Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Discerning the deeper call through vacation....

Tomorrow brings the close of this year's vacation time: it has been a time of rest and creativity, fun and family connections, reading, music, exercise and prayer. Indeed, the spirit of rest and creativity informed my time at work this summer, too as we devoted 6 weeks to the meaning and practice of Sabbath keeping in the 21st century. We had the privilege to be in Montreal twice this year - first at the Jazz Festival and then later for an apartment search in anticipation of next year's sabbatical - as well as shared time with loved ones. It was a sacred and refreshing time for which I am grateful.
All of this week, partially because of Labor Day but also because of the upcoming jazz/liturgy sabbatical in 2015, I have been thinking about my work. Specifically, I want to carefully focus how I use my time, gifts and energy this year. In the work of renewing a small Protestant congregation, there is always the risk of burn-out because there is always more to do than any one person can manage. Such anxieties haunted me last night before I fell asleep as they often do near the close of every vacation. In fact, as I have slowly learned to do, I had to prayerfully put each of my anxieties to rest before I was able to rest in sleep for a full night. No sooner had I turned out the light than I started to fret: who will lead our part of the new youth group? who will take the point for adult christian formation? will we be able to find enough money to make some necessary alternations in the our worship space? On and on it went until I turned myself over to nearly 20 minutes of quiet prayer to mark the close of the day.

What I really want to explore this year - and what I am going to work hard at focusing upon - is the role our congregation might play in modelling a cultural and spiritual challenge to the mediocrity of popular culture. A quote from Joni Mitchell's recent interview grabbed my attention: "America is like really into Velveeta (the processed cheese). Everything has to be homogenized. Their music should be homogenized, their beer is watered down, their beauties are all the same. The music is the same track." Nietzsche said something similar in his dayWhen the flat hackneyed, vulgar, and feckless are accepted as the norm, and the corrupt and malapropos as charming exceptions, then the powerful, the uncommon, and the beautiful fall into disrepute. 

Not only is this the trajectory of work that energizes me, it is not one that my Reformed church tradition does well. With our historic obsession with dualistic thinking that celebrates the mind but denigrates the body - and our addiction to the Enlightenment's celebration of the rational - those of us who are heirs of the Protestant Reformation have a lot of baggage to discard. Fr. Richard Rohr recently put it like this:

The term “non-dual” will seem new to Western Judeo-Christians, but for centuries (and even longer in the East), the mystics of all religions have tried to lead people to a higher, or non-dual level of consciousness. It is a much more subtle way of knowing where we can see that things “are not totally one, but they are not two either.” (You are supposed to be startled by that! Christians learned this from the Trinity.) The radical union of things was recognized along with their appropriate distinctiveness.

Non-duality is at the core of three of the world’s greatest religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. I am convinced that Jesus was the first non-dual teacher of the West. Jesus lived in the Middle East and spoke Aramaic, which is actually closer to the Eastern mind than the Western mind. However, his words were first translated into Greek, and then spread to the West where thinking was influenced by Greek logic. We have mostly tried to understand Jesus’ teaching with a dualistic mind, which probably explains many of our problems! The dualistic mind just does not get us very far.

The Christian contemplative tradition was consistently assumed, implied, and even taught in Christianity for at least 1600 years. We find it in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, in the Celtic spirituality of Ireland, and in many of the European monasteries. The Franciscan experience of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was a flowering of non-dual thinking, as was the preaching of the Dominican Meister Eckhart. Carmelites Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross in the sixteenth century were the last great supernovas of non-dual teaching. But few of us later knew what they were talking about. We just pretended we did.

With the Protestant Reformation and even more with the ironically named “Enlightenment,” non-dual thinking largely went underground and has not been systematically taught for the last 400 or 500 years. However, the two great teachers of non-dual consciousness, great love and great suffering, have nevertheless allowed individuals to break through to non-dual, contemplative consciousness, without always knowing that was what they were enjoying. It was Thomas Merton who almost single handedly brought back contemplation as a science and practice in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Now we have the language and skills to actually teach it again.

Another critique, this time from the Orthodox branch of the Christian community, also cuts to the chase: spiritual traditions that limit and/or reject sacramental living have neither the intellectual history nor the imagination necessary to embrace the challenge of redeeming culture. Fr. Andrew Damick puts it like this: A sacramental vision of creation permits Christian culture. Where sacrament is abandoned, the possibility is hardly permitted. After all, if God does not actually transmit holiness in and through physical matter for the sanctification of mankind (sic), then what precisely is the point in attempting the permeation of creation with holiness that is the purpose of Christian culture?

What makes us unique, however, is both our sacramental theology AND the
confluence of artists who are now a part of the congregation - to say nothing of the growing cadre of artists who are our allies in this emerging project. I sense our charism at this moment in time to have something to do with gathering the creative resources in our region  in order to express a vibrant alternative to the "Velveeta" mediocrity of contemporary popular culture and the stale elitism of so-called high culture. Specifically, I am discerning three, interconnected aspects of this challenge:

+ First, the reclaiming of truth, beauty and goodness in our common life. We are NOT about the bottom line nor are we about grim utilitarian living. We value complexity. We honor the sacredness of life. We celebrate the value of all living things including the Earth and all its inhabitants. 

+ Second, the renewing of depth and diversity in the creative arts.  Not only is there too much schlock cluttering our popular culture, there is precious little energy given to sharing the beauty of high culture in ways that are accessible and affordable to the 98%. Everyone loses in this configuration but we can offer an alternative.

+ And third, the restoring of faith, hope and love to our civic culture. This is an invitation to grassroots social justice. How did Pete Seeger put it?  Think globally but act locally? This is also a chance for us to create interfaith links that can be trusted. To say nothing of holding our local politicians accountable for strengthening our fragile environment.

There is much more to say about this focus - and much more conversation, study and prayer to take place, too - but at the close of this vacation I am becoming evermore clear about what the next year will embrace.

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