Musing—A Spiritual Inventory

In the past, my spiritual inventories have been filled with theological language and based loosely on a variety of spiritual practices. This time, I have been challenged to describe my spiritual path—or, more properly, my life path—without resorting to the usual theo-spiritual jargon. Thankfully, a friend, who can see into my inward self, guided the process.

I love to deal with complexity—to take it apart and play in its sandbox until I can discover what it is about the complexity that is stirring within me.  That kernel may be at the center of the complexity, or at its periphery. All I know is that it stirs something within me—a stirring that won’t let me go.

When I am at my best, I wrap that kernel in conversation that wrestles it to the ground until it strikes my hip, dislocating it, and I walk away limping. Limping is one way to describe a response to a change at the cellular level—dare I say, a transformation. I limp until I can integrate that stirring into my story. I limp until new images, symbols, and myths become a part of me.

As a classic introvert, I used to keep my limping hidden from view. I would try to walk upright with measured gait. That plan got trashed one evening as my wife, Sue, had a hyper-insulinism attack that put her in a coma and caused brain damage. The most complex part of my life—my relationship with Sue—was smashed in the blinking of an eye. There seemed to be no sandbox to play in; no time to find the kernel that was stirring; no time to wrestle anything to the floor. My hip was dislocated; I could barely limp along—no possibility for walking at a measured gait.

And yet, strange as it may seem, there was a calm, a peacefulness, that stirred within. I had faced life at its rawest—a groundlessness that challenged every attempt to find meaning. It was neither meanness nor meaning that I was experiencing, it was, simply, life itself.

It has taken me a couple of decades to learn how to limp with some degree of dexterity and integrity. I have been in conversation with a community of men and women who have also grappled with the groundlessness of life and have found their way to limp with integrity. (Isn’t reading books a marvelous way to stay in touch?)

I wouldn’t say that I limp like Elizabeth Boyden Howes, or John Caputo, or Herman Waetjen; but our gaits keep us on similar paths. I’d like to think that I learned something about walking through life with a limp like that of Yeshua and his followers. Perhaps my limping gait has occasionally set my feet on Yeshua’s path.

I have tried many of the spiritual crutches—journaling, meditation, prayer—in the past and, every once in a while, return to them. Even though these practices carried me for a while, I have not been able to make any of them a life-long practice. They have been doorways—thresholds to cross over to gain access to my inner life.

I have flirted with religion most of my adult life—campus ministry, seminary, pastorates, and church executive. But something was missing. That flirting produced a gangly, exaggerated limp—an unnatural gait for me. I was trying too hard to make it fit within traditional understanding of the religious journey. It fits—but not quite! I was wearing someone else’s hand-me-downs. I knew intuitively that they didn’t fit, but I continued to clothe myself in the hand-me-downs

Since retirement, three practices have predominated as thresholds: reading, conversation, and writing. I can still remember Dr. D. Campbell Wyckoff, one of my seminary professors, encouraging me to write for publication. He was not the last to do so, but I rebuffed his suggestion, as well as all those that followed. Not me! I don’t want to limp through the agonizing process of writing down what’s going on inside me! If I were to do so, people might see me limp.

My reading, conversation, and writing—since retirement—has begun to identify a path that I have been on throughout my life, without recognizing it.

At a level beneath consciousness, my intuition continues to scan the experiences, feelings, relationships, and contexts of my life. As a result of that scan, something begins to stir within—a gnawing sense that something needs to be addressed.

Even though I had been engaged deeply in campus ministry for my four college years—serving as a local, state-wide, and national officer of various campus ministry organizations—it was a profound surprise when I heard myself say, “I want to go to seminary and become a minister.” I had never consciously thought about a future in ministry before those words emerged from my mouth. But there it was—a gnawing insistence was voiced before I had a chance to suppress it. My path was now set on a career within the church.

Late in my senior year in college, I proposed to Sue without being aware that I was proposing, I began to share a mental image with her of a home and family. She said, “Yes!” before I was aware that I had proposed. I immediately knew that a proposal was exactly the right thing at the right moment for the two of us, but I had not consciously considered that possibility before the words were out of my mouth. Rack up another point in favor of intuition’s stirrings.

When I am out of touch with my inner self, intuition has to work overtime—identifying discontinuities and possibilities and moving toward some resolution. I’ve learned to trust that inner work. When I am more aware of what may be percolating within, intuition just stirs it up enough that I recognize the stirring as an irruption waiting to happen. Once recognized, through conversation and writing, I wrestle consciously. My limp becomes more pronounced, from within the midst of the complexity, I find the kernel that is stirring me. Once I can name the gnawing insistence, I don’t tame it but I can begin to image the path ahead. Once again I can limp on with integrity and peace.

I like the image of groundlessness for dealing with the stirrings and the limping. I am not trying to discern a pre-formed pathway or a once-and-for-all answer to the meaning of life. There is no concrete highway through life, no inherent meaning that is determinative for all. Life is just life! It is simply to be lived—with all its joys and pains, difficulties and successes, complexity and confusions. There is a groundlessness to life. The moment we think we have it figured out; we are going to be surprised. Life is, quite simply—even in its complexity—a surprise of impossible possibilities.  Those impossible possibilities are caught up in symbols, myths, rituals, and the stories we tell.

