Late Night Spiritual Wrestlemania

It's the middle of the night
Near the Indiana line
I'm pulling in a Christian station

The words of Richard Shindell’s song Next Best Western come to mind as I try to pull together some of my thoughts. Yesterday, I spent time going over some of my school work. I’ve been reading commentaries on the Gospel of John and about Christianity in the United States between the Revolution and the Civil war.

I received an email from a friend in the Episcopal Church about The Executive Council Committee on Anti-Racism seeking feedback on anti-racism and racial reconciliation training document. I shared it with my classmates. The email reminded me of my many struggles with the Episcopal Church.

In the evening, I went to Vespers at the Orthodox Church. I love the Orthodox Church and the services have been very meaningful. It feels like some would like me to join the Orthodox Church. Others want me to remain in the Episcopal Church, and others just want me out of their hair.

In Christian History, we’ve been talking about the period in the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War. This has included how various churches dealt with slavery which is one of the reasons the racial reconciliation document was so pertinent right now. We also have been talking about how religious plurality helped shape American Christianity.

This led to a discussion of “Church Hopping”. People talked about the importance of making newcomers feel welcome. I am very aware of this as I look at my own experiences with different churches and ecclesiastical organizations. It also relates to a topic in New Testament, but I’ll save that for another time.

On Church Hopping, I wrote

It seems like the phrase ‘church shopping’ has a negative connotation, to use [one of my classmate’s] phrase, something that happens at the ‘surface level’. We talk about the importance of welcoming new comers, without being too aggressive.

Yet I wonder what it would be like if we thought of our visitors not as people ‘church shopping’ but people in a spiritual discernment process, for in truth that is an important part of what is going on beneath the surface when someone church shops.

In the middle of the night, I woke up from a strange dream which involved various employees of the Episcopal Church. It was unsettling and when sleep would not return, I got up and started writing. I wrote down my dream. I wrote some responses to the discussion forums for class. I wrote part of an email to a priest in the Orthodox Church about some of my struggles and I checked Facebook.

In a group of people struggling with their discernment journeys, a member posted about a challenging thing that recently happened in her life. She posted it in the middle of the night as well. In a group of Episcopalians another person posted about struggles with their discernment journey.

My mind drifted to Jacob wrestling with an angel. It feels a little bit like Wrestlemania this evening on Facebook for those of us on spiritual journeys.

In a different group, a member has been posting short videos as she starts her second Camino. She has large blisters. Jacob has an out of joint hip. As I head back to bed and see if sleep will return, Richard Shindell’s words come back to me.

At four a.m. on 80 East
It's in the nature of the beast
To wonder if there's something missing
I am wretched, I am tired
But the preacher is on fire
And I wish I could believe

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On Being a Postcolonial Mystic

Note: This is a forum post I wrote for my New Testament at Church Divinity School of the Pacific class this week. We have been reading from Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel by Sandra S. Schneiders and from John and Empire: Initial Explorations by Warren Carter.

I have greatly enjoyed the juxtaposition of Schneider and Carter for this week’s readings. I am very interested in Postcolonial readings of the sacred scriptures. Whose story is being told? Whose story isn’t being told? How are these stories being told in hidden rhetorical or encoded ways? As a twenty-first century progressive politician, I’m very conscious of ‘dog whistle politics’. Are there code words in the New Testament that we are overlooking? Are there code words that Jesus or the writers might have used, but been unaware of their coded meaning? I find it very helpful to ponder this.

Likewise, I’m very interested challenging binaries and false dichotomies. Was John writing about Jesus teachings as they applied to the Roman Empire? Was John writing about spirituality? Could this be a both/and instead of an either/or?

For me, this comes together in the idea of Jesus being fully human and fully divine. The politics of empire feels very much concerned with the fully human aspect of Jesus. How do we stand up together against oppression? The language of spirituality feels very much concerned with the fully divine aspect of Jesus. How do we experience unity with Jesus, especially at those times where he is absent and fully present at the same time?

