The God Within: Fourth and Final Sermon in the Mini-Series, Spirituality Checkpoint

 

 

I.
Voltaire and several others have been credited with saying that God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere.  You know what the center of a circle is, but you might have forgotten since you studied geometry that the circle’s circumference is from point A in a circle’s outer reaches all the way around those outer reaches back to the point at which the measuring began.  If it weren’t a circle you were measuring, you’d be dealing with a perimeter; since it’s a circle, though, circumference is our concern.  It’s a way of saying that God is everywhere; it might also be a way of describing pantheism, the philosophical/theological perspective claiming that God is all and that all is God.  In either case, the affirmation being made is that there is no where you can go on our planet or in the cosmos as a whole where the presence of God would be absent.
None of the psalmists as far as I know were pantheists, certainly not the psalmist who wrote the words to the great hymn of ancient Hebrew worship, which we now number Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139:7-12 NRSV).
Where in the world, or out of the world, is God?  That’s an impossible question to answer and to make considering an answer more difficult than it is on the surface, God does not, cannot have a place such as a material being like you must have.  As to make up, God is spiritual and not physical; God is spirit and not flesh.
For the most part, Jews, Christians, and Muslims; which is to say, the monotheists; have taken God to be up there somewhere, far removed from human experience.  “For the most part,” I said.  Theologians, some of them, compensated for God’s presumed distance from human beings by creating a doctrine called omniscience, meaning that wherever God may be, at whatever distance, God knows exactly what is happening to us right here in the present because God is, after all, God.  Eventually, a companion doctrine developed named omnipresence meaning that God is in all places, at all times, simultaneously.
Back to the earliest Jewish understandings of God’s place or places, and this is the proper beginning point because Christianity was originally a Jewish sect and thus inherited, potentially, all things Jewish including, by the way, Yeshua, Jesus, himself.  While God was believed to make personal visits to some few human individuals, coming from some far away place up above the skies, God did not stay away from God’s realm for very long ever!  More often, God would send a messenger; that’s what the word “angel” means and usually didn’t connote an emissary sent from God with halo, harp, and wings.  Naturally, there were exceptions to the “rules.”
When Eve and Adam violated the rule of Eden by using their nifty juicer to create an ultra healthy fruit juice breakfast beverage, the ancient storyteller says God Godself came to them to confront them and to spell out the consequences they’d face for violating the one rule that God had told them was inviolable.  The mythologist took for granted that Eve and Adam would have known God’s dwelling place was above the heavens, which I often remind us should be translated “skies.”  In this case, however, the God who had envisioned humanity’s limitless joys and successes in their paradise on Earth would be the one, not a go-between, to describe the consequences of their disobedience, which was tantamount to trying to gain sufficient knowledge so that they wouldn’t need God in the picture at all.
It’s interesting to notice two facts in this story–one, that God came directly to Eve and Adam making very little noise brushing in and out of the lush greenery in which they were kinda sorta hiding.  Jump over one book in the Hebrew Bible, to the book of Exodus, and the picture is completely different.  God is going to give Moses the Ten Commandments for the use of all Hebrews, but God will come down from the aloof divine quarters to the tip top of Mount Sinai.  God would not speak to the whole crowd of people, not even to two of them; but just to one, Moses, on behalf of the whole nation.  When God arrived on Mount Sinai, and this is what I think is the second interesting fact to which I alluded, God didn’t just slip quietly into the place chosen to speak to Moses; instead, there was lightening, thunder, and Earth tremors.
One way the story of God’s giving the Ten Commandments was told had God inscribing the ten with God’s own forefinger directly onto a couple of stone tablets.  After that, not only were the words divinely inscribed important to the Hebrews, at least in principle, but also the tablets themselves–even after they were broken, the stone tablets I mean and not the commandments themselves.  Those tablets that became stone fragments were so special to many of the Hebrews and such a powerful reminder of divine interaction with humanity that the Hebrews built a special container for them and carried them wherever they wandered; being nomads they wandered a great deal.
When some of the Hebrews settled and got themselves a king  and a magnificent immoveable Temple, that special container for the stones on which the Ten Commandments had originally been written was called the Ark of the Covenant, and it was put permanently by intention, in the most sacred spot in the whole huge Temple, the holy of holies.  The people believed that God was more fully present there than anywhere else in the Temple, but clearly God was in the Temple; and when God was in the Temple God couldn’t be anywhere else.  This is one way to make sure you always have your deity with you…or not!
Next week, we begin a new sermon series, and our initial nominee for best actor in a starring role will be Jonah.  Jonah loved the idea that God was limited in terms of presence to the Temple because there came a time when Jonah wanted to run and swim as far away from God as he could so he counted on having left God behind when he departed Jerusalem where the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant were.  I have to toss you a little spoiler.  Jonah is beyond disappointed when he finds out that he and his sister- and brother-Hebrews were completely wrong about the limitations of where all God can be when.