Along the path comes a stirring. When I wrestle the complexity of that stirring to the ground, I often find a simple way ahead—a way to engage life’s surprises that challenges my integrity, connects me with others, and puts me in touch with the universe. That simple way ahead spins story after story—the story of my limping, the story of our connectedness as we blaze pathways together, the story of a people who are star-dust.

Not a Christian, But a Follower of the Way

“Bart is not a Christian,” she said, “he is a follower of the Way.” Snarky comment or observation born of years of friendship?

I have tried to string together a list of modifiers to describe my faith journey—I am an atheistic, Presbyterian, Celtic Christian. Part snarky; but mostly accurate. Or is it?

Atheist? While I certainly don’t believe in an external, power-monger who chooses to intervene in human history whenever whim suggests; I do sense a mysterious presence in and around me. It is a nudging, not a forcing, presence. I like to talk about calling, as if that nudge had substance. But I am left with a sense of wonderment, a feeling of being drawn beyond myself. It is probably like falling in love—some strange mixture of hormones, DNA input, nurture, opportunity, and who knows what else. All I know is that I sense it; I feel it. The experience is real.

Presbyterian? By circumstance and experience, by nurture and training, I have been formed, in my adult years, as a Presbyterian. Is it the best way? Or the only way? Of course not, but it has been my way. I could probably be a UCCer, a Methodist, an Episcopalian, or some other clan; but I’m not. I’m a Presbyterian, sort of…

Celtic? I am drawn to the simplicity and genuineness of Celtic practice. The simple prayers and the aphorisms have a distinct appeal. There is a part of me that dreams of being a Celtic monastic at Iona or Lindisfarne. But not really! I really want to stay engaged with the complexities of my mind as it explores matters spiritual. I am torn between the simple and the complex; and the complex continues to take precedence.

Christian? Ah, there’s the rub. That term, quite frankly, has lost any integrity of meaning in today’s world. Since Constantine, Christian has been so easily confused with supporter of political, economic, and religious Empire. Witness the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, and the church’s support of Hitler’s regime. Today Christian can mean the baker who is offended, and feels religiously persecuted, at having to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Or the alt-right protester who is offended that Blacks and Muslims are admitted to American society. Or the congressman who believes that women who are raped should just “get over it.” Of course, Christian also means the 102-year-old woman who still teaches a bible study class in her home, or the father and son who give up a week of their time to rebuild a school in Haiti. When Christian can mean anything, it becomes a term without substance, without meaning.

Follower of the Way? I am honored, and somewhat taken aback, that someone would actually describe me as a follower of the Way of Yeshua. I aspire to that identification, that connection. I want to describe myself that way. What I know, however, is that follower of the Way of Yeshua is not a descriptive label, it is a provocative proposition for me. It is a statement of desired behavior—still yet to come—stated as if it were a present reality. Yes, there are those delightful moments when my actions do line up on the path blazed by Yeshua. The harsh reality is that I also wander so far off the clear pathway that I get lost in the woods—unable to see the trees, for the forest. [Ironically, as I was typing “lost in the woods,” I actually typed “lost in the words.” I backspaced over “words” and re-typed “words” again, before being able to correct the entry.] Truth be known, words are my Achille’s heel. I do easily get caught up in words, being sidetracked from compassionate actions.

The key here is not the labels that I, or anyone else might use to describe my faith journey. Instead, the question for me is “Does my faith journey have integrity?” and “How does my faith journey connect with the people around me and the world within which I live?”

Time to take an inventory!

 

Christ after Christmas—a conceptual experiment

Let me begin with an admission. As a follower of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) and as a member of the religious body (the Christian church, Presbyterian branch) that stands as his legacy, I have always been troubled by the use of Christ as an exclusivism that hides a superiority complex. I have been “. . . tempted, whether for political, historical, or theological reasons, to give up on Christ—in the name of Jesus.[1]

A statement in a recent read on political theology—“. . . there will not be a single square inch in all of creation over which Christ does not say, ‘Mine!’”[2]—aroused in me the incipient sense of disconnect that the use of Christ brings. When I ask what the Mine! statement means, visions of the Salem witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Crusades come to mind. Or, more recently, I hear new accounts of Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues being defaced or burned. I hear Ku Klux Klan members finding airtime to denounce a whole variety of people they deem to be sub-human. I hear bakers refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because doing so would compromise their Christian faith. In every situation mentioned above, I hear echoes of the word “Mine?”—the dark shadow of Christian exclusivism.

Before going on a further rant, I need to back up and ask how we Christians have become, in our own minds, an exclusive club!

I believe two images (one from the Hebrew scriptures and one from Yeshua’s teachings) lay the foundation for understanding Christ—the Jubilee and the kingdom of God. Furthermore, this examination necessitates a temporary dividing Christ off of the name Jesus Christ. (Later I will examine whether I can stitch the terms back together.

