Spirits, Undampened

I spent two hours on Saturday standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the rain with the crowd gathered in downtown Portland for the Women’s March protesting the policies of the new Administration. For a long time, we believed that we were stranded with no place to go. When my sweater began soaking under the Gore-Tex jacket, I made my way back to the Morrison Street bridge, arriving there just as the crowd began to break free. I’m not Oregon-tough: many of the marchers were bare-headed in the drizzle.

I could try to explain the work I facilitated in that setting, and again this morning during services at Portland’s First Unitarian Universalist Church. But I keep on coming back to two moments: the little girl poking the puddles with her protest sign, prompting me to say:

No matter who is president, there’s still going to be rain puddles! And aren’t they just the best!

The other is that last reading at Sister Gloria’s contemplative prayer gathering. It was the wedding at Cana, which ends with the observation:

…and his disciples began to believe in him.

[John 2:11]

In elaborating my choice of this phrase, I explained the paradox that Jesus’s entire ministry was devoted to one purpose: that people would come to believe in themselves.

Today’s sermon assumed that we were in for a long, dark struggle – a struggle that will force us to think in immediate terms and conserve our strength. The Reverend minister revealed that he found himself praying much more in this season. I was also surprised that the musical selections explicitly evoked God, something that I thought was disappearing from Unitarian Universalist worship. And so I had the compulsion to offer him this wisdom in the hall outside the sanctuary:

The divine purpose for humanity is that we bind love to the world. This era is the last hurrah of selfishness. They are divorcing themselves from reality, and in this time, truth spoken in love will have enormous power. They are the most potent tools for dispelling fear.

Thank-you for being here for your community.

This is not a time for thinking small or harboring resources. This is the moment to stretch to our limits and grasp victory. It is time to believe that you were designed through loving to channel great power to each other.

Namaste.

Me, Myself and Christ: Revelation

My son Greg can become exasperated with me. As a young adult, he is concerned naturally with social acceptance, and seeks for answers to the problems of his generation in the conventional wisdom brought forth from the past. When he has had enough of my contrary pronouncements, he retorts:

You speak with a great deal of assurance, Dad!

Yes, who am I, to assert that I know better than all these others?

For me, the situation is far more ambiguous. My assurance is necessary to those that I attempt to comfort. To those seeking hope, how else can one speak? They need to believe that you believe in the choices that you are offering them.

But to believe that you represent the truth is far different than believing in one’s own authority.

To those familiar with the Yu Gi Oh cartoon series, I can offer a meaningful image. In the cartoon, the young hero finds himself in conflict with evil, and struggles to the limit of his abilities to overcome it. In the lurch, a larger self – ancient, powerful and wise beyond any human reckoning – comes to the fore.

Thus, to my intimates, I speak of myself variously as a “test particle” or “bait” or “a point of contact” or “a beneficiary of a privileged perspective.” So I’ll be dreaming about a troubled baptist, and suddenly I’ll see the scene as though looking over my shoulder and another presence asks “Is that you, John?” I’ll be driving to the aquatic center and have a cardinal from 400 miles away land on me with shame and grief regarding the priestly pedophilia scandal. I’ll wake up at midnight to a pope announcing “I am your father, and I am going to die and leave all this power to you.” I’ll be listening to the opening lyrics of He Reigns, allowing my mind to wander over the continents, and a Muslim leader shows up to say “Here’s another billion people for you to manage.”

To those that don’t understand the challenges of loving, this might seem all very exciting. Having carried the heavy burden of being blamed for things done in my name, to me it’s far more ambiguous.

There are two great challenges to loving, which is to grant strength to the loved one. The first is when the recipient does not adhere to the constraints of loving. Loving them is thus to empower them to hurt others. In consequence, unconditional love moves through our lives like the tide, peaking higher when we honor its constraints, and ebbing when we violate them. The mechanism of this operation is for love to love all things so that it feels the wrongs we commit, and transfers its ministry to those we have wounded. In seeking to serve ourselves, we are indeed our own worst enemies.

