On Being a Mystic

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A breathtaking sunset over Arkansas’ Mount Nebo photographed byΒ Josh McCray.

Some Christians tend to be frightened by the word β€œmysticism.” The word “mystic” raises irrational fears based on a misunderstanding of mysticism as a part of the Christian’s spiritual experience. So what exactly is a mystic? A mystic is simply one who has moved from mere belief systems to an actual inner experience with God.

That brings us to the sticky concept of belief systems. Christians definitely have belief systems, sometimes rigid and judgmental belief systems. The reality is that there is never a shortage of persons spouting out their beliefs, beliefs that are often based on systems of fake religious piety.

A life lived in the spiritual realm of God is much, much more than a set of rigid beliefs. Spirituality is much more than what we think or what we say. Spirituality is who we are, our inner spirit, our soul that dances to the rhythms of the God who dwells within us.

Richard Rohr understands the inner spiritual experience.

Until people have had some mystical, inner spiritual experience, there is no point in asking them to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus or to really understand religious beliefs beyond the level of formula. At most, such moral ideals and doctrinal affirmations are only a source of deeper anxiety because we don’t have the power to follow any of Jesus’ major teachings about forgiveness, love of enemies, nonviolence, humble use of power, and so on, except in and through radical union with God. Further, doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, and the significance of Incarnation itself have little active power. They are just β€œbelieved” at the rational level.

– Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Any of us can believe at the rational level. We can easily formulate a set of personal doctrines, doctrines that often hold us captive to self-righteousness and rigid relationships with others. To be truly free is to be open to the winds of the Spirit, to rest in the presence of God, to follow Christ into places of deep need, to give ourselves over to inner spiritual experiences.

When we live in the comforting place of the mysticism of spirituality, we will not find in ourselves a judgmental spirit that uses our beliefs to denigrate those whose beliefs differ from ours. We will not find in ourselves the need for the criticism and condemnation that results in divisions.

What we will find within ourselves is the ability to love as Christ loved, the longing to bury our souls in the gentle grace of God, the deepest desire to transform the world around us and thus create the β€œbeloved community.”

So I, for one, want to be a mystic. I want to live in the very center God’s spiritual realm, to be moved by the Spirit, to scatter the love of Christ in all the places I walk.

May God make it so.

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The Power of a Whisper

IMG_5727Speak your mind. Don’t be afraid. Don’t whisper in the deep.

These words, composed by Ray Phiri, the South African guitarist and anti-apartheid bandleader who played behind Paul Simon on “Graceland,” opened my mind and heart to a stark realityβ€” that hate hovers ominously all around. That hate’s power can dessimate all that is right and just and good in the world. That hate can be conquered only by a courageous people willing to speak truth and love whatever the cost.

Ray Phiri died last week at age 70, but in this seventy years, his controversial ideas made an impact. His song,”Whispers in the Deep” was banned from broadcast on the South African government-controlled radio station, SABC, when it was released in 1986.

Stand up! Wake up!
Call me angry, call me mad.
A soul that whispers in the deep.
I’m inspired.
But I can’t understand hate.

I imagine that is exactly where we find ourselves, unable to understand hate. We see enough of it, to be sure. We hear about it every day. We know about the dry, brittle bones that remain when a person experiences enough hate.

Hate is war. It is hunger and poverty. It is racism and homophobia and xenophobia. It is violence and abuse. It is unbridled anger. It is injustice in many forms, injustice that shatters lives and leaves dust and ashes in its wake.

Standing amidst hate is not unlike standing in a personal hell. Hate, whether around us or within us, has the power to crush the soul. And yet, always present with us is a protective God who can deliver us from hate’s destruction.

For me, it is true that I do not always know that God is nearby. I seldom see God as my personal vanquishing superhero that destroys the power of hate. Rather, the God I know is much more like the God in the story of Elijah. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

As the story goes, Elijah clings to a cave while God unleashes natural forces far beyond anything Elijah has ever seen or heard. But even in the midst of the tempest, Elijah realizes that something is terribly wrong. The text tells us three times that God is nowhere to be found. But the text also insists that God is passing by.

