Coming to terms with the spiritual path, or Christianity, of my youth and my current reality as someone who more closely resembles one who is spiritual, but not religious, has been a process. It's a process I wouldn't trade for the world. It opened my eyes to so much I wouldn't have learned or understood without diving in again. This recent deep dive came armed with a mind that operates by thinking critically these days, and a sincere heart for humanity and peace among people - in the world and in the church.
It's only recently that I find myself freed from anger, resentment, and an intolerance that has often stunned me towards the Christian culture and mindset. Intolerance is not my norm - it's the unexpected. The only conclusion I can draw from this is I was hurt and experienced a betrayal from the church, knowing full well it wasn't personal or intended on their part. Surely, they didn't even know I existed. The sad thing is I am so many people. But that's in the past now...at least for today.
I've been working for twenty years with communities of people who I ask to entertain the idea of a paradigm shift in whatever issue or challenge they face. It may be a personal or family issue, such as addiction; or a collective roadblock in a community, such as environmentalists and ranchers fighting over cows on public land.
In each case, their view is clouded by how they understand what they see; and what they believe to be true about their perspective. This has has an enormous influence on their decision making and capacity to be objective. It also makes us blind to what else is staring us right in the face. We have blinders on and, more often than not, can not grasp the slightest shift in perspective. Another perspective sounds literally insane or naive. One step to the right or left, or one filled in blank to their thinking has the power to turn their thinking upside down - and come as a total shock, albeit enlightening and sometimes, transformative.
I've either witnessed this, or facilitated it, countless times over the years, and it is always inspiring and ground breaking to those involved. Including me. It gives me hope about people and life in general, including the existence of God. But that's not my point here.
My point in this post is to share the power of sight with you. And our ability to cut off our nose to spite our face because of our blind spots.
A blind spot is just what it says it is. Just like the car you don't see in your mirror when driving 80mph on the NJ Turnpike and about to switch lanes. Our lives can be snuffed out in an instant if we don't turn our heads ever so slightly to ensure there's not a car in the blind spot. That's how it is in life with others too. We can't see something because it is so deeply clouded by the social preferences and cultural worldviews we are surrounded by. Our entrenchment in these views can be the very reason a project will fail, or the environment won't restore itself in our lifetime, or your marriage crumbles. This is important stuff.
Most often, paradigms become so deeply entrenched because they're shaped by values. Values that define us. They paint the picture we want to see of ourselves, without taking into account that we may be applying these values to something we don't fully understand. We've believed others, and only half of the story. We've put the blame for something where it doesn't belong.
This is what I did. To Christianity.
I've been so busy feeling hurt that I painted a broad brushstroke over Christianity itself - all of it, and even allowed myself to cringe and be ashamed of my association with it, wanting desperately to distance myself from it for fear of being wrongly labeled, judged, or understood. I'm not sure I would do it differently if I had to do it again either. Christians were a cultural eyesore, and I didn't want to be lumped in and seen as them. It did shift the way people related to them, whether that was right or wrong.
Meanwhile, the real a-ha comes in the learning. I always knew my heart was aligned to a Christian understanding, even if I couldn't reslove the idea that everyone else burned in hell and that Jesus was the only religion that was right. These two ideas have never been resolved, and I gradually walked away from the church for this reason.
During my conversion experience, or some would call it a spiritual awakening or infilling of the Holy Spirit, I didn't doubt for a second the realness of the experience and the power of something greater than I. Nor did I doubt it was God.
However, I also read things like Siddhartha and The Prophet by Gibran in those years, and resonated to their words and teachings. Not because I wanted to stray from my Christian understanding, but because my heart could see it no other way. Life could not be so cruel, God could not be that much of an ogre. It simply didn't correlate on a gut level with what I'd come to know and experience about God. It did not compute.
As the years passed, I drifted further and further away, still holding out hope of finding some meeting place between my genuine experiences and what my heart simply knew was its core truth - even in Christ. As I read the words of Jesus, everything remained aligned. My heart could easily resonate with his words and message. It was when others began emphasizing certain things he said, and fitting them into their scenario or worldview - either to defend it or to divide people - that I shut down. This was not congruent with the heart of the message. Just as nuns hitting kids with rulers, preists molesting boys and girls, angry television evangelists threatening us with angry words to heed their message, didn't ring congruent to the Christ of my understanding.
Over time, instead of trusting my own personal instincts, intelligence, and ability to think critically, I threw out the baby with the bathwater. I denied my Christian faith, but never Jesus or God. Although I did deny some of the belief systems that came along with them.
It's tempting to ask you to guess which national news event restored my faith in Christianity for the first time in years, but I won't because you'll never guess. (Just for fun, try anyway).