The second challenge is far more painful. It is to find the beloved surrendering themselves to us, becoming merely extensions of our personality rather than beautiful manifestations of infinite possibility. A loving personality is surrounded by grateful recipients of love’s strength, and that gratitude amplifies their influence. Unless such a lover is tender, it can overwhelm the weaker links that bind together the beloved, scattering its elements to the spiritual wind.

It is for these reasons that Jesus proclaimed himself as a servant, and testified as to his humble heart.

As if this wasn’t difficult enough, this little pseudo pod of Christ is wrapped up in hostility. The important work to be done is in “binding” and “loosening” things in the spiritual realm, and my interactions with them are at best tenuous. Thus I dream of the great flocks of birds I knew in my childhood, and finding, upon walking out to the deck, that a ravenous dragon is arising from the spot in the ground from which the birds arise. At an Easter service, I cupped my hands around the sun and spread its influence, only to encounter in the asteroids an echo of the ancient cry of grief “No! Don’t kill him!” I receive a visit by an emissary of the two-dimensional race represented as the eye in the pyramid, asking for assistance to travel across the Milky Way, and am warned six months later that the gift of energy caused the output of the sun to drop by ten percent. Or wake, much as I was waken by the pope, to find myself in the midst of a perfectly spherical personality, only to be guided across a great void to a tiny speck, the “most precious place” in its realm, the “only place where life is found”, and to be told “I want to help, but even the smallest mistake would be disastrous. I need people to guide me.”

When I was introduced to the modern interpretations of Revelation, I was told that the first beast, numbered 666, was man. Man, the creation of the sixth day, believing in his own power and being humbled by failure. But not only man was created on the sixth day: in the morning came the livestock. So the correct category is mammalia. This is also the fourth, greatest beast of Daniel’s dream. It is the intelligence of man in service to the destructive Darwinian instincts of our evolutionary predecessors.

The enemy of the beast is the man with the flashing sword of truth coming from his mouth. The birds are his allies. In Daniel’s dream, he is granted dominion over the power of the “Ancient of Days.”

As when he first came, I recognize that Christ – the human perfected by unconditional love – can only become those things that he is allowed to be by those he serves. While he proclaimed his authority in the earlier era, in this era it will be to each of us to proclaim the authority of love in our lives – and thus to receive him as lord in our hearts. He is not our ruler, he is our example. And he is very, very, very close.

Take comfort. Take heart. None are forgotten, even those held captive by those that take refuge in the darkness. There is no hiding from the glory of the light that he brings.

Sacred, Healing Heart

A sin is a sin because it leaves a wound in the spirit of our victim. That extends not only to other people, but to God himself. In both Genesis and the history following entry into the Promised Land, Yahweh cries out against the agony of his association with the people of Israel.

The Law was intended to guide the Chosen People into a path of righteousness – a way of living that kept sin from entering into our relationships. The challenge, of course, was that Israel was surrounded by people that lacked that same discipline. The relationship with God was insufficient to protect them from the sins of others.

In the books after return from exile, a common exhortation among the prophets is that the Gentiles must be allowed into the covenant with God. This flew in the face of Hebrew tradition, which passed the heritage through mothers. But it was intended to entrain a process that would eventually manifest in the spread of righteousness across the face of the earth.

And then comes Jesus to bear the sins of the world.

In common theology, this is seen as an act of retribution. In Christ Alone expresses this with a beautiful gratitude:

Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live

But this is to think with the heart of men, not with the heart of God. Jesus tells so many parables of evil-doing that is forgiven by the grace of God. In every case, those stories reveal that it is not retribution that God seeks, but reconciliation.