II.
In Paul’s first of four letters to the Church at Corinth (that we know about so far), he hits us with a daunting identity review.  He says that our bodies, each person’s body, is one of God’s several temples.
The somewhat unusual subject comes up twice in what we now call 1 Corinthians, once in chapter three and once in chapter six.  In chapter three, Paul is dealing with yet another church squabble.  As best we can tell, Paul dealt with more squabbles at the Church in Corinth than any other church for whom he provided leadership.  Every church that survives, for a little while or a long while, has to have a reason for being.  Some churches survive for high and lofty purposes such as the desire to serve those who are in need.  Others survive for less than lofty reasons; some survive to squabble.  This is a shame, and the humiliation of it should cause any church holding onto its existence for one more brawl to gather a little dignity and close down.
In the case of the Church at Corinth, there were many ongoing squabbles; there were so many, in fact, that you could pick a different one to focus on every time you went to church.  The one that Paul is dealing with the third chapter of 1 Corinthians has to do with loyalty to leaders and spiritual mentors.  It was as if what they learned from the person who initially introduced them to the teachings of Jesus was all they ever intended to learn and as if the person who first shared with them Jesus’ core teachings was the only person from whom they ever intended to learn.  If that person should move away for whatever reason, to take on new responsibilities let’s say, to hell with her or his successors.  Even though the successor had nothing to do with the departure of a predecessor, some within the congregation took their grief, resentment, and sense of abandonment out on the newbie who was called to take the position vacated by the person who’d moved to another ministry.
It’s kind of like someone who loses a spouse or significant other to death or divorce and heads out in search of a replacement partner who is as much like the lost partner as can be.  If you want to see in film form how freaky this can be go back and watch Joan Fontaine and Sir Lawrence Olivier in “Rebecca.”  Naturally, the replacement, who typically doesn’t know why she or he has been chosen, fails to live up to the standards set by the original and eventually is criticized to distraction.  Pastors who follow long-term and or highly beloved predecessors usually don’t last very long and shouldn’t get terribly comfortable in the parsonage.
For Paul, in dealing with the stir at Corinth, there was a group who thought he’d hung the moon and another group who wanted to moon him.  They refused to learn from Apollos and instead denigrated everything he said and every ministry he tried to undertake.  Same way with those who were devoted to Apollos.  He had brought them into the faith, and whatever Paul said or wrote wasn’t worth their time.
Paul said that both he and Apollos had made a contribution.  Maybe Paul planted the seed for them, but Apollos came along and watered the seed when Paul had to travel on to other ministry responsibilities.  In any case, he said to those carrying ill will and disharmony with them every time they came to church or talked about it between meetings:  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple [which is to say, another person in whom the divine dwells], God will destroy the power and influence of the one causing trouble. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  Said another way, since God has decided to dwell within you, you’d better get your thinking and your actions in line.  If you are trying to hurt other people at church, and if you’d just as soon see the community of faith go down the tubes as survive, you’d better rethink the basics of your faith.  Temples can come tumbling down, you know.
In the other place where Paul refers to the human body as a temple for God, Paul is quite unhappy with the blatant sexual immorality going on among members of the Church at Corinth.  The wild sexual activities and alliances shocked his Pharisaic sensibilities, and all he could think to say to those who didn’t seem to care who they were sleeping with and doing whatever else they could think of sexually speaking with, people in- or outside the church, was, “When you behave like this you are willfully, intentionally and with a measure of joy and pride tearing yourself down.  That alone would be bad enough, but it’s worse than you seem to realize regardless of what I’ve taught you because when you hit the bordello for the buffet special, you are taking God in there with you.  You are setting up one of God’s temples in a place where many people don’t realize that God dwells in them.  But you Corinthians ought to know better.  Or can it really be the case that you do not know your body is a temple of God’s Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
Ironically, this reality check appears immediately before a little section he wrote on conjugal rights for both wives and husbands.  I’m sure the placement of these subjects is entirely random.  Still, where I take my body is where I take my God.  The direction we COULD go here is not the direction we’re going to go (though that’s exactly where Paul went), but we are going to keep Paul’s insight in mind as we press toward greater understanding of what it means for God to be within us.
I’m shocked at the numerous shallow online discussions of what this profound insight from Paul means.  I was struck when I did a search to see what people were saying about Paul’s teaching in this context at how many people use this passage from Paul as a prooftext for prohibiting tattoos.  For all we know, Paul might have had a couple of tattoos and maybe an ear or two pierced.  Actually, I don’t know about the piercings, but there is strong evidence that followers of Jesus after his death often had small and discretely placed tattoos of crosses, fish, boats, vines, and other Christian symbols.  Showing a trusted person your tattoo of a Christian symbol would be your way of letting that person know of a secret you had to keep in order to preserve your life.  Of course, you know that there were those Christians who preferred death to any hiddenness of their love for the God about whom Jesus had taught.
Another reason a follower of Jesus might get a small tattoo of a Christian symbol would be to counter a proof-of-slave-ownership tattoo that  many slave owners had placed on each of their slaves.

 

 

III.
Ntozake Shange sings, “I found God in myself/and I loved her fiercely.”  Who knows if Ms. Shange has ever read Zora Neale Hurston, the brilliant anthropologist and writer, who once said, “Such that I am, I am a precious gift.”
St. Augustine was praying when he said, “I found thee not, O Lord, without, because I erred in seeking thee without that wert within.”
Sister Maureen Conroy is nun, one of the Sisters of Mercy over in Neptune, New Jersey.  Her specific ministry is to serve as a spiritual director.  Sister Maureen believes that the longest journey any of us will ever take is the journey inward.  It’s a rough, rigorous journey, one that would be easy enough to skip for something more fun and less demanding; however, to refuse to take the journey inward means that we will end up at a place of indescribable loss because unless we take our journey or journeys inward, we will never find God; we will never know God.
That strand of Christianity that, for all practical purposes, would have us hate ourselves–any part of ourselves, for many reasons–is glaringly out of step with this glowing human affirmation.  I may need to go to some dark corner of this city or of the world to bring God’s love to people and places it has not been presented or discovered, but I don’t need to move an inch from where I’m now sitting or standing or napping to find God.  God is within me–certainly not all of God, but all of God I may be capable of understanding and relating to.
At various times in my life, I’ve thought that God is at church, especially in the sanctuary and the pastor’s study, at tables where peace treaties are signed, in self-defining moments such as looking into the eyes of one of my children at birth or as soon after the birth as the nurses clear away birth mucous so that our eyes could connect.  When I was a kid going to church camp for boys each summer, I thought God was at Camp Ba-Yo-Ca in the Smoky Mountains.  I have thought I heard God in music.  I’ve thought I saw God in art and/or color.  I’ve thought I saw God at work as a nurse or doctor or a dear friend tended to the physical needs of someone ill or dying.  One day it dawned upon me that there was only a single common denominator in those varied circumstances spanning years and scattered from hither to yon geographically:  me.  No biggie, no brilliant theological insight.  Of course, I was the one observing and/or experiencing in each instance.  What I didn’t catch, though, was that it all went much deeper than I could absorb.  I could see God and/or feel God in those disparate situations because God was within me helping me have a God-perspective, if you will.
I do not believe that because God is within each of us that any one of us is divine.  I do not believe that the divine within each of us ever gets confused and thinks for a while that it’s human.  I do not believe that as Jesus lived on this planet, he was God pretending to be human.  I think he was human, and God was within him, just as God was, is, will be in every human being since that is part of what it means to be human.  It is not a special gift; it is a standard gift.
We know that most of what Jesus preached and taught had to do blatantly or subtly with the Empire of God, the rule of God–in King James lingo, “the kingdom of God.”  What we are not nearly so clear on, though, is how Jesus thought of himself and his contemporaries in relationship to when and where the Empire of God would be fully revealed and, therefore, would fully dominate the world as a whole.  There remains a fair amount of disagreement on this matter among that collection of scholars who devote practically all of their scholarly pursuits to studying the teachings as well as the life and times of Yeshua bar Yosef.  Since there generally is a temporal element to it, you might well imagine the most frequently considered and discussed options.
Some scholars say that the Empire of God was entirely a futuristic state for Jesus and, by the way, for us.  He awaited and anticipated as do we the spiritual defeat of all present earthly powers and their replacement with rules and standards established entirely by God’s principles of unconditional love for all and, with that, unconditional affirmation of the dignity of every person on the face of the Earth.
Other scholars believe that the Rule of God began when Jesus’ ministry got underway, but will not be fully realized until this chapter of human history closes.  I’ve heard the era in which Jesus lived and the era in which we live called “the now, but the not yet.”
Still other scholars say that the Empire of God does not and never did have anything to do with worldly powers; it always was and always will be real anywhere and everywhere individuals live according to standards of faith and morality that Jesus interpreting Jesus’ spiritual forebears and Jesus directing Jesus’ descendants says come from God.  This option is the one that makes the most sense to me when I read the following excerpt from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Just as there is no such thing as a “Christian nation” since everyone who commits to Christian principles must do so individually and of her or his own volition, so also there is not any Rule or Empire of God forced on someone who chooses to live by standards other than those upheld as preferable and normative by the ones who insist that they understand God’s directives for how humans should live in every situation that comes along.
Even a society, yeah a world, of people each of whom has God within will not agree on every point of theology or understand what life is like for those who have had very different experiences than they.  An awareness and an affirmation of God within is no indication that we own or control God.  We don’t, and we won’t.  Nor is it an invitation to take God for granted.
It should be a fact that unities humans, never something that divides us.  Also, knowing that God is within us means that we need not spend our lives trying to figure out where God is.  We may still fear the Divine and keep our distance from the God within; we may, in contrast, use this knowledge to enhance how we pray and meditate and certainly how we conduct ourselves.
Even so, God is with us in every success and in every failure.  God is with us at every celebration and at every ritual of tragedy.  God is with us when there is much to say and when there are simply no words at all.
Amen.

