The Honest Faith: A New Family

Two weeks ago, Cathy and I went to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. The main theme question has stuck with me. It asks the question, “What defines family?”. We explored this a bit in our podcast this week, but yet again that is a topic that I want to further explore in the terms of my faith and my transition into “normalcy” in the church world. What constitutes a family, spiritual or otherwise?

I love my biological family. No, we haven’t always been the best of people toward each other, but what family is? My mother tried her hardest to keep a family together and raise three kids under difficult circumstances. My father worked hard to provide for his family even when things seemed bleak. My brother who was and is still my best friend from birth didn’t always enjoy my company. My sister who, I think, still sees me as her nerdy uncool little brother did her best to try to help me be somewhat presentable to society. We had rough times, but there was an abundance of love there. So much that even though we didn’t have much we welcomed others to share it with us. Now, even though my mom doesn’t find it that funny, my favorite joke is that my family dislikes each other so much that’s why we chose to live in so distant of places from each other. That joke is funny to me because it is so far from the truth. There is love there. Despite our differences, we are blood. We fought with each other, but we also fought for each other.

My non-biological grouping of people I consider to be family comes to mind as well. There is my friend who I’ve known since I was 13 years old. He is and will always be my brother. He was the best man at my wedding. There is the priest who believed in me when it seemed nobody else would, it seemed. He and his family are blood to me as well. There is my friend who had secret plans to set up my wife and me way before we started dating. She was a sister to me. I miss her dearly and still converse with her even though she is now having beers with the Divine on the other side. Those youth who I had the immense pleasure of teaching throughout my career, I still view as family and people I would do anything for.

There is an interpretive art that is commonly accepted as a pattern called soul mates or soul families. There are many different interpretations of this idea. Some believe that you were all connected in a previous lifetime and find each other again in this life. Pretty Idea, but I’m not really a believer in past lives hypothesis’. Another interpretation is that a spirit is re-used in different people. Again, not a concept that I can get behind, but I still see some merit in the thought. But my favorite is that some feel that those whom we feel such a close connection with is that our souls are formed with similar pieces.

There is a saying that is still contested on it’s meaning, “Blood is thicker than water.” It’s commonly known to mean that your family bonds are thicker than those other relationships. Another interpretation is that the bonds formed through “Blood”, such as fighting alongside someone in battle, are thicker than the water of the womb. I can see the truth in both interpretations of the saying. But I want to take the second interpretation a step further.

The Christian and Jewish scriptures often refer to the Divine as being a refiner, or refining. They use terms from metallurgy to describe the process. If you have ever been in a Christian church you have probably heard some person refer to a tough situation as a refining process, maybe even in a sermon. The problem with that is you never want to hear that at the time. It certainly doesn’t help. The thing is, though, I can see it as such now. Those times in our lives when we encounter the fires of life they teach us to get rid of the impurities in our lives. Or if you would rather a different construction metaphor, it sands down the rough edges of our souls so that we may better find connections with each other.

I think that our souls are formed through the experiences in our lives. We find people who have been through some of the same refining processes that we have and we are able to fit together easier because of it. It doesn’t mean that we find a lot of things to connect on, but we do connect with those people especially because of the sanding down of those particular rough edges. We will find others in our lives who we don’t connect with particularly because they still have those rough edges in those areas where we’ve been tempered and refined.

Our biological families connect well because we go through the same fires together, we form non-biological connections because those “others” have gone through similar fires and have similar connection points in their souls. The danger we face as human beings are only examining one aspect of another. We tend to focus on only one part of a person and not see the whole. When we can see other human beings as complex beings like ourselves we can begin to find the similar connection points. We all have connection points though some are a lot harder to find than others. Okay, I realize that this metaphor is getting really double entendre-y really quick. Bear with me though.