The truth is approached in the last two lines of the stanza, particularly when seen in the light of Jesus’s promise to those that suffer [Matt. 11:28-29]:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

When offered, this was almost certainly seen as a promise to the few that heard, but on the cross it became true for all willing to receive the healing grace of the father. Jesus opened his heart to all of the sin of humanity, each of us finding a place in the tissue of his compassion. The sun shone its light into its chambers, and brought healing there.

This surrender has its dark side: Jesus, bearer of a perfect, spotless heart, allowed sinners to take up residence in it. He embraced the world in his love, knowing that to love is to give power to others. While his will washed against the tide of sin, he knew that some would use that power to hurt others – turning his power against his own heart.  Thus his declaration of its humility: he knows that his heart cannot heal us without empowering us to create suffereing.

To complete the work, then, his heart will be broken: some among those he loves will have to be cast out into the darkness. As he says about the power of loving in the parable of the talents [Matt. 13:12]:

Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

But for those that have, to “pick up your cross” is not to bear the burden of sin. It is something far more joyful and hopeful. It is to offer yourself as a tool for the healing of others. It is to allow the love that fills you  to pass through you to those that suffer with fear, filling them until they, too, fear no longer.

It may seem unfair, to be required to heal those that hurt us. Only keep in sight the outcome of his agony  carried for these millennia (again from In Christ Alone):

And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

Evolution of Love

I have signed up for the Zacharias Trust’s e-pulse feed, produced by the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. The foremost member of that community is John Lennox, who has engaged Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists in debate on whether evolution disproves the Bible.

The conflict arises from the way that Genesis describes creation as occurring in six “days.” The term is vague, and long prior to Darwin we had Christian scholars cautioning that it shouldn’t be taken literally. But without any science to help interpret the book, the tendency was to take the common translation as cause to celebrate the glory and power of the Creator.

In the New Testament, that glory and power is manifested in a different way – it is through Jesus’s parables that explain that no matter how big a mess we make of things, it doesn’t affect God. He is going to love us anyways. Even more, when we turn our will and intelligence to caring for the world we live in, great power comes to us – power that is inaccessible through any other means. Power that gave Jesus authority even over death.

I met a family whose daughter studied with Lennox, and they shared his perception that the people he debates have a deep hunger for the love that God brings. They have just convinced themselves that the evil done by men proves that God doesn’t exist. In their quest to support their conviction, they use the conflict between the translation of Genesis and the fossil record to argue that the whole of the Bible should be discarded.

The apologists use a number of techniques to try to defend their faith. One is intelligent design – the idea that we can use evolution to prove the existence of God by demonstrating the infinitesimal probability that evolution could merge single-celled organisms into something as complex as a human being. Others shut their eyes and insist that if evolution is advanced as proof against God, then evolution must be wrong. And a final group insists that we should just stop arguing about it, and prove God’s existence through the works of our love.

But what of this: what if there was no contradiction? What if God prepared the way for reconciliation between naïve faith and sophisticated scientific understanding by writing evolution into the Bible long before it was formulated by Darwin? Would that not be a magnificent demonstration of his power and love for us?

For this is what I read. Genesis records that light allowed photosynthetic organisms to escape the dark depths of the ocean. From there they migrated from salt waters below to fresh waters above. Next they learned to survive outside of water, becoming plants that spread across the face of the earth. Then sight arose, resolving the light into the sun and the moon, and supporting seasonal migration. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, the fish and birds dominated the earth until the rise of the mammals. And finally we have man, whose flexible brain liberated life from the Darwinian struggle, to the point today that we can design simple creatures ourselves.

Evolution does not contradict the Bible; rather the elaboration of Darwin’s theory has substantiated the Bible. The Bible contains the history revealed by paleontology written thousands of years before science gave us the tools to interpret the fossil record.

So Christians, take heart: there is absolutely nothing to apologize for.

And let’s just put the argument aside and get around to the business of applying our intelligence to the restoration of the planet that God provided to sustain us on our journey to understanding.