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Mindfulness (Third in Sermon Series: Spirituality Checkpoint)

 

 

I.
Prayer and related topics are tough for progressives and liberals because so much of the traditional language about prayer presupposes a decidedly anthropomorphic G/god with whom the pious converse, and yet if someone claims actually to have heard God speak audibly there may be an immediate psychiatric referral.  The psychiatrist who used to do psychiatric evaluations of those applying to be missionaries through the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, now called the Board of International Missions, once told me that one of his major functions was to weed out candidates who believed they heard God audibly telling them that they should devote their lives to mission work in a foreign land.
So, claims of audible responses from God in many, not all, settings raise the question of the claimant’s mental health in general and that person’s perception of reality in particular.  God must, therefore, communicate with us non-verbally–broadly through nature and history and more narrowly through scripture, some would say; through other people through whom God chooses to make known God’s will; and through impressions, impulses, and leanings that we interpret as God trying to respond to what we asked in prayer.
If we take the portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels to be both authentic and accurate, then we’d have to believe that Jesus himself, when in prayer, spoke audibly to God.  We think immediately of the prayer he prayed that came to be called the Model Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer, and as we get closer to Easter we recall the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God, if there were any way, to spare him the suffering and execution that he knew awaited him if events kept playing out the way had.  Either God didn’t hear that prayer or heard it and didn’t answer it or heard it and, “There’s no way to avoid what’s about to happen.”
I often speak audibly to God when I pray.  You hear me do so most every Sunday right here in this sanctuary, and when I am praying in private most of what I do is to think my words to God, which isn’t much different than praying aloud to God.  I know that God is not Oprah or Dr. Phil or Dr. Ruth or Dr. Freud listening to my words as if a human hearing words spoken; then responding non-verbally in ways that, at least to some degree, I must guess at.
The Apostle Paul said of our prayer efforts:  “…the Spirit [meaning God’s Spirit or God’s unseen presence, not a companion D/deity] helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…” (Rom 8:26 NRSV).  Those are anyone’s most profound prayers aren’t they?  What I feel so deeply that I can’t articulate it or articulate it well enough reflects my core longings and concerns.  If God is the Great Spirit or the Great Mystery, how does one commune or communicate with what is utterly unseen and what lacks anthropomorphic qualities altogether?
Meditation and prayer may be one and the same or two quite separate entities.  What Paul describes with the words I’ve just read is meditation as prayer.  I want to convey something to God, but I know that my words are woefully inadequate.  I rely on God to grasp what I desperately want to get across, and Paul says that’s what God does.
There’s also meditation that isn’t prayer.  I start with an open heart and an open mind.  I have no pressing issue I trust God to pick up on.  My mind goes where it will.  Now and again, unintended prayer may occur, but meditation can up thoroughly non-spiritual and still be entirely worthwhile.
Mindfulness may be akin to meditation that isn’t prayer, but mindfulness is rarely prayer unless it’s an indirect prayer profoundly giving thanks to God for life.  In mindfulness, at which I am a poor practitioner, I concentrate on each breath I take and gently push away thoughts that come into my mind.  Mindfulness is about the title of a book dear friends gave me years ago, The Precious Present.  I concentrate on my breathing–each act of inhaling, each act of exhaling.  That’s why I said it could be an indirect prayer of giving thanks for life; to the way some people think, God is Life or the Life Force.  No requests are made of God, and there is no sense of opening up for God to take hold of those deep down thoughts that are too heavy or too profound for words.
Mindfulness is a stress reduction technique, which may lead to all sorts of other benefits; but that’s what it’s about.  It may be a part of our spiritual practice because if we are stressed and preoccupied we may not be able to pray or to concentrate on living out God’s love as Jesus did.
We have some very gifted and devoted mindfulness practitioners in our church family–Lynne Chappel, Kit Calaguas, Steve Fifield among others. I long to achieve what they have.  I have tried.  It’s very difficult for me to turn off active cognition.  I haven’t been able to concentrate only on my breathing for very long at all.  My younger son, Carson, is trying to help me with this since he knows I see its importance and want to incorporate it into my life.  Both times I’ve been out to visit him in Portland, he has gotten an appointment for me at miniature spa called Float On.  At Float On, one floats.  One enters a chamber with heavily salted water that keeps the person floating from sinking.  The door to the chamber is closed to shut out noise, and you are left alone for 90 minutes in near sensory deprivation conditions.  It is dark.  The water is your body temperature.  There is no sound except the sounds that you may make.
It’s extremely relaxing for me, but I’ve not been able to achieve mindfulness even there for more than a very few minutes.  I’m not giving up.
Someone has said that Jon Kabat-Zinn has changed medicine through his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction work centered at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.  This is how he defines the practice he has used to help so many people combat and sometimes win out over stress, anxiety, chronic illness, pain, cancer, heart disease and depression:  “Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Dr. Jim Hopper, a devotee of Kabat-Zinn’s broadens the master’s basic definition:

Learning to bring one’s attention back to the present moment, including the ever-present process of breathing, over and over again, involves learning to catch oneself entering into habitual patterns that prevent clear awareness of the present moment. With continued practice and increasing development of mindfulness, one becomes increasingly able to notice those habitual reactions – to unwanted and wanted but unhealthy experiences and emotions – that prevent one from responding consciously and constructively….Learning to non-judgmentally observe such habitual responses loosens their grip too. Again, after bringing your wandering attention back to the breath thousands of times, you are less likely to beat up on yourself for getting distracted.

 
II.
It seems to me that in order to appreciate mindfulness and thus practice it in a way that is most healthful one must appreciate the extraordinary gift of each second of life, literally.  Each beat of the heart is an amazing opportunity to take in some aspect of the wonder of life.  Those of us who see life and take life in big blocks of time, as whole chapters at a time instead of one incredible word at a time, will not appreciate mindfulness and will not be good at being intentionally mindful if we bother to try at all.
There’s nothing wrong with you or with your spiritual self if you choose not to practice mindfulness, but pondering the possibilities is worthwhile because of the well attested benefits it may provide.  Let me say this.  I encourage you to try it and continue it if you can.  Not everyone can.  I’m not good at it because I’m more of a see the forest as a whole rather than individual trees kind of person in most areas of my life.  It’s hard for me to break down life into seconds or heartbeats or breaths in or breaths out.  Part of the reason for that is the pace at which I’ve come to live, and part of the reason is my brain as it is presently wired–including the hemisphere that is more dominant.  Even so, it can be both a healthy and a beautiful way to learn to live.
Did you see the stage version or film of “Rent”?  Lots of great music in that show.  One song that captured me from the get go is titled “Seasons of Love.”