Elijah looked for God in the great whirlwind, in the shattering earthquake, in the blazing fire. But Elijah did not experience God’s presence in any of those mighty and supernatural happenings. Elijah experienced God in the sound of a light whisper. Biblical translators have often called it β€œthe still, small voice.”

The question I ask myself is whether or not I will gather enough strength from God’s tentative presence with me to wake up, to stand up against hate. As in Ray Phiri’s compelling lyric, I do not understand hate. He warns against whispering in the deep, probably a warning against being too quiet in a world that needs to hear confident voices. But it seems to me that even a whisper can be full of power. A persevering whisper can vanquish hate. A persistent whisper can transform the world.

May God make it so.

 

Reconciliation: The Heart’s Repentance

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The long and arduous presidential campaign left behind a fractured nation. The political parties displayed unprecedented enmity between Democrats and Republicans. The citizenry followed their lead, and the result was broken relationships among friends and even within families. My own family exchanged sharp and hurtful words during the campaign, words that continue to affect our relationships.

We have made enemies of other nations. Some among us have made enemies based on race, culture, gender, national identity, religious practice, sexual orientation. And we remain divided and hostile, with no apparent desire to reconcile.Β And yet, we desperately need true reconciliation.

The Biblical concept of reconciliation suggests the presence of spiritual, divine intervention that creates reconciliation in the hearts of those who are estranged. Reconciliation assumes there has been a breakdown in a relationship, but through the heart’s repentance, there is a change from a state of enmity and fragmentation to one of harmony and fellowship.

It is going to require the heart’s repentance to restore a climate of unity, mutual respect, love and peace. Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, offers these insightful thoughts about reconciliation.

Reconciliation isn’t just singing Kumbaya and everyone being nice. Reconciliation is about the hard work of working through our differences, maybe acknowledging them and not changing them, necessarily. Working through our differences, honestly and with integrity, and sometimes repenting of where our differences or my differences or yours has actually hurt relationship and not helped the human family.

Shall we just leave everything as it is? Shall we allow the distance to continue between us and those we have lost because of our differences? Shall we accept a fractured world and the divisiveness that now assails us? Or shall we instead commit ourselves to the holy work of reconciliation?

Our sacred calling is to restore peace within the human family, creating a world that can nurture our children and grandchildren, striving for genuine reconciliation among those from whom we are estranged, restoring peace and a community of love, transforming fractured and hurting humanity. This is what God implores us to do.

. . . This is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;Β that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19

 

Telling My Myth

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The village of Aperi, Karparthos, Dodecanese, Greece

A myth is a story that’s told again and again and serves to explain why something is the way it is. (vocabulary.com)

Our stories, the stories that emerge from living our lives, are myths. I tell a number of stories that my grandmother told me, from stories her grandmother told her. My Yiayia shared stories of life joys and life tragedies. She told stories of her losses and her fears. In tears, she told me about weddings and funerals, birthdays and name days. She told stories of faith and worship. She told me about all the ways God ordered her life.

Her stories, from her tiny island of Aperi in Greece to her later years in Alabama, became her life myth. So as I retold her stories and they became mine, my myth. It’s interesting that both my grandmother’s stories and mine tell of loss and pain, of dark moments that indelibly mark life.

Those dark moments make us who we are. They become an eternal part of our myth, our story that is told again and again as the years pass. The myth we tell reveals why Β life is the way it is. The telling is the cleansing that makes life bearable and meaningful. The myth we tell is full of the kind of power that propels us and gives us wings.

The truth is that we are our tragedies, even more than we are our joys. Joseph Campbell writes about the power of myth.

One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.

― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

(From The Edge, a beautifully written blog; https://theedgeishere.wordpress.com/2017/05/19/contemplative2017-myth-ix/)

I will always tell my myth, because in the telling, I find boldness and perseverance for my life. In the telling, I find inspiration. The myth I tell definitely speaks of “the bottom of the abyss.” It also tells of the transformation that I find in the abyss. My myth proclaims with strong certainty that, in my darkest moments, I always found the light.

The Lord is my light and my salvationβ€”
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my lifeβ€”
of whom shall I be afraid?

– Psalm 27:1, New International Version

The Balm for Our Heartbreak

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We do not anticipate much to happen on Holy Monday. It is a Monday, after all, not a great time for hope and expectation. It’s more a time for heartbreak. For on this Holy Monday, we need a reminder that God’s love is ever-present with us.

Mary has prepared Jesus’ body for burial, for death, and we know all too well where the road to Jerusalem leads. We know thatΒ the hosannas have fallen silent. We know that the high ranking officials are meeting secretly to plan for the death of Jesus. We know that Judas will betray Jesus and Peter will deny him.

We know that what comes next will break our hearts. But broken hearts are not so bad. At least that’s what Glennon Doyle Melton says.

I have learned that when I run from heartbreak, from pain, I bypass transformation — like a caterpillar constantly jumping out of its cocoon right before it was about to become a butterfly.

Pain knocks on everyone’s door. It we are wise we will greet it and say, “Come in, sit down, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.”

She tells us to ask ourselves what breaks our hearts. And then she explains that the heart, like every other muscle, has to be worked, even ripped apart. That’s how it grows stronger. So instead of shrinking back from our heartbreak and finding ways to disconnect from our suffering, perhaps we should run right into the painful middle of it.

Heartbreak in our lives, like heartbreak on Holy Monday, is very real. That’s why the words of the Psalmist sing so loudly inΒ our hearts, bringing us hope and love and light.

Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens;
Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the great mountains;
Your judgments are a great deep;

How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God!
Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.

They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house,
And You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.

For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light.

— Psalm 36: 5-9

God’s love is the balm for our heartbreak — today, tomorrow and forever.

Seeing God

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Where do we see God’s image? When we look at friends, family, people we encounter every day, do we see past outer appearance and see Gods image in them?

I think that’s what God wants from us. I think that God’s very best plan is for us to find God’s love and grace in one another. It means that we open ourselves to other people, not just what we readily see, but what lies within. God wants us to live with others,Β soul to soul, finding our transformation in extraordinary human relationship.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us some valuable insight on seeing the image of God in others.

Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation who hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every person and see deep down within what religion calls β€œthe image of God,” you begin to love in spite of. No matter what the person does, you see God’s image there.

– Martin Luther King Jr.
“Loving Your Enemies” (From a sermon proclaimed at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 1957)

It is unfortunately true that I have always been reluctant to love my enemies, much less to see God’s image in them. It’s a difficult thing to do. Yet, that is precisely what God asks us to do. And in doing that, we are transformed and are suddenly able to see God more fully and clearly.

A wise man once wrote that the way to fullness of life is to see God in others and in ourselves. Would that we could do just that.

A Shadow of a Cross

 

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Moving through Lent brings us ever closer to the cross, to the events that mark the passion of Christ. For now, the cross is barely visible, just a shadow, but we know it is a part of this journey. We know that if Lent is genuinely a part of our faith journey, we will get to the cross and all that it means to us. On the way, we will participate in the passion of Jesus.

Marcus Borg writes about this kind of participation.

Imagine that it’s about participating in Jesus’s passion for the transformation of β€œthis world” into a world of justice and peace. Imagine that it’s about a passion to change β€œthis world.” What difference might that make for what it means to be Christian – and to be an American Christian?

Might our Lenten journey become more than forty empty days of observing this part of the Christian year? Might Lent become a deeply sincere expression of our devotion? Might we find along our Lenten path a renewed passion to transform our world?