Imagine a World Without Imagination

Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, has joined the cawing voices of academic atheists with the publication of his new book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. I haven’t read the book, and don’t see any reason to support the author’s rise to bestseller stardom. The supporting reviews on the book’s brag sheet are enough for me. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker all celebrate the book as another sledgehammer blow against the project that has occupied humanity’s greatest thinkers for millennia: how to get people to work together for the common good.

Is science a catalyst in that regard? I didn’t see that in evidence at the Skeptics Conference last year. In a panel discussion with an advocate for CERN and an advocate for advancement of space exploration, Leonard Krauss responded with “That’s just a stupid idea” to the latter’s appeal for money to clear the space junk that threatens our low-earth-orbit satellites.  Krauss’s statement came without technical analysis – it was a baldly political statement meant to ensure that the community represented by Krauss kept its stranglehold on the money that flows through CERN.

And then we have the double-edged sword of global climate research and toxicology studies. We cannot consider as a statistical anomaly the trifecta among the technical communities that advised the tobacco, fossil fuel and chemicals industries. Drawing upon the science of economics, they invested their resources for the benefit of their shareholders. Each of them, confronted with irrefutable scientific evidence of harm to the public, chose to invest in contrarian science and secrecy to secure their access to profitable markets.

Obviously, the contention that science in of itself disproves faith is supportable only if we discard the long history of spiritual experience. Fundamental physics has no explanation for that history, and as it has become clear that there is no explanation for spirituality in current theory, the position of rejection has hardened because to accept the need to explain spirituality is to cast into doubt the entire body of particle physics.

But the men listed in my introduction are not physicists, they are evolutionary biologists. They have waged a long war against scriptural literalists, and appear eager to crucify religion for the prejudices of its ugliest zealots. That zealotry arose in an era that lacked the evidence of the fossil record, and so had no means for explaining the obscure record of the Bible except to assert the power of the Almighty. With the fossil record, however, the story of Genesis is readily interpreted as the occupation of ecosystems by living things. Even more, the trumpets of Revelation are clearly correlated with the billion-year history of mass extinctions that occurred along the way.

Of course, how could the writers of the Bible have known all that without the benefit of modern paleontology? The program of destruction pursued by Coyne and his cronies would be completely undermined by that consideration.

What they would be left with is to pursue a proof, such as I have outlined here, that love is the most powerful force in the universe. This is the conclusion reached by all the great religious avatars, not-with-standing the hateful rhetoric of the zealots. What is really wrong with attempting to prove that conclusion?

Surely not something more wrong than lacking the imagination to believe that it is possible.

Tyranny Vanquished by Love

As an advocate of the healing manifested in the world through divine love – that is to say, as an apologist – the most painful apology is that offered by those that justify violence in the defense of received truth.

In modern America, those justifications are flavored with desperation. For many years, Christian culture was synonymous with the dominant Caucasian culture. The twenty-first century promises an end to that dominance, but that eventuality was clearly forecast in the last century. The misguided hope that change and accommodation can be avoided breeds irrationality, manifested in the religious extremism that spawned death-threats against doctors that prescribe chemical abortions or that drives parents to resist education in evolutionary biology. Fundamentalism bred in the military, where “Warriors for Christ” sometimes coerce religious conduct in their subordinates, and issue death threats against leaders in organizations (such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation) that oppose that unconstitutional practice. In each case, the instigators see the tenets of their faith as justifying imposition of their values upon others, and therefore implicitly justifying a broader defense of inherited social privilege.

In both Judaism and Islam, this tendency is heightened by the intervention of God in martial struggles against those seeking to subdue the faithful. It is only in Christianity that radical non-violence is upheld. That the bookends to Christianity both deny the divinity of Christ may be symptomatic of a pragmatism that makes violence inescapable.