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights
In cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life?

How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love.

Certainly there are special moments that I remember and always will–joyous moments and shockingly sad moments, epiphany moments and clueless moments, proud moments and painfully embarrassing moments.  Generally, though, I’m concentrating on larger segments of life when I look back and when I plan ahead.
If you’ve done any serious or casual reading on the theories of brain hemisphere dominance, you know the general traits of being left-brain dominant as well as the general traits of being right-brain dominant.  Maybe you heard about them, but didn’t bother to find out anything more about the theories because they sounded to you like one more round of pop psychology.  If that’s what you thought, you were wrong.  The theories go back to the late Dr. Roger Sperry who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine/Physiology in 1981.  Sperry was not a physician, but rather a zoologist who worked his way into neurobiology.
Sperry’s ample research revealed to him that most people have an innate learning toward either the left or the right hemisphere of their brain.  A handful people appear to rely equally on both sides of the brain at all times; their process is called dual-hemisphere brain functioning.  Presumably, these folks are more balanced in regard to how they make decisions, how they perceive objects and experiences, and how they get along in general.  This is not to say, in any sense, that they are superior thinkers than the majority of us who lean a little or a lot left or right.  Knowing which hemisphere you favor, if either, can tell you a lot about yourself, and it can absolutely enhance your understanding of others, not to mention your understanding of group dynamics.
We are generalizing here to provide a beginning foundation for understanding Dr. Sperry’s conclusions.  The left brain enjoys and relies on logic, detailed analysis, sequencing, linear thought processes, mathematics, precise language, facts, thinking in words, the words of a song more than its melody.  The right brain basks in creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, feelings and non-verbal communication, and the melody of a song more than its words.  In an art gallery or having a look at picture someone just texted, a left brain leaning individual analyzes the various parts of a picture before seeing it as a whole.  In contrast, the right brainer first sees the whole, and only after taking in the whole image does she or he begin to isolate individual parts.  There are degrees of being left brained or right brained.  A totally right brained person lives in a fantasy world and probably doesn’t know what time it is.  A totally left-brained person is a captive of the present because she or he has no capacity to envision what might be.
If you are serving on a committee with an even number of people on it–half left brainers and half right brainers, there’s a great chance that every vote taken will be equally divided with no one to cast the deciding vote.  Ideally, decision-making bodies should be composed of a mix of right brainers and left brainers with a couple of members who are dual hemisphere types.
Churches tend to ask left brainers to serve on finance boards and right brainers to serve on flower committees.  The majority of our schools, at all levels in this country, favor left-brained-based teaching methods and left-brained students because sequential instruction is easier to put together than creative instruction and because evaluation and assessment are much simpler when a question is either right or wrong.  A computer can grade a true/false or multiple choice test, but a computer can’t grade a “what if” essay question or a short answer test in which a student is asked to apply information learned to a real-life situation.
Most religious fundamentalists have more left than right brain traits; they love rules, cause and effect, right and wrong as black and white, tossing around key words and expecting others to share their definitions of those key words.  Religious liberals, typically in contrast, are comfortable enough with questions to which there are no certain answers; they often find themselves more inspired by aesthetics than by a sterling theological statement.
This may seem like a long way from mindfulness to you, but it isn’t–at least not according to how my brain functions, and for your information I’m slightly right brain dominant.  Right brainers are better at practicing traditional meditation in which the mind is allowed to go anywhere and everywhere it likes with no restriction. Left brainers are better at practicing mindfulness than are right brainers because they can think of life in small segments, because they can follow the “rules” of mindfulness, and because they are better at sticking to a daily or some other regular routine than are right brainers.  Ironically, we’d be hard pressed to find someone practicing mindfulness who could be pegged a religious conservative.

III.
My take on the importance of mindfulness, in addition to the wholeness it has brought to many people, is that in focusing on the basic act of living, namely breathing, I am naturally being drawn closer to God.  That is not why mindfulness has been developed and practiced by most.  The Master of Mindfulness himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn, confirms this:

The habit of ignoring our present moments in favor of others yet to come leads directly to a pervasive lack of awareness of the web of life in which we are embedded. This includes a lack of awareness and understanding of our own mind and how it influences our perceptions and our actions. It severely limits our perspective on what it means to be a person and how we are connected to each other and the world around us. Religion has traditionally been the domain of such fundamental inquiries within a spiritual framework, but mindfulness has little to do with religion, except in the most fundamental meaning of the word, as an attempt to appreciate the deep mystery of being alive and to acknowledge being vitally connected to all that exists.

I understand, respect, and affirm what Kabat-Zinn says about religion and religion as unconnected to mindfulness.  I do not think I am disputing any of his insights when I say, again, that a sense of closeness to God is potentially a valuable by-product of mindfulness that may or may not have to do with the wholeness experienced by so many who practice it.  I deeply and sincerely believe that whoever or whatever God is, there is a divine connection to life, which is why several years ago I began referring to God and/or describing God as the Life Source/Life Force.  If I am breathing, I am living.  If I am concentrating on my breathing I am embracing life–and if my understanding of God is anywhere close to correct, embracing life is embracing God.  Thich Nhat Hanh said:  “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
Many of you have heard a preacher or a scholar (sometimes they are one and the same, but not necessarily) explain that the Hebrew word for breath, ruach, is precisely the same word for spirit, human spirit or Divine Spirit.  Ironically, the same thing is true of the Greek word for breath, pneuma; it may just easily be translated spirit–and again, human spirit or Divine Spirit.  Both words can also be translated “wind.”  The translator must make the call every time she or he encounters the word, and not all translators agree by any means with each other’s preferences and conclusions.  “Breath” and “S/spirit,” then, are inseparably related.
In one of the creation accounts in the book of Genesis, God breathed into the man’s nostrils, and as a direct result of the breath of God Adam became a living being.  I love the imagery and the inspiration I find in this old hymn by Edwin Hatch:

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

Here is a little prayer prayed originally by St. Teresa of Avila, one of the great mystics of the Christian Church:

Lord, you are closer to me
than my own breathing,
nearer than my hands and feet.

God nearer to us than the very air we breathe–what a magnificent, disconcerting image!  On St. Patrick’s breastplate were found these words, and I let you know in advance that I do not favor the word “Christ” to refer to Jesus because I think it is believed by many to confirm a role he clearly rejected.  I prefer to call him his Hebrew name “Yeshua,” or Anglicized “Jesus” so that I don’t have to explain why I said “Yeshua.”  Furthermore, much that is attributed to Jesus when he is called Christ should be attributed to God.  That said, I get back to part of what was inscribed on St. Patrick’s breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Similar sentiments from Carmina Gadelica:

God to enfold me,
God to surround me,
God in my speaking,
God in my thinking.
God in my sleeping,
God in my waking,
God in my watching,
God in my hoping.
God in my life,
God in my lips,
God in my soul,
God in my heart.
God in my sufficing,
God in my slumber,
God in my ever-living soul,
God in mine eternity.