I think family is everywhere. Family is ready to happen at a moments notice. You just have to look for it sometimes.  As Peter Quill in the new Guardians movie puts it, “Sometimes, the thing you’ve been looking for your whole life is right there beside you all along.” I think you can make connections with anyone. I think family really is in the eye of the beholder. I will always have my biological family, but there are others I still consider to be family to me. I think that is what the Church is meant to be. It is meant to be that community that we consider to be family. Not just those other people we happen to see at a worship gathering. People who will love, support, and fight with us (even if we fight each other sometimes) no matter what. That is what makes a family to me. What do you think?

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The Honest Faith: The Center of the Maze

This last week my wife and I finished up watching HBO’s “Westworld”. If you enjoy heady science fiction, westerns, or shows that you can get lost in it’s a wonderful show. There is a lot within the show. In fact, our most recent podcast (found here) is about that show. Of course we only just touched on the immense topics that are found within. But the one question that came up in our conversation, and while watching the show is this question of “What is sentience?”

Now you could go with the standard definition which is still rather vague and confusing or go with the classic redefinition of theologians into what we call the soul. So then what is the soul? We have heard that we are triune beings in the image of the trinity, comprised of body, spirit, and soul. But does that make it any easier to understand? I don’t think I have ever really found it easy to understand myself. I had someone explain it to me like this once, the body is obviously your physical being, the spirit is your personality, and the soul is the very thing that is you. I think people interchange the three sometimes. I’m still a little unclear on the lines of delineation, but I want to explore the idea of the soul this week.

I was struck by a different interpretation of the genesis creation narrative that I had not heard before when doing research on the philosophy of “Westworld”. This interpretation was to say that eating of the fruit in the garden was the gaining of sentience. This intrigued me because that would mean that the Judeo-Christian tradition has always viewed the soul as a bad thing, subconsciously. That it stems from the idea of original sin, and that everything bad came about from that moment. The Judeo-Christian narrative as a retelling of pandora’s box.  Does that mean we believe everything that has a soul is inherently bad? Is the knowledge of good and evil a bad thing? I struggled with this a bit on the show.

The show plays with the idea of bicameralism, and quite openly I might add. Julian Jaynes presented the idea in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. While it is not generally accepted by modern psychologists, it is an interesting concept to play with. The hypothesis states, if you didn’t already click the link above to find out more, that the human mind assumed a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be “speaking”, and a second part which listens and obeys. Jaynes’ idea was that these auditory hallucinations are what the early human civilizations attributed to the ancient gods and when this started breaking down that is when those civilizations started breaking apart. While I don’t believe in this idea fully, it is an interesting thought to play within the idea of the soul or consciousness.

I wrongly (See, I admit when I am wrong in an idea) wrestled with the idea that some humans may not have consciousness in our show on Sunday. I was still wrestling with the idea of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil being a symbol for consciousness and the depth of that. I started venturing deeper into that idea, as you can see thus far, I started to think about what really separates human beings from other living things. I know this is something that philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for millennia and one idealistic writer isn’t going to figure it out in a week sitting on the couch watching tv. But I was struck with a thought. Maybe, just maybe, what separates us from other living things is nothing. That the thing we call the soul is really the spark of the Divine that resides in all living creatures.

Maybe that still small voice in our minds is the Divine speaking through our own conscience. Maybe when we didn’t have so much noise around us demanding our attention we were much more able to listen to what the Divine had to say, auditorily or not. Is it possible that it is still there waiting to have a conversation with us? Somewhere within us?

There is an ancient spiritual tradition of a walking prayer that is seen in many different cultures around the world. You have the Nazca lines in Peru, even in ancient Minoan, Greek, and Egyptian cultures this idea of a maze or labyrinth that one focuses on following in an attempt to quiet the mind and soul (or spirit and soul if you’d like) in an attempt to commune with the Divine. In medieval Christian traditions, the labyrinth was a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth). Or it was also a trap for demons because they can’t figure out mazes for some reason, but I like the God metaphor more. There are also people who believe they were symbols to communicate with aliens, but again let’s stick with the God metaphor.