God grant that we can experience a holy passion. It is not an easy road for us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer does not describe a Christ that is gloriously transported to heaven. Instead, he says this:

Christ is not gloriously transported from earth into heaven. He must instead go to the cross. And precisely there, where the cross stands, the resurrection is near. Precisely here, where all lose faith in God, where all despair about the power of God, God is fully there, and Christ is alive and near.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter

The glorious miracle is that what we see now as a mere shadow of a cross becomes a clear vision of resurrection — Christ’s and ours.

An Opening in the Ordinary

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Often I complain to my husband about every day being ordinary. For us, very few events break up the time, making each day seem pretty much like yesterday, tomorrow too. It is a sad state of affairs to have stopped expecting anything extraordinary.

But there is a remedy for me when all seems mundane. I get out my watercolor paints and lose myself in creativity for a few hours. It works. . . not creating any masterpiece to be sure, but letting my dreams loose so that they flow out from paint brush to paper. The colors, one blending into another and another, is my passage out of reality and into the possibility of transformation.

It is definitely, as Bishop Stephen Charleston writes, “an opening in the ordinary.”

Here’s how he expresses it.

An opening has occurred in the ordinary, a passage between the reality we have always accepted and the possibility of transformation . . . This is the day, the everyday, the extraordinary day, when we step over doubt to trust, over resignation to hope, over now to forever.

So in the midst of my ordinary days, I can still hope for an opening in the ordinary, for the possibility of transformation. I can find extraordinary moments smack dab in the middle of an ordinary day. Β I give thanks to God for the grace of transformation.

Transformation: The Spiritual Journey

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The labyrinth is a walking meditation, a path of prayer where psyche meets Spirit. It has only one path that leads from the outer edge in a circuitous way to the center. There are no dead ends. Unlike a maze where you can lose your way, the labyrinth is a spiritual tool that can help you find your way.

The life quest of drawing closer to God is best described as a spiritual journey. But it is a journey of our own choosing. We are not forced to take it. God does not coerce us to travel such a path. Each of us must choose it, and in a spirit of prayer embark on an unknown journey.

We cannot predict its path. We can only give ourselves to its gentle turns with confidence that, along the way, we will discover and learn and grow in our faith. It can be transformational. Wendell Berry describes this journey with the words arduous, humbling and joyful, an apt description. Most importantly he describes “arriving at the ground at our own feet” and there learning to be at home. Here’s what he writes:

The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.

– Wendell Berry

Taking the journey leads us home, a place of peace and comfort, a place where we are comfortable in our own skin, a place where our heart meets God’s heart. The journey can bring transformation within us.

The danger is that we can shrink in fear from transformation because we cannot control the process. Giving up control is always a challenge for humans, but refusing the spiritual journey means that we will wander aimlessly, always searching and never finding our deepest spiritual self.

Still Time to Dream

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It’s still early in this new year, still time to embrace fresh, new things. Sarah Ban Breathnach describes a transformative year of dreaming. I love her insight.

A fresh start. A new chapter in life waiting to be written. New questions to be asked, embraced, and loved. Answers to be discovered and then lived in this transformative year of delight and self-discovery. Today carve out a quiet interlude for yourself in which to dream, pen in hand. Only dreams give birth to change.

There is still time to dream. There is always time for self-discovery and transformation. Indeed, for me, it is necessary to keep dreaming and to follow God’s prompting that helps me discover all the ways I might be transformed. Life change is never over, never halted by aging or illness. For that, I am grateful.

I have faced off with both, aging and illness. I have navigated both, and have emerged stronger and wiser for it. So I am moving forward into 2017, carving out quiet interludes along the way, interludes for new dreams and continuing personal transformation. The words of the Psalmist give me courage and comfort.

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

– Psalm 16:11 New International Version (NIV)

Thanks be to God for a constant, faithful presence, for opportunities for transformation, for the courage to dream new dreams.