According to James Baraz:

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).

What is going on with you right this minute?

Neurotheology (Second Sermon in Series: Spirituality Checkpoint)

 

 

I.

I believe it must have been in seminary–not during one stunning epiphany there, but rather in scattered and cumulative learning experiences only a few of which were in a classroom.  For example, I recall during one of my many browsing visits to the seminary bookstore–no money to buy any books unless they were required texts.  Still I’d go in regularly to take a gander at the stock, especially the new releases.  It was as if I longed to absorb all the knowledge held in those volumes.  Maybe if I stayed in seminary long enough I would know it all or at least all the important stuff; certainly my parents thought I would surely stay in school forever.
One might fairly have asked if I were really so drawn to learning why I didn’t get on with the reading that had already been assigned instead of hanging with books I might get to or need to read out there in the future somewhere.  I decided not to answer that question, and I encourage you not to venture an answer either so far removed from what it was I was up to back then on that segment of my spiritual and educational journey.
On one of those early bookstore browsing sessions, I remember rounding an aisle’s end and seeing displayed before my very eyes a book I’d heard about many times, but hadn’t read.  It was the book written by Dr. Wayne Oates, When Religion Gets Sick.  One of the reasons I chose Southern Seminary was because Dr. Oates was a professor there, but as I was making my way from Tennessee to Kentucky, he–Wayne Oates–was leaving the seminary so that he could devote his later years of teaching to a very different segment of the advanced learning population in our country.  He’d been appointed Professor of Psychology and Counseling at the University of Louisville Medical School where he was a free floater but attached to the Department of Psychiatry.
Anyway, I wouldn’t get to study with Dr. Oates in all likelihood unless I decided to become a physician, which wouldn’t have been good for me and certainly not for my future patients.  So, my only option was to learn from him through his numerous books, and the one I was staring at on display that day had, out of all of his books, the most alluring, yet disturbing, title:  When Religion Gets Sick.
I leafed through the book and read the introduction along with part of the first chapter.  Not all expressions of religion are good for us, are good for anyone, because they are sick, and if we buy into them we might very well become infected with the bugs that caused the religion as a whole to be ill.  Similarly, as I said last week, a healthy personality contributes to healthy religion just as an unhealthy personality contributes to unhealthy religion, which is to say that I may be a part of an expression of religion that is as ill as it is because I passed along and continue to pass along my spiritual ill health.  I’m contagious–not in the way I’d be if the flu got hold of me, but contagious in the sense that misery loves company and will therefore make as many people as it encounters as miserable as possible.  So, I, as a robustly healthy individual, might have become involved with a religion that either enhanced my spiritual health, or, equally as likely, I, as healthy as I was, might have become involved with a sick religion that robbed my spiritual health from me–maybe permanently.  Think Moonies.  Think religiously based Un-gay Movements.  Think Pharisees.
Another of these related epiphanies took place not in the several minutes I read enough of a book that I should have been required to buy it, but over a much longer time period, a whole semester, during which I took my final master’s level preaching course, “The Psychology of Preaching.”  We studied in depth, and from several perspectives, the differences between persuasion, which is legitimate and healthy and ethical, and manipulation, which is abusive and unhealthy and unethical.
My research project for that term took Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Human Need” and Pastoral Theologian James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith,” which was a study of levels of spiritual immaturity and maturity reflecting Maslow’s insights along with Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s findings about psychological development.  If a lower level need isn’t appropriately satisfied, I can be an old man yet still stuck for life at a developmental stage that most children pass through before they hit their teens.  A person rarely chooses to be stuck at a lower level of development, or at least other people and various life circumstances play a part in hindering that person from maturing spiritually.
Maslow said very few people get to the highest level of his hierarchy, a level he named “self actualization.”  Nearly all who do, just so you know, are senior adults.  Fowler followed suit in saying that very few people reached the highest level of spiritual growth, which he called “Universalizing Faith.”  My project, and I’m sure many of you or all of you will be calling Stefan tomorrow to find out how you can get your own copy of my paper that dealt from a preaching point of view with how the next realm of existence–call it heaven, call it God’s realm–would be understood by someone at each of Fowler’s six stages of faith development.
I loved that project, loved it!  Of course, no one told me I’d one day serve as pastor of a church some or many of whose members believe those who are fully mature spiritually know better than to believe in a realm beyond this one.  I love those of you who disagree with me on this point, but I simply cannot accept the notion that life in this world is all there is.  If I should have the sad honor of officiating at your funeral twenty-five or thirty years down the road, I will be thinking about your having made what TRU-DEE, someone who has truly reached both self-actualization and universalizing faith, calls your “transition” to that next realm.
Wherever you may be on Fowler’s stages of spiritual maturing has something to do with your brain function–again not in terms of how your brain allows you to think abstractly, IF it does; but in terms of physiology.  I am who I am at any point along life’s journey partly because of decisions I make or that are made for me and partly because I am operating within a framework established by my brain over which I have little or no control; thus, who I end up becoming spiritually and otherwise is possible or necessitated because of brain function.  I may wish desperately to believe what my brain will not permit.  This adds poignance to the plight of the agnostic who longs to be confident that God is, but her or his brain physiology is just not wired for that option.