Maze walking, I like to believe, has been a form of meditation since human beings have been around. Meditation has always been about calming the mind and body to reach a higher level of understanding. I would like to believe that higher level of understanding is a communion with the Divine. I have often mentioned before that I believe the Divine is everywhere, and in everything. I would like to believe that all of Creation communes with the Divine in its own unique way. We can see that each form of meditation works differently for different people. Labyrinths have always been a favorite of mine. It gives me something to focus on to quiet my body and mind. I do believe that the Divine can and does communicate with those who are willing to listen.

This is certainly a very turbulent time for very many people. I know I wrote about some very headache inducing topics this week, but I want to stick with this idea. Maybe the soul is the spark of the Divine that resides in you. Maybe you just need to calm your body and spirit enough in your own unique way to find the center of the maze and commune with it. Maybe it is there sitting, waiting for you to meet with it. Maybe. Maybe I’m just an idealistic writer with an errant thought while watching tv.

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Honest Faith: A God that Suffers

Back in November, I was having a conversation with a priest. I was telling him about how I was angry and upset. I was angry and upset about several things; the state of the world, my personal situation, and the political climate. We got on to talking about images of God. He said that the traditional image of God had become increasingly outdated and inefficient for the modern world. He, even though he didn’t like putting it this way, said we need a “God for Millenials”. He went on to explain that we need a new image that is more accessible and available for people in the digital age. He said he was really playing with the idea and becoming more comfortable with the image of a God that experienced things with each of us and was with each of us in a much more real way than we could fathom. I think he was onto something.

I think I’ve mentioned before that God was my imaginary friend as a child. I often would picture God with me taking walks, having chats, and just sit with me in a very real way. Or as real as a child’s imagination can make something. I began to slowly break from that image of God growing up due to different circumstances. I began to imagine God much bigger than me. Which is the normal default image of God. A being that is bigger and much more powerful than we can imagine. The problem with this image is that a big God is impersonal, unfeeling, and uncaring. This became my default for God. A being that was out there, but didn’t care about me and my little problems. There was a certain phrase that I heard repeatedly that reinforced that image in my mind.

I was a pretty annoying kid. I’m probably still a pretty annoying adult as well. But I went through a pretty rough patch when I was a teenager. I turned to the people I knew at church for help and I heard a phrase that I would continue to hear throughout my adult life as well. “I’ll pray about it.” I used to tell the teenagers that I worked with that if anyone at church, or even if I, said that to them they had my permission to slap them. It reinforces the part of the Big God image that is distant and uncaring. I understand it was a way for people to distance themselves from me and my problems. I even understand why they would do that, but I think that in doing so to the least and most annoying of us we moved the church. The church became distant, individualist, and impersonal.

We are in a defining moment for the western Church. Do we continue with this image of being distant, individualist, and impersonal; slowly becoming a cult of the uncaring god? OR Do we change our image of God to broaden what we once thought to be true, becoming more inclusive, including, and caring? I realize that nothing is every as black and white as that, but I see that there are a lot of issues that seem to be pulling the church in both directions. Just the other day a prominent “Christian” (sorry, I can’t judge this person, but what he says and his actions speak in a different voice to me) leader said that if we don’t fall in line and support the country’s leader we were going against god. To me, that seems very cult like and a product of an impersonal image of God. I see some other prominent church leaders who are pushing us to think bigger and stretch our thinking of God during this time to be more inclusive. Those voices I appreciate.

Right now in this country, we are being called to help those who are suffering or asked to ignore it. We are asked to believe lies as fact or to stand up to falsehoods. We are called to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; or ignore, be selfish and distance ourselves.

The image that the priest and I talked about a few months ago has stayed with me. For the first time since I was a child, I was able to picture God with me in a very real way. I broke down emotionally on my drive out to meet with the priest. I cried about all that I was upset and angry about. I yelled at God. After we talked about that image, I could picture God sitting next to me in the car. God was crying with me. God was upset like I was upset. This God was both my God and everyone’s God at the same time. It was as if God divided Godself to be with each of us. To be alongside all of creation at the same time. This was a beautiful picture to me. It was the picture that informed my ideas about Putting God Back together. 