Perhaps the most important question is the fusion of the two. How do we stand up together against oppression while being in union with Christ and all believers? Perhaps this is the challenge of the twenty-first century Postcolonial Mystic.

The Parable of Returning to Church

The kingdom of God is like a church on Easter morning. A person who had been struggling with many parts of her life felt a strong need to go to church even though she had not been in a long time and didn’t want to seem like one of those people that just go to church for appearances on Christmas and Easter. As she sat quietly in a pew regularly occupied by a church stalwart, members of the clergy, tired from the long Holy Week along with some of the most active participants in the church community looked askance at her and others coming on Easter after a long hiatus.

When a friend who had been praying for a long time for her saw her, she rushed up, filled with God’s love, and gave her a big hug. At coffee hour, they said down and shared many wonderful memories of Sunday School years ago where they learned the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.

Poverty, Charity, Exceptionalism, and America's Glory Days

Recently, a friend shared on Facebook a link to a blog post, On Being a Millennial Pastor– Leaders who don’t Remember the Glory Days. The author talks about the glory days when the churches were full. He spoke about many older pastors grieving the passing of that era. He suggests embracing the church we have now and those “who showed up to seminary full of energy, called to serve a church in decline.”

That sounds about right to me, although I might qualify the idea of decline. It might be a church with declining membership but it can still be a church full of vibrancy. It might also be that there is a greater decline happening.

Another article I read recently was a Study By MIT Economist: U.S. Has Regressed To A Third-World Nation For Most Of Its Citizens.

In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration – check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

A sharp contrast to this can be found in John Winthrop’s famous sermon entitled "A Model of Christian Charity", sometimes called the City upon a Hill sermon. Winthrop talks about how God “hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor… that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection”.

What made America great and can do so again, is not keeping wages for the poor low and taxes for the rich low. What makes America great is when we are knit together in the bonds of brotherly affection, rich and poor alike, caring for one another

An Op-Ed in the New York Times back in January draws this into sharper focus. In The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem, Angus Deaton notes that 1.7% of Americans live in deep poverty, living on less than $4 a day. That places us in fifth place for the highest percentage of people living in deep poverty in developed countries, with only Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain having a higher percentage.

Some conservatives suggest that the real problem with America is that it has lost its spiritual way. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps we need to return to the vison of America that John Winthrop preached about where the rich truly are concerned for the poor. Likewise, perhaps those longing for the glory days of Christianity in America are right. Yet what we need is not more people sitting in pews on Sunday morning. We need more people trying to live the life of Christ, helping out those around them.

Who’s in your mystical prayer group?

Years ago, I lived in New York City and went to a church where prayer groups met every Wednesday evening. We would have Eucharist together, then eat our brown bag dinners together, and then head off into small prayer groups of about half a dozen people each. They were a very important time for me as I tried to figure out how to live out my faith in a large city in my twenties. Today, I still seek out people to pray with this way.

Recently, I went on a silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in New York. One of the retreat leaders share an idea from her seminary days during one of the reflections. She spoke about how one of her professors had encouraged her to find her companions on her journey; not only fellow seminarians but also important religious leaders and thinkers from throughout the ages.

It was an idea that echoes in a place like Holy Cross Monastery, where you can a sense of the great cloud of witnesses that transcend time and space. It is a similar feeling you might get sitting in an Eastern Orthodox Church or kneeling at the communion rail in an Episcopal Church.

In a formation group of seminarians I’m part of, which has a bit of the same feeling as the prayer groups of years ago, we recently talked a little bit about that sense of the great cloud of witnesses, and it seems like all of this leads to in an interesting spiritual exercise.

Who is in your mystical prayer group, drawing in people from the cloud of witnesses across time and place?

Right now, I would chose Mary, mother of Jesus, Aelred of Rievaulx, Frances of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Brother Lawrence. An interesting variation on this might be the unrecognized acquaintances of these people, one of the monks who learned about Spiritual Friendship from Aelred, one of the nuns that prayed over St. Frances, or a woman who came to Julian for advice.

Who’s in your mystical prayer group?

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