 
II.
I can be a spiritually healthy person, or not, with little experience understanding things spiritual.  In effect, I’m a blank slate, and if unhealthy religion loves me, it writes on me what very well may make me spiritually sick for the rest of my life.
Not everyone, though, is so passive in the process.  There are those widely experienced in maintaining healthy or unhealthy religion who actively preserve the type of religion in which they are involved and, what’s more, are gifted at keeping it as it is and at drawing others into their take on religion.  The point here is that once I’m beyond the blank slate level, I can grow to exert influence on the health or the illness of the religious movement in which I am involved.  There may be many people who haven’t realized that they can have that kind of power, but they can.
Two things at this juncture.  One we’ll mention and leave.  The other we’ll keep walking with today.  Here they are.  One, religion isn’t God, and God isn’t religion even the healthiest of religions.  Don’t forget this; it’s vitally important, but for now we must leave it with only that much said.  Two, and we will be holding onto this reality for the rest of the Gathering, my inclination to lean toward healthy spirituality or unhealthy spirituality may well be influenced by something within me over which I have little or no control:  my brain.  My brain may, and likely does, set the perimeters of what is possible for me regarding religious expression.  The study of these possibilities and other related questions is the realm of a relatively new field of study:  neurotheology.  I don’t know if the late Dr. Oates ever heard that word, “neurotheology,” though he did have some insights that were built into this field’s foundation whether those who put them there knew of Wayne Oates and his work or not.
Aldous Huxley used the term “neurotheology” for the first time in print in his novel titled Island. The first book published dealing exclusively with neurotheology hit the shelves in 1994: Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century.
I am, you are chemically and biologically predisposed to be drawn to certain beliefs and practices that grow out of those beliefs because of brain function.  Not to say these can never be changed, but it is difficult to change what has already been built in.  Neither am I saying that societal and cultural conditioning miss making an impact on some of who we are and what we choose.
Someone may say that she or he is an atheist, and if someone professes atheism to me, I believe that person and respect that person’s right to hold that view.  As I said earlier, however, both atheists and theists ought to know that their views about deity may not have been arrived at as much through struggle with abstract thought processes as with what the structure and operation of their brains allow.  The same is true of other aspects of theological reflection and conviction–and all of life, for that matter.
Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen says that the brain is a three-pound supercomputer.  It is the command and control center running your life.  It is involved in absolutely everything you do. Your brain determines how you think, how you feel, how you act, and how well you get along with other people…or not. Your brain determines the kind of person you are morally.  It determines how thoughtful you are; how polite or how rude you are.  It determines how well you think on your feet, and it is involved with how well you do at work and with your family.  Your brain also influences your emotional well being and your romantic life.  Remember that on Valentine’s Day.
Not until neurotheology came along, though, were neurologists, neurophysicists, and other professionals in that family bold enough to say more loudly than before that the brain has significant control over anyone’s possibilities and limitations in the realm of spirituality too.  Dr. Andrew Newberg up at U Penn has become one of the few researchers in the world, literally, to be considered a specialist in this discipline.  We need to get him here to speak to us, which means asking Lyn Newsom to take on the project; it is my observation that people are not able to say, “No,” to Lyn.  Maybe it’s how she asks.  Maybe it’s how glowingly she describes an audience of Silverside seekers to a potential speaker.  I don’t know her secret, but she’s brought to us some truly amazingly personalities.   Back to Dr. Newberg who may one day be speaking here because of Lyn Newsom.
He is a radiologist, and he specializes in observing the brain at work when people claim to be having a religious experience–all the way from what can be called meditation though the one doing the meditating calls it prayer to an experience of awe that the person awed describes as having come into the presence of the living God.  People who aren’t frightened that Newberg and clan will eventually prove scientifically that there is no God like to pick his brain, so to speak.  This is what he said in one interview:

“I can’t prove or disprove that when somebody claims to connect with God, he or she has actually connected. My publisher originally wanted me to call such an event a ‘real’ experience, which we have no way of proving. Eventually, we compromised with the term ‘neurologically real,’ to confirm the fact that we are seeing something that is real only perhaps from that neurological perspective.  Ultimately, from a scientific point of view, all that we experience, including religious experiences and near death experiences, which are profoundly religious for many people, are mediated by the brain.  Undoubtedly we will one day discover the molecular mediators of religious experiences and near death experiences and also the exact areas of the brain that mediate them, but this will only tell us what parts of the brain are involved in the experiences, not whether the experiences are real (and not just neurologically real).  Our brain and our senses limit our ability to determine what is truly real….We do not have the physical senses to determine whether there is an external reality beyond what we can perceive [within the brain].”

If this is true, and I know of no one who has disproven it, then the same limitations apply to other aspects of being religious or spiritual, and they are not the same.  To further stir things up, before the issue of brain potential or brain limitation is ever raised, there’s the blatant reality, all too easy to observe and document, that one person interprets an idea or describes an event observed in a completely different way than the next person who heard the same idea the first person heard it and saw exactly the same event when and where the other person saw it.  Yet, to hear them tell it each of them heard something different–maybe related, but hardly precisely the same.  This reality of multiple human perceptions of the same event or encounter, long before neurotheology was born, caused progressives not to expect that everyone in their religious group would or could have identical beliefs and/or identical experiences.
Example.  Two people get impossible to find front row parking places at BJ’s.  One praises God for opening that space for him.  The other pats herself on the back, figuratively speaking, for having an eagle eye and great parking lot driving skills and says to herself, “You go, girl!”, as she dashes in to take advantage of the weekly special:  buy 24 bars of Aging Actress with Great Skin facial soap and get 12 loaves of bread for $6.

III.
So what’ll it be?  Some believe neurotheology proves God created the brain.  Others believe the brain created and continues to create God.  There is no sermon talk back today so I’ll have to wait to find out what some of you think on this cutting edge subject.
My seminary ethics professor and later my teaching colleague, Dr. Paul Simmons, has in his later teaching years, as Dr. Oates did, gone to teaching med students at the University of Louisville; he is attached to the Department of Community Medicine.  Neurotheology is a concern to him as an ethicist.
Is it a hoax?  Does anyone have the right to study another person in the midst of what that person calls religious experience?  Is someone who claims to have had a religious experience of some sort describing purely a mental state, or did that person come into the presence of transcendence that some call God?
Paul–Paul Simmons that is, not the Apostle Paul–reasons through this with his med students by beginning with the admission that someone’s brain is foundational to all that person is.   He says that the time has come when the world of traditional theological studies can no longer avoid the findings of neurotheology.  Neurotheology has forced intellectually honest folks to face the fact that at least some of what we say about religion, to the consternation of a true religious fundamentalist, is based on scientific discoveries.
Some critics, of which there are plenty, say it’s foolish or reductionistic if not sacrilegious to dare to apply science to spirituality.  I mean, really!  How can anyone even with Dr. Newberg’s vast knowledge and top of the line technology boil down what Simmons describes as “complex and wildly individual spiritual experience to mere brain circuitry”?  Good question, he says, to his mixed medical audiences.  Yes, it’s imprecise because we don’t know how fully to interpret the data collected, but it’s worthwhile because at the very least kernels of truth emerge.
None of the possible responses or conclusions can rule out any of the others.  The bottom line question remains, “Is an experience someone calls a religious experience really an experience of God, or is it, in fact, a series of amazing brain circuits at work doing what they’ve done for humans ever since there were humans?”  Those who have nothing much vested in letting go of the idea of God can quickly and comfortably say, “Finally, we know that what people have been calling God is brain chemicals at work without the encouragement of peyote.”  What will the piously inclined say, though?  Without a doubt, they’ll say, “Well, duh.  Of course, God manifests Godself in the human brain activity; that’s how God created human beings.”
Scientists use neuroimaging tools to pinpoint regions in the brain that are activated during experiences that subjects associate with “spiritual” feelings, images, activities, or ideas. David Wulf is a psychologist at Wheaton College–not Billy Graham’s conservative alma mater, but the one near Boston that is frequently on the list of the very best liberal arts colleges in the nation.  Professor Wulf is convinced that the growing number of modern brain imaging studies, quoting him directly now, “along with the consistency of spiritual experiences across cultures, history, and religions, suggest a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain.”  This is an evolutionary perspective, don’t you think?
Some of how the brain has evolved has been a collective experience for the whole of the human species, but the individuality of individual humans cannot be stalled.  Thus, we raise the frightening question for some:  Can God be at least slightly different to every person who has an experience of God?  If the answer to that question is, “Yes,” which I think it is, then how in the world can sects, churches, or denominations expect everyone to believe and act alike just because they’ve bumped into God taking a run through their neurons?  And if they differ from the leader of their group whose neurons have stopped functioning, except for involuntary controls such as breathing, as a result of lack of use, they will be excommunicated and/or condemned to whatever that group conceives of as hell.  Talk about abuse.
Worth pondering.
Proverbs 23:7, the King James Version of the Bible:  “For as he thinketh…so he is.”  “As she thinketh…so she is.”
Philippians 4:8:  “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
A prayer/song from 1558:  “God, be in my head and in my understanding.”
Amen.