In Islam and the Destiny of Man, Eaton explicitly upholds this principle. A Sunni scholar, his survey of Muslim history after the death of the prophet concludes with the observation that the practical realities of maintaining control of an Islamic culture meant at least paying lip-service to its theology, which was often solidified by investments in public works that facilitated its spread. Through that means, tyranny was turned to the service of faith. But it goes beyond that – Eaton makes a deep statement that truth cannot survive in the world unless evil is divided from it, and that division requires violence. Indeed, the hypocrites of the ruling class in the Umayyad and Abbassid dynasties were short-lived.

In discussion with my Shia colleague at work, I have been slowly establishing the validity of the contrasting proposition of Christian faith: Jesus demonstrated that the pragmatic truths of this world are dust in the hands of those that manipulate them. What is known to be “true” is far less meaningful than what is possible. While the common reaction is “good luck with that,” I keep on pointing out that far more power is available to us than is required to solve the problems we face. A billion times as much energy leaves the sun as reaches the earth. It is not allowed us for the same reason that parents don’t give matches to children – one selfish miss-step can destroy us all.

But, you see, it wasn’t a solar eclipse on Good Friday. It was the sun pouring its power through him.

I discovered Lauren Naigle through BJ out at The River Runs. The compositions on Lauren’s debut album don’t rival those found in the secular (and often profane) debuts of Ricky Lee Jones or Norah Jones, and subscribe to a simple lyrical formula. But they encapsulate the fundamental truths of Christian experience: it is the loving heart that bled for humanity that demonstrates the preconditions for true power. Surrender self-concern and trust that all those that you love ultimately will love you in return.

Lauren is young, and among her tracks are jingles that might be dismissed as overly exuberant. But she has not been without suffering, losing two years of high school to an auto-immune disorder and a beloved grandfather. In How Can It Be’s closing homage, she pleads for self-surrender:

There is victory in my Savior’s loss
In the crimson flowing from the Cross
Pour over me, pour over me. (Yes!)

Oh let this be where I die
My Lord with thee crucified.
Be lifted high, as my kingdoms fall
Once and for all, once and for all.

Oh Lord I lay it down.
Oh Lord I lay it down.
Help me to lay it down.
Oh Lord I lay it down.

Bad things happen to good people not because they are weak.

Evil walks in the world, and hungers for the power that originates from love, but love recoils from its grasp. In Richard Nixon, the great lesson of abused power was visible when he bade farewell to his staff, tears streaming down his face as he juxtaposed his experience of political life with the love he had received from his mother. That is another way of reading Lauren’s lyrics: “Be lifted high, as my kingdoms fall. Oh Lord I lay it down.

There are those immune to these realizations – Beria, Stalin’s security chief, spat on the corpse just moments after his master’s death. But Stalin has already been forgotten by history, replaced by Vladimir Putin, a man who justifies his power by promising to allocate money for road repairs left undone by the local governments impoverished by the corruption he organizes.

Putin’s political aspirations were conceived when unrest in East Germany paralyzed the embassy staff. Stepping in with a firm will, he saw people galvanized to action. It is this strength of will that he relies upon, but the lesson that is demonstrated by history is that the will to power is no match for the discipline required of those that love unconditionally. Tyrants can concentrate spiritual power, but they cannot hold it in any confrontation with a wise and loving adversary. The tyrant simply serves as a dark well in which light shines more brilliantly into the spirits of the oppressed.

The mistake of religious fanaticism is to believe that the institutions of tyranny must be dismantled, for that strategy only justifies oppression. The truth found in Christianity is that we don’t need to destroy the institutions of tyranny. Instead, in service with he that died once and for all, we can dismantle the personalities of the tyrants.

Oh, Lauren, what an joy it is to celebrate your wise old soul!

Oh Woman! Oh Beauty! Oh Life!

One of the burdens of healing sin is to take it into yourself from those not yet strong enough to resist it. The selfish would hope simply to dispel it, but as sin is nothing but selfishness – the imposition of our image upon a spirit no less sacred than our own – to  cast out sin is an error. That would be to allow it the booty of its conquest. Rather, we must separate the essential from the vile, and return what was taken to the victim.