This is not an image of God that excludes the “Big God” but clarifies it. This God is both everywhere and outside this reality at the same time. This is a God that suffers when we suffer, who is alongside the protester at the march, who is building a habitat for humanity house alongside former President Jimmy Carter, who is helping refugees in foreign lands weeping with them over their losses, who is celebrating alongside those who celebrate. This is a God that is both your God and My God, but much bigger than that too. A God that tasked us with Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. A God that knows you can do it because that God is right there beside you doing the work with you as you do it.

I know this a stretching idea. I know that this is a little bit of a different image, because it asks you to think outside yourself. It’s uncomfortable to think about other people. It’s dangerous to go against the norm. But I invite you to get to know the God who has been beside you all along. The God who suffers with you.

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Honest Faith: Putting God Back Together

Today I learned about a modern Jewish phrase and a bit of the story behind it. I was very intrigued by this story because it was a complete twist on the creation story that I was taught in Sunday school growing. up. I’ve always loved the creation story. There is so much beauty, depth, and layers in this seemingly simple story. I could go on and on about this story, and if you have ever had a conversation with me about the Bible you know this to be true. The phrase that I learned about today is tikkun olam meaning to repair the world.

The phrase is from the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings. It’s based in a story called shevirat ha-kelim or The Shattering of the Vessels. The story basically tells of the very beginning of creation. It tells of God wanting to create so God moves to make room. When God no longer occupied the space there was darkness. So God said, “let there be light”. The light came to be in holy vessels that couldn’t hold the divinity in and shattered. This caused a holy mess (sorry, I just really wanted to say holy mess). The story says that this is why we were created. We were meant to repair the world by cleaning up the holy mess. To gather the divinity and bring it back together.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest creation myths and the possible inspiration for the above and the Genisis account (but that’s a whole other story), the story tells of the creation of humanity. In it, a god is sacrificed to make humans because the workload was way too much for the god beings. This god’s blood and body are broken and mixed with clay to make us humans in the gods’ image. Even in this story, humans are made to be a divine help to work and clean up a holy mess.

In Japanese culture there is an art form called Kintsugi meaning “golden joinery” it is a process of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer mixed with precious metals. The process and finished product are then seen as making the whole more beautiful and precious than before. It became a holy mess and the skillful work of a divine artist made it more whole than it was before.

In the United States of America, I think it’s fair to say that we are in a right holy mess. We are broken, disjointed, and divided on almost every major issue. Tomorrow will be the inauguration of a man who the vast majority of the country disapproves of.  For some reason, we are letting this pull us apart. I’ve seen friends start attacking others on social media for no reason other than the desire to be “right”. I’ve seen some horrible hateful things done by frightened people in order to scare others away. I’ve seen violence in the name of and violence against those perceived to carry the name of an issue that divides us. I’m not saying what side I’m on because honestly, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what I said last week. We talk to each other. We help each other.  We let things divide us even further instead of letting go of our pride and getting to the work of tikkun olam. 

We, human beings, are meant for the divine work of cleaning up holy messes through acts of kindness and love. In the narrative I shared with you last week we are the whole of creation. The things we do to further mess things up are things we do to further mess up ourselves. If we are to take anything from the Epic of Gilgamesh is that we have the divine in us. We are the holy mess. We are the ones tasked with cleaning it up. When we come together we are, in a sense, putting God back together.  As I said last week the only way forward is together, and when we come together the art of Kintsugi teaches us that we are more beautiful than we ever were apart or even before we broke. So here is our call to “put God back together”. Don’t divide anymore. It’s time to heal the world in a golden joinery.

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The Problem with Superheroes

Last year I met up with a high school buddy of mine. We had done a bit of catching up and reminiscing. The conversation turned to the finer points of the two comic book giants, DC and MARVEL. He brought up an interesting point. He said that DC was the comic of those who were godlike in their power and set apart from humanity, those who were to be worshiped. He went on to say that MARVEL was for those who would become heroes; ordinary people, becoming heroes.  It was an interesting idea and one that I hadn’t thought about in that way. I think both have had a huge impact on society, and have changed us; whether we’d like to admit it or not. Though I think there has been a change made in us that is extremely dangerous.

