just the quiet and a deep sense awe.  There was just the sacred presence of that Mysterious Other I call God, in the quiet, and in the images, and in the sounds.  I did go to church today!  All that can be said here, all that needs to be said here is amen!

As I walked back into the house this post came to me uninvited.

Jul 122015
 
Look for your own.  Do not do what someone else could do as well as you.  Do not say or write what someone else could say or write as well as you.  Care for nothing in yourself but what you feel exists nowhere else, and out of yourself create impatiently, or patiently the most irreplacable of beings.*
Andre Gide

A number of years ago my daughter gave me a framed copy of this quote for my birthday.  It hangs on the wall next to the closet in my bedroom where I can see it every day when I am dressing, at least when I am paying attention.  It speaks to something very deep in me.  I long to become that irreplaceable of beings, or at least to be able to see myself growing in that direction.  I ponder that sometimes, especially when I write. Recently as I was reading Thomas Moore’s A Religion of One’s Own,** I realized that the Gide quote should apply to my religion as well.  To “create impatiently or patiently the most irreplaceable of beings”, required that my religion should be just as personal and should exist “nowhere else”.  Just following traditional beliefs and practices is not enough.  The truth is that I cannot follow that traditional approach authentically anyway.  This calling to become an “irreplaceable of beings” and to develop a religion of one’s own ultimately applies to each one of us, and it applies to each of our approach to our religion.

My relationship with organized religion has been a classic approach avoidance conflict.  On one hand I have always had a very strong sense of calling to religion and to spirituality.  I somehow believed this calling could only be answered through traditional religion–in my case through traditional Christianity–and specifically through a church.  Yet what I found in the many churches I attended never really connected with that calling or the way I experienced and lived my life. It never seemed to relate to my personal spiritual journey in any meaningful way.  I know that it works for some people, but try as I might I could not accept the current version of Christianity as I found it in the churches I attended.  It simply was never near enough, It always left me cold and feeling like an outsider, so eventually I would leave.  I could not see any other option, and yet the calling kept me searching.***

ReflectingOnLife

Photo by Brian Hill Sensai at Rivercity Aikido

The spiritual journey is often a very deliberate and a very slow process.  Sometimes real spiritual growth can only be seen in retrospect, by looking back, sometimes over many years.  But, sometimes that seemingly plodding journey is interrupted by what some have called “waking up”.  Some event in our life causes us to see our life radically differently and to “turn around” and head in a new direction.   For me, reading Thomas Moore’s book was just such a life changing event.  This book will definitely go on my short list of the most important books I have read on this journey.  Other books have been important, and I know that they helped bring me to where I am.    Like the few other books on my list of favorites this book is changing my whole approach to my spiritual journey in general and to my relationship to organized religion in specific.  As Moore put it:  “I was born with the themes of this book buried like seeds in my heart.” ****

Maybe the greatest insight is the realization that I am not somehow required by that Mysterious Other I call God to accept what I have found in any of the churches I attended, or in any particular tradition for the matter.  I think I knew that in a deep place inside of me, but I simply could not let myself live it or even acknowledge it.  This book gave me permission to let go of the demand that I conform to the beliefs and practices of contemporary Christianity and actually develop “A Religion of My Own”. It allowed me to “wake up” and head in a new direction.

I cannot tell you how important this realization is for me.  In many ways I already had a religion of my own, but admitting this to others—being open about it—is a kind of “coming out” for me.  It requires me to rethink just about everything I know and believe.  It will require me to be clear about what I really do know and believe, and about a spiritual practice of my own, without the baggage of trying to conform to some religious tradition, or maybe even more importantly, without always just reacting negatively to the more traditional approach.  There is a freedom in that which goes deeper than I have ever experienced before.  I can really listen to that still small voice inside of me and move toward becoming the person I am called to be.

