I have a young friend. Let's call him James. One night James narrowly missed hitting a dog that charged across the road in front of his car. The wounded animal was trying to escape a pack of coyotes that had attacked it. James pulled over, jumped out of his vehicle and chased the crazed animal into the woods. He found it crouching in the bushes, growling. The dog, sensing that James was friendly, calmed down as he approached. James picked up the bleeding animal and carried it to his car, where he wrapped it in a blanket in his back seat. He tended to the animal's wounds, checked the tag around its neck and brought it to its owners who took it to a vet for emergency care.
This is not an isolated incident for James. I call him “the animal whisperer” because he is so concerned about the plight of animals. He is also bothered about the way humans are destroying our plant species and how we are killing ourselves by our unhealthy eating and life-styles.
“Why are they so stupid?” he shouts. "Can't they see we are damaging ourselves and the earth by the way we live?”
“I respond,” James, in your own way, you are a prophet. Those of us on the cutting edge will always be frustrated because others don't get it.”
“Yeah,” he replies. “What good did they ever accomplish? Nothing changed. Many of them got killed. Kill or be killed. That's the way the world operates. The Italian Mafia had it right. Take care of your own because no one else will do it for us. This talk about loving everyone sounds good, but it doesn't work in the real world.”
James was raised in a Catholic family. He still wears a religious medal that belonged to his grandmother. Yet he has little time for churches and other religious groups.
“There are some good things about them,” he says, “but they are basically political organizations. Look at the sexual abuse of kids by priests and ministers. Churches are mainly interested in self preservation. Their talk about God doesn't do much for me. I'm thinking about moving to Hawaii where things are simpler and where people appreciate nature and one another.”
I respond, “James, you continue to promote good living and eating habits and advocate compassion for plants and animals. Something is keeping you going even though your efforts seem useless. You are caught by something that won't let go. Remember James, this is more than an intellectual exercise. Stay in touch with your heart as well as your head.”
James nods, and grudgingly admits this is true.
I have an Indian friend. Call him Nandha. His parents are devout Hindus. He attended a college run by an Augustinian order of monks. Following college, Nandha volunteered with this order and worked a couple years with disadvantaged high school kids. He is now employed by a tech firm. Nandha is still close to his family and joins them for meals on a regular basis. He tells me that people his age, raised in the Hindu faith, are also less involved in the religious practices of their families.
Nandha, like my Catholic friend, James, continues to live in ways that promote compassion and justice, as he was taught in his Hindu household. Although he is not as involved in the religious practices of his parents, he is still engaged and motivated by some unnamed source that his parents would call Brahman, the Supreme Being.
In a way, I am not too different from James and Nandha. I had difficulty accepting the teachings and practices of my Lutheran tradition. In fact, my God was not a God of love. He was a punishing father. It was not until my late 50's that I discovered God as a friend. I imagined having conversations with him while sitting by a campfire near a lake. Several years later, this image dissolved. I no longer have a specific image of God. I, like my young friends, experience something that keeps me going, even in the midst of the world's violence.
Some of us were fortunate and did not have to anguish over such things. My sister lived with cancer for fifteen years. Her church and faith were powerful sources of comfort in her living and her dying. Bonnie, a life-time member of the little church I attend, is another of those people. Several months ago, we celebrated her hundredth birthday at a Sunday service. She was radiant when our little choir serenaded her with hymns she has enjoyed all her life.
We each have beliefs about what gives life meaning. But our specific religious/moral beliefs aren't the main point. These are times when powerful men and women corrupt our democracy for personal gain. What matters is that we who are moved to work for peace, compassion and justice, join together and dedicate our lives to these efforts.
We in our faith communities, need to rethink our roles. We need to pay closer attention to the practices and professions of the founders of our religious traditions. It does little good to judge others by their belief systems or whether they participate in formal religious organizations.
As a follower of Jesus, I need to remember that he never put himself first. He always acknowledged a loving presence greater than himself, whom he knew as a parent. He did not aspire to being a social/political leader even when people urged him to do so. He always put himself on the line when promoting the cause of compassion and justice. In strategizing, he was wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. By living wisely, with love and compassion, he hoped and yearned to be part of a dawning new order. He believed this order was more powerful than the systems of death and destruction that surrounded him.
This raises important questions for faith communities. Do we need to alter our strategies as we work for justice and compassion?
The civil rights movements of the '60's and '70's were led by religious leaders. They marched at the head of parades, organized nonviolent protests and provided their buildings for meetings and prayer services. These days faith communities no longer exercise this degree of political and moral influence. Their influence is further reduced as crafty politicians manipulate them for personal gain.