It was Ted Haggard's fall from grace...in the church. When I saw he and Gail Haggard appear on Oprah, my heart opened about as wide as the Grand Canyon. This was the Christian walk! This was where the substance of Christianity lived, this was the heart of Christ! Finally, someone had the balls to show up in a way that was honest and humble.
Most church people turned the other cheek to Haggard and his family at the time. It was beyong comprehensible in their paradigm, but I was filled with hope. I believe with all my heart that this moment was about to change Christianity, transform the heart of it in people back to what it was originally intended. And, on some level, I believe that's exactly what it did.
We are asked to be broken, not perfect. Not victims, but humble.
Not holy, but authentic. Not religious, but compassionate.
Meanwhile, as my hope clung to this idea that jesus wouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater simply because the water was dirty, my opinions of Christians continued to sway in the direction of judging them. I have to also say that I tried. I'd sign up for bible studies, attend church events, occasionally show up on Sunday morning to sing a praise song or two - but it felt empty. I almsot always left feeling dirty, ashamed, depressed, lonely, or incongruent. And I didn't want to feel that way anymore! I also felt confused because too much no longer made sense. It was a lot of holy language without connection to the reality I lived in. The way they talked about God was not the way I thought about God day to day - and I was fairly certain most others iddn't either - even though 85% of Americans said they believe in God! How could the divide be so wide?
I began to resolve this inner question with the outer behavior of other Christians as I threw myself into the words of Jesus. I began reading books written by not only evangelical authors, but from both side of the christian divide and political landscape. Slowly everything began to piece together - including the awareness that everything didn't have to be resolved or understood.
Why would we think it necessary to have all the answers about life beyond us, or the holy mystery, if we were not even allowed to know the character of God, or waht God looked like, and in some circles, not even utter the name of God because God cannot be known. Think about that. What makes us think we're expected to know the mind of God when it's made perfectly clear that we cannot ever know God?
This is so blatantly obvious that it stuns me to think theologians don't agree on it. Sure, we can think we know what we think we know - and we may actually be right - but that's not a good enough reason to be attached to being right.
Just as it is with seeing the world as it is, instead of as we are, so it is with Christianity. At least this has been my experience.
Instead of trusting it was, at its heart, the numerous experiences I'd had since a child, I began buying into the idea that it had changed into this thing other people said it was. Whether you think it fortunate or unfortunate, no matter how hard I tried, this thing they said it was simply would not fit neatly into my paradigms. I'd play along from time to time and give it the ol college try. I'd attend services on the high holidays for the sake of tradition and wistfully hope that feeling or touch of God would come upon me, but it didn't. I even went as far as arguing with preachers who didn't tow the evangelical party line for the sake of intelligent (and sometimes not so intelligent) discourse.
But, in the end, I gave up. I longed for the union with God I'd once known - or at least called that. I hoped someday someone would say just the right thing that would resolve my heart for humanity with, what I'd come to believe, were Christian beliefs. I hoped with my whole heart.
It didn't happen that way.
Instead, I met the man I should've married in college, and chose to dive into the pool head first. Immersed in a Christian world, married to a pastor, I set upon my journey to uncover the authentic experiences I'd had with the beliefs others had taught me. This was the beginning of a journey that will probably have no end...because nothing in life is absolute, particularly when all tehologians agree that we cannot know God.
But we can enter into the mystery. We can discover the essence of our own spiritual life. We can also open our hearts to the understanding and experience of Christ, and of Jesus, through our own journey here. When I remembered that Christ was not Jesus' last name, it opened up anotehr dimension of thought and understanding that helped me to delineate the confusion around Christianity. The Christ is a spirit that invokes the holy and sacred, the God in us. It was said it existed before time began and will continue to exist beyond life on earth. Jesus was a human who embodied it perfectly. This is a crucial element for a thinking person to understand and remember along the way.
We can also own those spiritual characteristics that are more highly developed in us. Each human being has certain gifts or characteristics that speak to us in the spiritual realm. These are our personal gateways to developing our spiritual life further.
Each person has different ears, perspectives, history, and sight that shapes their connection to the mystical. Some are mystics, some are prophets, some are intuitives. Own what you are, and if you choose, give yourself to it in a way that brings a peace and spiritual experience beyond the hum drum of every day life.
When I began to let go of the tightly clenched fist that bought into the idea that Christianity could only be understood one way, and allowed the ideas of Christ to simmer within me, new truths began to emerge.