There needs to be a caution here.  Two of my best friends, one a Baptist minister and one a Catholic priest, have separately cautioned me about going it alone.  Moore speaks to that in his book as well.  I understand their concerns.  The examples of people who have gone it alone on the spiritual journey and gone astray are legion.  Staying grounded is even more critical when developing “a religion of one’s own”.  Yet it is also crucial not to just follow the herd.  I plan to take that balance very seriously as I follow this call.  More about this in future posts.

I want to emphasize here that it is not necessary for us to leave or reject our current tradition in order to develop a religion of one’s own.  It is too much a part of us to do that.  The critical thing is for us to reflect seriously on our religious beliefs and practices and be clear in ourselves what we believe personally and what practices actually work for us.  We need to be true to that still small voice within where God speaks to us and gives us guidance and strength and courage.  More about this in future posts.

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection,***** Brené Brown makes an important distinction between being yourself and fitting in. She points out that our efforts to fit in—to be accepted by others—all too often prevents us from really living an authentic life—from really being the person we are called to be, and in the end, from really connecting with others.  I know without a doubt that this has been a major issue in my relationship with the churches I have attended and the people in those churches.

Maybe the hardest part of this journey will be owning up to this new “Religion of My Own”.  It begins right here with this blog post.  The real test will be whether I can own up to it without being defensive the next time I show up at church gathering.  All of that said, developing this “religion of my own” is also exciting and challenging.  I look forward to this new stage in my journey.

Question for Reflection
Join the conversation.  Share your thoughts and experiences

  1. Are you consciously making your own choices about your religion or are you accepting blindly the beliefs and practices of your religious tradition?
  2. Are you rejecting those beliefs and practices just as blindly?
  3. Have you developed “a religion of one’s own” within or outside of your religious tradition?
  4. Do you feel called to develop a religion of your own?
____________
** Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own:  A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, (New York: Penguin Group, 2014), Title

*** For a more detailed account of my journey see the Introduction to my book, Choosing Authenticity:  Religion Is Not Enough.  For more information about the book visit my website at http://www.choosingauthenticity.com

**** Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own:  A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, (New York: Penguin Group, 2014), Preface, Line 1.

***** Brown, Brené, Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, (Hazelden Publishing, 2010), Title

____________

Recommended Books:

Jun 282015
 
In this video President Jeb Bartlett from the television series The West Wing takes on a conservative talk show host who quotes scripture to support the claim that homosexuality is a sin. Someone once introduced me as having an “irreverent” sense of humor, but on the surface Bartlett’s rant is just plain funny to me.  On another level I suppose we would have to say that his attack on the woman in a public setting was at best rude and at worst downright humiliating.  And yet the point he makes is a good one and just maybe this may very well be the only way that some people might be able to hear his message without launching into some convoluted and seemingly ridiculous discussion.

My point here is not about homosexuality.  My point here is about what some would call proof texting scripture, and about taking scripture literally.  It is about quoting specific scripture passages, taken out of context, to prove a point you already believe in.  It is about asserting that the passage is a command from God while at the same time totally ignoring other “commands” in other nearby passages.  Bartlett hesitates to say anything several times, but in the end he just cannot let the assertion go unchallenged.

Neither can I.  I have heard these kinds of assertions for most of my adult life, and I find them to be intellectually unsound and blatantly insulting to my intelligence.  Bartlett is absolutely right.  If the one command is to be taken as “God’s word” today, then the other similar commands should be literally true today as well.  Yet who would argue that any of the examples Bartlett gives should be seen today as a command from God.

In the end this practice cheapens scripture and prevents us from exploring its deeper meaning.

Question for Reflection

Join the conversation.  Share your thoughts.

So what do you think?  Can we justify using scripture quotes that support our beliefs while at the same time ignoring other passages that we do not agree with?

Jun 172015
 

I have not posted anything here for about six months.  There are a lot of “reasons” behind that.  I had rotator cuff surgery back in December.  It went well overall, but for a while it affected my ability to focus.  For a time I was on pain medications.  Much of my time was taken up with daily physical therapy, sometimes at the Physical Therapy facility and often at home.  There was also some kind of emotional thing that went with it that made it difficult to concentrate.  Most of that is over now, and in the end all went well.  I also have not done much writing on my book during that time either. At first blush all of this seems more like excuses than reasons for not taking care of my writing which is extremely important to me.