We have come to expect heroes to come to our rescue. We put things off and expect someone else to do it. I think that this is partly the result of our laziness, and the result of the popularity of superhero culture. Granted, I’m not condemning it at all. I love superhero movies, comics, video games, etc. as much as the next guy. But when I think about it I see so much of this in our culture. Or we excuse our inaction by saying this problem is bigger than that problem. When asked who will take care of that problem it’s the same answer as above though, Somebody else.

What baffles me even further is that when someone does actually find that thing that they care about and want other people to care about it with them, they are attacked for not caring about issue b, c, or x. I don’t think we were built that way. Granted, I do care about a lot of issues, but it is impossible for us to take on everything. For instance, I may care about issue A and you may care about issue B. That doesn’t make either issue more important than the other. It means there are a lot of issues we need to take care of.

I have been thinking about all of this because of our recent state of affairs in this country, coupled with the manipulation and fear-mongering of media and social media. A lot of people are very afraid, and I totally get that. But as George R.R. Martin put it,

‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.

We shouldn’t let our fear rule us. We shouldn’t shut our doors and windows and believe that someone else is going to take care of the problems if we don’t. Because the truth is we were all made to be heroes in our own right. It’s your choice whether or not to be a hero or a villian.

I have seen a few viral posts going around about helping our countries veterans before we help our refugees. But one of the biggest and saddest truths, whether you admit it to yourself or not, is that almost none of those people who have posted that would lift a finger to help a veteran if they saw one. Why? Because they are afraid. I don’t like to be cynical, and in this instance I know a lot of people will instantly dismiss me thinking that I’m just being cynical. But the facts are there. Look at the statistics of support and help that they are receiving when they return. You can find article after article about both sides of the aisle politicians voting against veteran care bills. These are the people that we are expecting to “help” or to save from our current issues.

The hard sad truth is, we really don’t care. The American people have been conditioned to be afraid and complacent. It’s very sad. I can tell you that the majority of the outrage over things is just that outrage. No action ever comes from it, because we don’t hold our “heroes” accountable. Look at the approval rating for congress. It’s worse for the president who is actually trying to do things. Yet, we keep voting for them. Or maybe we don’t even vote. Because we want someone else to do it.

There is good news though. There is a being that believe in us. Some one who believes we can be heroes. A being that can fix everything with a snap of It’s fingers. I know this may sound like “pie in the sky” idealism, but I very much believe it to be true. The truth is you can do something to change the issues that impact you so deeply. The truth is there is nothing holding you back, but yourself. If you believe in an evil entity, that evil wants you to sit around and just be angry and not do something.

So get up! Be a hero! If you are outraged by red cups at your local coffee place, fine don’t shop there. Send the money you would have otherwise spent on coffee to your local VA. If you think that Veterans are more important than refugees, fine go and contact your senators, representatives, and other elected officials and tell them that they better take care of that legislation that needs their vote. AND in the meantime find a homeless veteran, take them in, give them a meal, help them get back on their feet. Don’t attack other people who care about other issues than you either. Because the truth is the world needs all of our help. EVEN YOU!!!! They will be working on another issue. I may care about refugees, and you may care about veterans, GREAT LET’S BOTH GET TO WORK!!!! So… BE BRAVE! BE COURAGEOUS! BE A HERO!

Edit: I had something that I decided I needed to add. I heard somewhere, if you change the world for one person, you have changed the entire world. So don’t think you can’t make a difference. There is something right near where you live that you can do to make a change in someone’s life. So go and do it! I will too.

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On Isolation, Loneliness, and the Interconnection of all things.

There are very many times when I feel completely drained, empty, and poured out. As a worry wort, anxious, paranoid person I can tell you that small things can weigh on me very heavily. I know I really shouldn’t let them, but that is much easier said than done. Recently, I think I let too many of those things get to me. I feel empty. In a position where you have to constantly pour yourself out into other people’s lives, it’s almost impossible to live empty. Which is why I sit and write today. I write because it does help to fill me some. Even if I highly doubt that anyone besides my wife and mother actually read anything I have to say.