So for a long time I thought of my antagonists as my “supply chain.” But in every endeavor of grace, there is a time to heal, and a moment to inspire. I have suffered under the weakness of those that assail me for long enough. It is time to claim that which is good and strong.

So I found myself, at Good Friday services yesterday, focusing on the connection between the Cross and the future of love that arises upon his return. In that process, I found my hand guiding Christ around this era into that future. In considering that manifestation, I found myself excluded from it.

I am not disconsolate. In conserving its hold over us, sin has claimed much that is sacred. I have written about that elsewhere, how the loss of Eden was not limited to the breaking of trust with Unconditional Love, but the loss of trust between Man and Woman. Through that corruption, the Darwinian procreative urge reasserted itself. Rather than an act of loving spiritual connection that unleashes our shadowed glory upon the world, sex has been claimed for shame.

I recoiled from this fundamental misconception, so common in Christian teaching, in the sermon of the Lutheran minister during the interregnum in the reading of the Passion. We are creatures of sin, he claimed, and only Christ’s sacrifice redeems us. No, sir, we are not creatures of sin. We are creatures of choice, and even death on the Cross could not dispel the loving forgiveness that Christ brought to the world. In choosing to live wholly within it, every part of us will manifest the grace of God’s imagining of us. There is no aspect of our humanity that cannot be made sacred by love.

Yet I recall, now, the words I spoke from the pedestal in Oakland: “My name is Brian. I am from the future, reaching into the past. And I am an open heart.” It was a presaging of yesterday’s bypass.

My father was a prolifically sexual man. During our teen years, the boys had ready access to Playboy magazine. That instilled a perception of women as objects of pleasure, and a fascination with idealized feminine forms that covered the shallowness of their spiritual investment in the world.

My mother could not compete with this conditioning, and perhaps that is in part why she now decries the “patriarchal dominance” of our culture.

While I have not been a sexual libertine in this life, in my youth I explored vicariously many of its manifestations.  Over the years, that fed potent dreams that I realize now were participatory with women that were enamored of me. I understood this only late in my life: while some have dropped references to “porn star” in my hearing, I have never had my dreaming interrupted by other couples – except once when a pair in Africa peeked over the edge of their mattress to offer sympathy for my loneliness. I seem to be completely in control of my sexual imagination.

I see now, however, that my descent into the cesspool of corruption that men created for woman has left me vulnerable to the claim that my relationships with women are dominated by prurient interest. I see it differently, of course: over the last fifteen years, all of my dreaming has ended “Yes, but what about this part of you that you are ignoring?” Bliss was merely the method of achieving intimacy, with the goal of penetrating the lie that our carnality is a perversion that cannot be redeemed by love. Rather, like any other aspect of human nature, it is a tool, suitable to specific places and times, that allows us to reach Life in its most elemental level, and thereby to accomplish acts of healing and creation that are inaccessible through any other means. It has been my goal to propagate this understanding, to attempt to redeem woman’s self-esteem without insisting that they engage the world in the modality of men. It was to look deeply into them and offer them the paean that heads this post.

How long will it be before you assimilate it, before Mystery surrenders her resistance to the grace of feminine sexuality, and so allows loving couples to suffuse every particle of the world with Love in all its power?

For this is what I ask, and what they resist. Not simply bliss, but a reaching through into the world, and to command pleasure and consummation as an act of healing. It is this that Mystery seems to fear most, and whenever I come close to manifesting it with a woman, the most vile images and paranoid thoughts invade the relationship.

In this Easter’s meditations then, I gather that the hoped-for manifestation will not come in my lifetime. I have spent my manhood on my hopes for you, ladies. It is time for you to make them your own. For until one of you matches strength with Christ, his strength cannot be received by the world.