It is easy to bemoan the decline in faith organizations. Maybe things aren't as grim as they seem. We need to be more aware of people like my friends James and Nandha. Perhaps that energy we have identified only with faith communities is once more loose on the land, moving where it wills.
A parable about the action of the Holy Spirit may be relevant here:
After Jesus died, the Holy Spirit burst free from the grave. The church chased after It and stuffed It in a box of dogma and ritual. Once again It burst free. Time and again the church caught It and stuffed It back in the box. Time and again the Holy Spirit burst free. This reminds me of the old Road Runner cartoons. They feature Wylie Coyote who chases the Road Runner in episode after episode. He always fails to catch him, often with disastrous and humorous results.
The Christmas/Hanukkah season occurs near the winter solstice; a time celebrated by many religious and secular movements.i It is a time when light begins to shine in the darkness – when life and hope are born in the midst of despair.
This year is particularly dark for me as divisiveness, hatred, fear and violence dominate our national and international attention. I am desperate for images of light and hope. This is why I'm so delighted to know people like James and Nandha, as well as people like my sister and Bonnie. They all nourish me in these dark times.
I also find a glimmer of hope in the writings of theologian, Karen Armstrong. ii She states that humanity is in the midst of major reawakening,iii similar to that which occurred during the period from 800—200 BCE.iv
(This earlier reawakening called the first axial age) is the time when all the great world religions came into being. And in every single case, the spiritualities that emerged during the Axial Age—Taoism and Confucianism in China, monotheism in Israel, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India, and Greek rationalism in Europe—began with a recoil from violence, with looking into the heart to find the sources of violence in the human psyche. The conviction that the world was awry was fundamental to these spiritualities. One of the things that is very striking is that all the great sages were living in a time like our own—a time full of fear, violence, and horror. Their experience of utter impotence in a cruel world impelled them to seek the highest goals and an absolute reality in the depths of their beings.
I live in the hope that the energy of the cosmos, like Wiley Coyote, continues to roam free, creating and innovating in spite of humanity's desperate attempts to control it. As I imagine this energy breaking out all over the place, I am less concerned about the decline in participation in faith communities. I am willing to commit myself to this emergence rather than to institutional preservation. I am willing to join with all people who are compelled to promote compassion and justice.
This effort is important as there is a real danger facing our species. Men and women in positions of power are, knowingly or unknowingly, promoting fear, divisiveness, destruction and death as they attempt to maintain the old order. Since this transition will occur over many life-times, it is imperative that we who are moved by this energy, develop and maintain practices that deepen our discernment of the new thing that is arising. It is also imperative that we explore new ways of engaging this emerging reality.
Those of us in faith communities need to emulate the lives of the founders of our traditions, depending less on the dogmas produced by these traditions. This means risking our very institutions as we engage our communities as servants. One congregation of aging members described this as “Living Like You're Dying.”v
Those of you who are motivated to work for justice and compassion, but do not profess any religion, need to acknowledge that the mysterious dynamic that motivates you also motivates those in faith communities. This will enable you to engage with people from faith communities, without getting caught in old hurts and in the rejection of outmoded definitions of God and Faith.
Together, will we be able to trust this mysterious dynamic that is more life giving than the old order that is passing away.
I will close with a piece written by Mary Luti.vi
(Some of you may wish to substitute another word for “God” in what follows.)
Since childhood a man I know has been attracted to Something. He didn't know what It was back then, but he felt pulled in Its direction. It was like a strong undertow. He went with it.
In college, a friend took him to church. There he was lucky to discover that It was God. The God Jesus talked about, and talked to, at night, alone in the hills.
He started talking to God, too, saying, "Ah, God, you…" That's how he prayed, with that sigh. He heard God sigh back, "Ah, Tim, you…" Always a sigh, and a stirring.
Until a day when there was neither. No sigh. No stirring. Not in church where he prayed. Not under the stars where he pleaded. Not even in the shelter where he worked, which was disquieting, for he'd often heard God sigh there.
He'd been returned to the beginning, he thought, before there were sighs. He was bereft, but by now sighing was his habit, second nature, oxygen. He kept it up.
Sometimes he felt stupid, like a crazed unrequited lover, lobbing his longing into a void. He got over even that after a while.
He hasn't heard God sigh, "Ah, Tim, you..." for years. He knows he may never hear his name that way again. But recently he told me he's content. He has what he's always wanted.
For he's come to know that God isn't a prize at the end of his sighs, but lives entire within them, end to beginning, beginning to end. Desire is all there is, and all the way to God is God.