The state of the world often gets me down. As an introvert, I don’t really enjoy being around large groups of people. I do, however, love people. I think that every human is beautiful in their own unique way. Yes, we are also horrible and disgusting in our own ways too, but that is what makes being a human so human-like. We struggle to find the balance so that we can live in a society together. When we let the horrible and disgusting parts of us prevail is when things start to fall apart. There have been many recent events which go to show this point. The one that weighs heavy on my heart at the moment is the police brutality, and subsequent unrest at the lack of justice for these actions. I don’t care where you stand on the issue, but you should know that there is something wrong and should cause you to be part of the solution. If you want to talk more about why it should cause you to take action check out my youtube channel and comment there. 

My wife and I just listened to John Green’s book “Paper Towns” on our way back from Montana this weekend.  The central theme of Green’s entire book is that we can never really know another person, yet we are all interconnected. Ultimately that human beings are all complex creatures. This got me thinking a lot about our interconnection. Especially in relation to what has been going on in the world. I am reminded of a quote that we use in our high school sunday school curriculum. It’s from Martin Bell’s “The way of the wolf”.

“You are everyone who ever was and everyone who will ever be. You are the whole of creation – past, present and future. Decisions that you make today, in what we call this present – this here and now – will validate or invalidate everything that has gone before, and make possible or impossible all that is yet to come. Anything that hurts anyone, hurts you. Anything that helps anyone, helps you. It is not possible to gain from another’s loss or to lose from another’s gain. Your life is immensely important. Everything depends on you.”

I think that we as human beings tend to want to let that horrible, disgusting side of us prevail. It’s too hard to remember that we are interconnected. It’s too hard to help. We feel empty and when we feel empty it is just so much easier to give in and not give a shit. We want to help ourselves, forgetting that it is when we help others that we truly help ourselves.

I write this now sort of a reminder for myself. In ministry you are supposed to be the one who helps. The one who remembers that we are all interconnected. The one who helps oneself by helping others. The problem though is that at this very moment I feel like I need so much help. I feel like I am flailing daily just trying to keep my head above water, much less able to help others keep above water. I feel like I have no outlet for my frustrations and failings other than this very blog. I think it’s a little odd that we expect this of those in church work, yet when we need help that there seems to be no one around. Hence the loneliness part of the title.

Ok so I have something rather embarrasing to admit… You know the song by Kansas Carry on my Wayward Son? Yeah, so uh…. well almost every time that I hear it, it makes me cry a little. the reason is because I feel like sort of like God telling me keep going. There will be rest and peace when you are done. When I am feeling so tired, and so unable to go on I listen to this song. The second verse and on really speak to me:

Masquerading as a man with a reason
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man,
Well, it surely means that I don’t know

On a stormy sea of moving emotion
Tossed about, I’m like a ship on the ocean
I set a course for winds of fortune,
But I hear the voices say

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more no!

Carry on,
You will always remember
Carry on,
Nothing equals the splendor
Now your life’s no longer empty
Surely heaven waits for you

I feel like it’s very much me. Like I’m masquerading as this person who knows what he is doing, when in all actuality I am just a human being struggling to not let that disgusting side win out the same as you. I often prefer isolation because it is so much easier not to put on the masks I wear. It’s so much easier to cry in private. I don’t have to pretend that everything is alright when it isn’t. Which in turn makes things worse, because we are all interconnected and therefore (even if we are introverts) we get help, energy, and relief from other people. I feel like because of this I don’t have anyone who really understand me or can see the real complex me that is me. So I tend to retreat into myself even more. I guess this is my confession  as to why I don’t want to help people when I feel empty. How can I help others when I can’t help myself?

I don’t have the answers. This blog post is more about posing the question to all who read it: How do we help each other? How do we show each other that we are all interconnected? How do we feel each others pain? How do we not let the horrible and disgusting parts of ourselves win out? How can we fill back up when we feel empty?

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