Leviticus 25 details the Jubilee year—a sabbath of sabbaths. This was to be an interlude in the midst of Israel’s life. Jubilee was a year of restoration—primarily focusing on the land. Family relationships, connection to the land, and property rights are all to be restored, renewed, or transformed during the Jubilee year—a reminder that Israel’s existence was grounded in the reality that “the land is mine [God’s].” [Leviticus 25:23] The problem is that there is no evidence that a Jubilee was ever declared. “It is always coming but it never quite shows up; it keeps getting postponed.”[3] For a brilliant essay on the Jubilee that never comes, see It Spooks.[4]

Because the Jubilee was a promise never fulfilled, a new vision had taken its place by the Yeshua’s time. Yeshua’s teachings were grounded in the imminence of the kingdom of God—a permanent restoration of social structure so that the poor and marginalized people of the world would be brought into the mainstream of life. But the restorative kingdom, like the Jubilee, did not arrive. The Jubilee, re-branded as the kingdom of God, was projected by the early church onto a timeless eternity.

Jubilee, in the Hebrew scriptures, and kingdom, in developing Christian thought, are concepts grounded in an understanding that God has been involved in the forming and sustaining of Israel and its native son, Yeshua. Both, however, are unfulfilled promises that are now planted in the future. As a result, we are left with living “. . . in the space between a memory and a promise.”[5] Enter Christ into that spaciousness.

In popular thought and inherent in much Christian theology is the understanding that Christ is a substantial being that subsists across time. That being is, on God’s behalf, in charge of salvation—that is, the risen savior. While Christian theology is clear that the salvific act was the mediated through the death and resurrection of Yeshua, the persistence of the Christ-image suggests that there is still work for the redeemer to do.

Let me go out on a limb here—Christ is not a reality, but a vision, a hope, and a dream. It is the successor to Jubilee and kingdom. Better yet, Christ is the poetic image that takes Jubilee and kingdom and projects them onto a cosmic canvas. Yeshua was a very special human being whose embodiment of a God-filled life is normative for Christians—a life embodying compassion, peace, and tender justice; a life given for self, others, and the creation. During the short years of his mission, he tried to form his band of followers into a community of compassion, peace, and tender justice.

After Yeshua’s crucifixion, those followers returned to the lives that they had remembered from before they met Yeshua. But something happened! The passion for God and for others that had characterized Yeshua’s Way of life, began to stir the passions of those who had been with him for his ministry and mission. Something irrupted into their lives. They called it resurrection. It was as if Yeshua continued to instruct and form them. He had come alive within and among them. Yeshua’s Way was a path upon which they now were traveling.

Yeshua’s Way had become a way of life for them. Compassion, peace, and tender justice “. . . is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom come”[6] Christ is a call that haunts us, not from the future, but from the midst of life here and now, in the meantime. It is a spectral call that arises from we know not where. Is it God or some machination of my own mind? Is it the unheard voice of the cosmic hum or something more or less substantial? “I know not what, one or many, real or unreal, saving or dangerous, whoever or whatever this is will not leave me alone.”[7] Call it God if you will; or Allah or Buddha, or Thou, or Mystery, or YHWH or . . . . What I do know is that I have committed myself to this “Christ-haunted call.”

Neil doGrasse Tyson, speaking as a scientist (in a conversation with Bill Moyers), suggested that myth has a significant power in life when “. . . we take it to the next frontier and apply it there.” Living between memory and promise causes us to construct our theology with myths and symbols and then to project then out to the next frontier—not some heavenly afterlife, but to the frontier of a life in community lived for self, others, and the creation. That projection was the Way taught by Yeshua, the Jubilee, and the kingdom of God wrapped into one and trying desperately to find traction in the midst of daily living.

In Christmas pageants conducted thousands of times across the face of the church, the children have it right—Christmas is about baby Jesus. Christmas is the arrival of human potential embodied in a personal. Full human potential involves a connection with something (call it God or Mystery) that stirs us deeply toward compassion, peace, and tender justice.

But what do we do after Christmas?

There is no waiting for an afterlife to attain that full potential. The only arena for personal and community development is here and now. Christ is the haunting call that is experienced within and among us; the call toward the frontier ahead—the well-being of all in society.

When we say “Jesus Christ” it is as if we have called him by name—Jesus is his first name; Christ, his family name. That is neither appropriate nor sufficient. Whether it is putting a “ruach pause” between Jesus and Christ in order to “put breathing room back into Christology”[8] or simply saying Jesus the Christ, separating the two terms helps me track new understandings. Yeshua is the memory and Christ, the frontier (or promise), between which I am called to live my life to the full—embracing compassion, peace, and tender justice that forms, sustains, and renews self, others, and the creation.

 

[1] Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 134.

[2] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 83.

[3] John D Caputo, It Spooks: Living in Response to an Unheard Call, 2015, 15.

[4] Caputo, It Spooks. 13-45.

[5] Caputo, 21.å

[6] Smith, Awaiting the King, 89.

[7] Caputo, It Spooks, 26.

[8] Keller, On the Mystery, 136.