MistOverLake

Photo by Drexel Rayford

All of that said, my spiritual life has not been on hold during this time.  Some old and very deep questions were churning inside of me.  After a number of years of significant personal growth I have felt stuck—called profoundly to go deeper without the insight about where to go or how to even discern what the call was really about.  One of the major question in all of this had to do with my relationship with organized religion in general, and church in specific, an issue which has plagued me throughout my spiritual journey.

I was also stuck in my writing in a way that made it impossible for me to continue.  It was more than what we writers call “writers block”.  I read some of what I had written over and over again.  On one level it seemed to say what I wanted to say, but something important was blatantly missing, and I was unable to discern what that was really.  I knew that it had to do with the questions about my spiritual life and my relationship with church, but I had no idea what was really missing.

All of this together left me with what a number of writers have called a “dark night of the soul”.  I experienced all kinds of feelings and emotions.  Sometimes lonely and bored.  Sometimes tired, frustrated, and angry.  Sometimes blaming it on family and friends, especially my wife causing our relationship to suffer  My practice was reduced to what I called maintenance mode.  It kept me more or less in check, but it didn’t motivate me hardly at all.  It has been a painful time on my journey.

I read several books during this time, two of which bear mention here.  The first is The Power of Now:  A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle, and the second one is A Religion of One’s Own:  A Guide to Creating A Personal Spirituality In A Secular World by Thomas Moore.  Both of these books address those major issues and struggles in my own spiritual journey in powerful ways.  They showed up one after another at just the right time.  They are life changing events for me.  They will require much study, reflection, growth for me going forward.  They address both my sense of being stuck and the missing link in my writing.  I know that I will look back on this time as a major marker on my spiritual journey.  I am excited about my journey for the first time in a long time.  There is much to do, and I am ready to get on with my journey and with my writing.

Stay tuned for my next post.

Richard

 

Oct 262014
 

Thomas Moore is one of my favorite authors.  I have read several of his books.  In this article on The Huffington Post  Moore reflects on the need in our modern world for Secular Theologians.

The secular theologian might be well versed in the traditional theologies of the world, those associated with the great religious and spiritual traditions, and also able to carry the discoveries and explanations of science further into the realm of mystery, feeding our need for wonder and making us into people aware of the invisible.

Theologians of the past, or those connected to one of the religions, can also unveil the holy in the everyday, but often their vision bends to their own agendas, and they worry more about maintaining orthodoxy and promoting their particular ideology than revealing the holy everywhere. Theology sometimes becomes more about an institution than the holiness of human life and the world.

Thomas Moore

I have always struggled with both the theologies coming out of religious traditions and the more secular approach to understanding the world. Moore’s concept of the secular theologian offers us a a way of seeing the sacred in the secular. It bridges the gap between religious theology and secularism. I would like to see all of my writing and teaching as coming from the perspective of one of those “secular theologians”–seeking to play a small part in “revealing the holy everywhere”.

Read, Reflect, Enjoy!

http://www.huffingtonpast.com

Aug 232014
 

Recently I was going through some old files and came across the following piece I wrote back in the 1970’s.  The quote is presented unedited.

Someday I would like to talk to Jesus of Nazareth.

I want to ask him if he is angry about the way his life has been portrayed.  I am!

I want to ask him if he was really God, or what seems more wondrous, a spirit filled man struggling with life.

I want to ask him if he died for my sins, or what seems more wondrous, because he tried to live life fully.

I want to ask Jesus if the God he knows was some kind of sadistic tyrant who required blood sacrifices, or what seems more wondrous, a consonant spirit who speaks in our heart, and calls us forth. Mine is!