Healthy and Unhealthy Religion (Sermon Series: Spirituality Checkpoint)

 

 

I.
So, the new Archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput, is meeting the press in a big time way.  He’s having to answer questions about the $900,000 stolen from the Archdiocese before he came, not on his watch but still in his lap.  Law enforcement investigators along with insiders serving on the financial staff of the Archdiocese think they’ve narrowed down the evidence to point to a single culprit, to one senior level staff person in the hierarchy of the previous Archbishop, Justin Rigali.
Chaput is at pains to stress that the stolen monies came out of general operating funds, not out of the organization’s sacrosanct accounts–no pun intended, such as one account that helps the needy.  Still, nearly a million missing dollars is still a huge hit for almost every religious entity, whether it be a local synagogue/church/mosque, a denominational infrastructure, or a religion-based school.  This kind of act isn’t all that unusual, and yet when one happens a sizable number of people are still shocked.
As soon as this news hit the papers and the airwaves, reporters were all over the place asking people what they thought of such a thing.  One woman responded to the television reporter’s question by saying something like, “Well, of course, I’m shocked, and it makes me ask, ‘Who CAN you trust?’”  You see, there’s a built in respect for almost any religion by many of the people who have respect for religion at all.  Another way of saying what the woman said to the reporter is, “If you can’t trust religious institutions, who can you trust?”  The fact, though, is that the failure of one or a few religious entities doesn’t mean or prove the worthlessness of the whole kitnkaboodle.  One bad apple may spoil the whole barrel of apples provided someone leaves the rotten apple in the barrel long enough to poison the others.  Several flawed religious groups, even a majority of them, still doesn’t mean that they’re all bad including those being staffed by employees who’d steal money from goodhearted, hardworking supporters.
Tough news for more than a few people in our world.  The goodness and trustworthiness of one church doesn’t assure by any means that the church down the road or the church next door will be committed to the same values.  Furthermore, one person can’t be responsible for representing the whole religious organization.  For every person stealing from a synagogue, church, or mosque, there are hundreds or thousands giving for the well-being of the religious organization and those whom it serves.
Still, this most recent negative incident should be a reminder to all of us that religion can be unhealthy; as I said, one person in the group doing what is wrong doesn’t make the whole organization unhealthy.  On the other hand, though, an unhealthy religious organization can produce people within it who do what is wrong because of their association with unhealthy religion.  My key point here is simple enough:  not all religion is healthy religion.
We shouldn’t look at one of religion’s failures, and say, “If you can’t trust religious people, then who CAN you trust?”  The reason we shouldn’t ask a question like that is because unhealthy people are present in both healthy and unhealthy religious organizations and because the most ethical and the least ethical religious organizations are, after all, made up of imperfect human beings.
A question like the one the woman asked in response to the reporter’s question to her reveals that she wants a person or an organization around in whom she can trust, on whom she can depend to be honest and faithful even if she’s not a participant.   Well, I have some good news for that lady and for others who ask the same question, “Who CAN you trust?”
In the United States, citizens polled by the Gallup folks say nurses are the most trustworthy professionals in the land, followed by physicians and pharmacists.  Nurses have topped the list every year beginning in 1999 and into the present except in 2011when, in the aftermath of 9/11, firefighters hit the number one slot.  At the very bottom of the list are politicians–former, present, and future politicians.
When asked specifically about institutions over against individuals, U.S. Americans have the greatest confidence in the military, followed by small businesses, followed by police forces, followed by organized religion.  The medical establishment as a whole is in fifth place.
Even though organized religion is fourth on the list, only 48% of the respondents named it their number 1, while 78% listed the military as the institution in which they most trusted.  Who’s at the bottom of the list?  Again, congress.  One step above congress are HMO’s.  One step above HMO’s on the distrust list is big business, a little less trusted than organized labor and banks.
So, while the woman on the news was genuinely, visibly shaken that someone working for a religious organization is a crook, the poll says, about half of all Americans wouldn’t be surprised at all or surprised just a bit.  If someone, an American, asks you one of these days, “Who CAN you trust?”, you should say, “Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Thirty years ago, clergy were typically listed as the most trusted professionals around, and while we’re still not as low down, I mean as far down on the list as politicians, people like me have to be honest and say that was probably because many people didn’t know then what is more widely known today about historic and contemporary clergy and religious organizations’ scandals.  Religion has been sick, sometimes getting well for a while, off and on since there was organized religion of any type.  Not all religion is healthy.  Not all churches are healthy.  Not all clergypersons are healthy.  When the time comes for you to embrace a religious movement or organization, you absolutely have to–as uncomfortable as that may make you–ease in with a critical eye.  Later in our Gathering, we’ll hear a list of the traits of healthy versus unhealthy religion.
Standup comedian, Emo Phillips, had this story in one of his routines:

“I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge about to jump off so I ran over and said, ‘Stop! Don’t do it!’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he said.
I said, ‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’
He said, ‘Like what?’
I said, ‘Well…are you religious or atheist?’ He said, ‘Religious.’
I said, ‘Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?’
He said, ‘Christian.’
I said, ‘Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?’
He said, ‘Protestant.’
I said, ‘Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’
He said, ‘Baptist!’
I said, ‘Wow! Me too! Are you American Baptist or Southern Baptist?’
He said, ‘American Baptist!’
I said, ‘Die, heretic scum,’ and pushed him off the bridge.”

 

II.
Jesus was a seriously religious guy, but his approach to religion was extraordinarily healthy.  He was a Jew from birth til death, and the conflicts he had with other Jews of his day had to do with his desire to want to reform the way their ancestors had taught them to practice religion–namely, all tied up in rules and regulations with little time or interest in actually being connected to God through commitment and communion.  When I say “communion” here I’m referring to prayer and/or meditation.
So, Jesus respected the rights of others to follow their pathways toward truth UNLESS they became people who thought they had stumbled upon or created THE religion for all.  Our dear friend, Dr. Pam Cummings, before scampering off to Texas to begin retirement there once gave me a bumper sticker as a gift; it reads, “No religion is big enough for all people.”  Now, you and I both know those who’d instantly object to the claim made by that statement; ironically, those who’d say there’s room for all people in their religion are often the very ones spending the most time making others feel excluded from the religion they dishonestly designate as a religion for all people.  What they really mean is:  a religion for all people who are willing to believe and act as I do on the basis of what I believe my religion demands.
Ironically, the only religious types with whom Jesus became displeased, and we’ll have to say he was irritated with them quite often, were precisely those who thought that their take on religion was the only one that could possibly be pleasing to God.  All others, they believed–and “they” refers to the Pharisees and the scribes, the holier than thou Jews in Jesus’ day–would eventually be turned away by God.  Their arrogance and their willingness to live on a foundation of unexamined falsehoods threw Jesus into a tizzy.  On a few occasions he became openly angry with them, but most of the time he dealt with their doctrinal defects by poking fun at them–hopefully in a way that would make them take stock of where they’d ended up spiritually speaking.
In the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that you heard read earlier, Jesus is somewhere between anger and one of his standup comedy routines, joking around about how the scribes and Pharisees had made the Jewish religion so unhealthy that they were killing it off.  There are many places in the Gospels where Jesus intends to be humorous, but not in the passage before us today.
Scribes were the lawyers of religion in Jesus’ day, and the Pharisees were their best buddies willing to live out the scribes’ strict interpretations of the ancient laws absolutely literally.  I think we can fairly say that in this passage, Jesus is lambasting the scribes and Pharisees.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you get in a dither about making certain that you tithe an utterly precise tenth of each herb in your herb garden while you conveniently ignore what matters in the true religion of the Jews:  justice, mercy, and faith.  Justice means that people other than your fellow scribes and Pharisees get a shot at a fair shake in life.  Mercy means that even those who have fallen short of the ideals in our religious traditions, fallen short big time perhaps, are entitled to forgiveness and a fresh start for more than one round of failures.  Faith means that God is at the center of the process, not a few scribes and Pharisees or all the scribes and Pharisees in the world.  You know how to dole out the dill to offer up as a burnt offering–of benefit to no one.  But were you to try to say, ‘I forgive you,’ even to one of your wives or children, you’d choke.  Call out the EMT’s!’”
Ouch!  Jesus was just getting wound up.  My Dad’s family was not huge, but larger than average, so I had several aunts and uncles growing up.  One aunt and uncle not only saw each other at home, but also at work.  They were both in law enforcement.  He was a Deputy Sheriff, and she had several jobs in the police department until her dream job came along.  She was asked to become a matron to the female prisoners with psychiatric disorders.  If you’ve seen, in the film, “Chicago,” Queen Latifah as the matron, an officer specializing in involvement with female prisoners, you have some idea of what I’m talking about.  My uncle, her husband, stopped by one evening to tell us the news.  “Yeah, she’s gonna be a matron to the criminals with mental problems.”  He paused then added, “The blind leading the blind, you know.”
Speaking of that, Jesus castigated the scribes and Pharisees for appointing themselves spiritual guides for others to follow when in Jesus’ eyes they had no idea where they were going or exactly what they were seeing.  “You claim to be guides?  How is that possible?  That’s the blind leading the blind!”
“You’re so concerned with doing everything by the book that, figuratively speaking, you’ll strain a gnat out of your wine because you have a sore throat; then you’ll get back to your main course and swallow a camel.  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you humongous hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and bowl, but inside they remain full of greed and self-indulgence.  If your religion were healthy you’d be infinitely more concerned with what was going on inside of yourself spiritually speaking, than with a polished exterior.  But you’ve reversed it so that what others see when they look at you and how you live is much more important to you than the fact that all the rules you’re keeping haven’t brought you anywhere near God in so long you can’t even remember when, so all you’ve got left is the pride you feel when people look at you and say, ‘A true person of God,’ even though you’ve so separated yourself from God with your sick religion that you’d have no idea it was God if God came along and sat down beside you.”

III.
In the responsive reading you saw what renowned pastoral counselor, Howard Clinebell, thought in terms of what is healthy and what is unhealthy religion.  Here’s another take on the same topic from a truly wonderful website, religioustolerance.org.
You know you’ve stumbled into an unhealthy, maybe even a dangerous religion–and there are plenty of those out there–when:

1) The organization is willing to place itself above any law, all laws if need be, of the land.

2) The leadership of an unhealthy religious group dictates (never suggests) important personal details of followers’ lives–not traditionally spiritual concerns such as coaching to be involved in prayer and attending worship services, but unarguably personal matters that a healthy person should decide on her- or himself.  For example, should I get married and if so, to whom?  You don’t answer either of those questions if you’re a part of an unhealthy religious group.  The leaders will answer those for you.  If you should be trusted enough to be free to leave a compound and go to school, the leadership of this religion will tell you exactly what you must study; this is not a decision you can make for yourself.

3) The dominant leader establishes strict ethical guidelines that all members must follow to a tee, but for some reason that is never explained with clarity, the leader who established the principles is exempt from abiding by them.

If you stumble into that kind of religious group, stumble out immediately.  Jesus never asked anyone to keep any principle that he himself was unwilling to keep.

4) Nearly always the group sees almost all other religious groups as enemies and speaks critically and disdainfully of them as a matter of course.

5) Also, in practically every modern case, the unhealthy religious group is preoccupied with the end of this world and the coming of the next world wherein they will be top dogs.  Steer clear of groups that give a lot of attention to and put a great deal of credence into repetitive predictions of the end of time.

6) The leader of an unhealthy religious group routinely makes statements that he, rarely but sometimes a she, knows to be false to throw off both insiders and outsiders.  False information is a primary tool for control.

There are plenty of people out there who think that there’s no such thing as healthy religion; in fact, they’ve seen so many abuses in the name of religion that they believe the two words “healthy” and “religion” when used together comprise an oxymoron.  I’m going to say, and this will not surprise too many of you–a few maybe, that I don’t think “healthy religion” is an oxymoron.  There really is or can be such as thing as healthy, wholesome religion.
There was a PBS series a while back called “The Ascent of Humanity.”  In one of the episodes, healthy versus unhealthy religion came up.  Someone who had lost his family to the gas chambers at Auschwitz stood right there in the death camp and said something along these lines:  “This is how people behave when they believe they have absolute knowledge, but anyone or any religion that claims absolute knowledge and tells people what to think is clearly a horribly unhealthy religion.”
So, then, what’s healthy religion?  Healthy religion is kind of a little cycle.  A healthy personality produces healthy religion, and healthy religion promotes a healthy personality.  Healthy religion encourages you to know and claim who you are and to act on that, spiritually and otherwise, as you wish, as you see fit, as you are so inclined.
The great spiritual seeker and spiritual director, Evelyn Underhill, had her forefinger on the pulse of healthy religion when she wrote:  “God is always coming to you in the sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive God there with gratitude in that sacrament.”
In an untitled article, as far as I could tell, in National Times during April a couple of years ago, I found this quote with which I challenge us all today:

“Gratitude is the distinctly religious approach to the world. By this I do not mean gratitude for particular things – health, a good meal, a sunset – though they come into it. It is a lens through which one filters the world, a mode of trust, an affirmation that the world is good.”

Amen.