I want to ask Jesus if he was celibate or what seems more wondrous, a passionate sexual being who made gentle and lusty love with a woman he loved.

Someday I would like to talk to Mary the mother of Jesus.

I want to ask her if she is angry about the way her life has been portrayed.  I am!

I want to ask her if her son Jesus was really conceived by the Holy Spirit, or what seems more wondrous, by a wild night of passion with her husband.

I would still like to have that conversation.  All of the questions are still valid.

Aug 232013
 

As I have written about in another post, my wife and I do this thing that the family calls “bickering”.  One of us will say something, the other one will take issue with it, and we are off.  Most of the topics are not even important, but the bickering often continues for way too long.  We have worked on the bad habit recently, and we have gotten much better.  We don’t bicker near as often as we did and when we do one of us will call attention to it, and thus they don’t last near as long as they used to.

That said, the other day we in fact began to bicker and it lasted way too long.  In this case, even though the issue was totally unimportant, neither of us were willing to let it go.  We finally stopped and decided to go out to dinner. We went to a Chinese restaurant, and when we were done we got the usual fortune cookies.  Normally they are both different, but this time when we opened them they were both alike.

Fortune Cookie

Fortune Cookie

I could no doubt written a very profound blog post about the spiritual importance of “calm, poise, and balance”, but in this context this simple message in a fortune cookie was all either of us needed to hear.  Had we been practicing these simple spiritual principles, the bickering we had engaged in would never have happened.

On one level I found this to be funny, but on another it really reminded me that we can find wisdom in a lot of different places, even in a fortune cookie.  So with this thought running around in my head, I was driving down the road a day or two later, and I stopped for a stop light behind a car with this bumper sticker.

Bumper Sticker

Bumper Sticker

Ok, I get it!  Really, I get it!

Aug 122013
 

About three months ago my wife got sick.  Some kind of nasty unidentified virus that lasted over a week.  Then of course she passed it on to me and that lasted another week.  Finally it was passed on to our downs syndrome son, who lives with us, for another week.  Caring for myself and my family rightfully became primary.  During that time there was simply no time for me to write, and maybe more to the point, no energy—no creativity.  So for a month I did not post anything on Turning Around.  This of course led to yet another week of playing catch up on all of the things that just did not get done during the time of illness.

Reflecting On The Beach

Reflecting On The Beach

Life being what it is this was followed immediately by two weeks vacation in Florida during which I intentionally chose to take that time as an extended time apart—a kind of retreat time.  What I did do during those two weeks was a lot of reflecting on my life.  I realized that I was really stressed out.  I was way too busy.  My life was somehow out of balance.  I identified four major aspects of my life:  My personal spiritual practice, my writing, my family activities and responsibilities, and my responsibilities at church as a deacon and team leader for the Spiritual Formation Team.  All of these things were good in their own right, but together they pulled me in too many different directions.  I could hear my own teaching about the importance of maintaining balance in our lives and the need to discern carefully where we should spend our time—where that Mysterious Other we call God was calling me to invest my time.  I could hear myself talking about the need to make tough choices, sometimes between otherwise good things in our lives.  It is easy for me to tout all of those spiritual principles, but not near as easy to apply time in my own life.

When I returned from vacation, again there were a hundred things to do to get caught up on.  Life presented all kinds of “important” activities.  My hiatus from writing and blogging continued.  In my time apart that Still Small Voice I have come to trust kept reminding me that my writing and blogging was an important part of who I am and who I am called to be.  Yet obedience is another spiritual principle that I struggle with.  This morning that voice was insistent, and this time I am being obedient.

The balance has yet to be found, but at least I am struggling with it.  There are too many pieces of the struggle to enumerate here, but they no doubt will show up in future posts.  The important thing is that the need has been identified, and I am committed to the “listening obedience” necessary to seek that balance.

I have a whole list of potential new post going forward, not the least of which is that I plan to blog my next book.  I will post each section on Turning Around.  More about that in a future post.  Stay tuned!

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