My new understanding - with a loosened grip - no longer conflicted with the old paradigms. I could attend a traditional church service, with its archaic language and entrenched rhetoric, without reacting or feeling the urge to argue with the preacher. Suddenly the words he said made sense again, because I could fit them into my own paradigm - not because I "believed" them, but because I knew how to tailor them to my new way of hearing. The preacher no longer oppressed me, but gave me a newfound respect for those who had come before me. I now knew that those who'd adoped a different paradigm were simply operating from a framework that worked within their way of understanding God - and the world. Perhaps they lived in a world that was culturally proper and leaned into the idea of being black and white in order to understand or open their hearts to God.
My mind could now rise higher than the words that before felt as if they were being forced on me, and rather, only revealed another culture of people who wanted to know God, who wanted to take the high road as they understood it, who hoped they had given their life to something that meant something.
We are part of a church body that has been taught by pastors, who in turn have been taught by the evangelical culture they're steeped in, that certain things are 'bad.' Such as other religions, or going to yoga, or getting divorced, or letting a swear word slip through your lips, etc. These were the cultural ideals of the day interpreted or defended by a scripture that could be shaped to back it up - often without taking into consideration the culture of the day it was written. I've come to a place of understanding and compassion for those who adopted this approach to their spiritual life because sometimes we need a very sharp defining structure to provide contrast for spiritual understanding - particularly when we're mired in the weeds of emotional baggage and conflicting values. The black and white words of scripture, or a pastor's recommendation, can offer a path of least resistance for those who require this kind of clarity to make a committment to a higher path. This is their choice and their right.
This is the human condition and exactly what I'm doing too. I am shaping my understanding to the cultural ideals of my day. Is this wrong?
I don't know. But what I know for sure is it's the only way I've been able to resolve my experience of God, and come to a place within that opened wide enough to experience the God of my understanding again. It gave me the freedom to let it rise up, instead of closing me down further. This has been a life changing process in the spiritual sense.
So, why bother?
Why not just go along with our own individual beliefs, and let people be, you might ask. Why not simply take a little of this and a little of that until if feels good?
First, I'd answer, 'yes. why not?" For some, this is the perfect answer. Partiularly for those who don't feel a desire to have a deeper spiritual life or to connect to the long lineage of people who came before them. This is where the rubber meets the road for some of us, however.
We are not on the journey alone. And we do travel this road needing some kind of moral arc to guide society. That said, aren't we sophisticated enough now to know what this collective moral arc is, and to follow it in law, society, and nature without having to refer to a book or a law? I don't know the answer to this either. It certainly seems like that's the case, but why is that? Is it because the moral arc has been shaped by the religions of our day, or because the religions of our day have been shaped by a moral arc that is inherent to humanity? These are questions that will go unanswered for millenia I imagine. But for now, it seems logical to at least give some attention and credence to the idea that it's a potential threat to civilization in the long view. It's simply worth considering, even if not adopted.
The answers lie within the questions themselves if we allow them to simmer until they're done. These answers will reveal themselves as necessary, as long as we don't turn our back on the questions that slowly simmer on the stove.
PARADIGM SHIFT AGAIN
The paradigm shift that woke me up and began resolving my Christian upbringing with my spiritual, but not religious worldview was simple.
I was placing blame where it didn't belong. Allowing the blame for behavior that was incongruent to my understnading of God - whether due to language or because some people didn't behave the way I thought they should - to fall on anything other than the root cause was symptomatic, and I was not seeing the connections between things. Instead of simply reseraching further, adopting a dedicated practice of meditation or prayer, or having the courage to ask questions I feared would be met with disapproval, I opted out.
I opted out of a path that had fed me spiritual food much of my life. What I didn't see is I was not fed by those who led me to feeling shame, isolation, confusion, and division. But I blamed them. I was not fed by those who created fear and mistrust, or who oppressed my desire to learn anything but what they deemed to be true and righteous, but rather, I gave them my power. My power that was given me by God. This is not a power better than anyone else, but a power of discernment and trust, a power of love and tolerance, a power of knowing and wisdom, of strength and centeredness. This power had always been able to love authentically, to rise above the details people argued about to the higher consciousness of understanding and standing in each other's shoes. This had been a gift from an early age. And now, instead of forging my own path, and even becoming a leader with a voice that carried others who felt dejected and lost in the church of their youth, I opted out. Until now.
A great example of how human beings fall into the trap of paradigms was taught to me by cowboys and environmentalists. Most cowboys and ranchers have been grazing one way for centureies. They take great pride in the idea that this is how Daddy did it, and this is how I will do it too. It is part of the tradition. Meanwhile, the environmental community is angry about the destruction to riparian areas (streambanks) on America's public lands. They blame the cows, and since their only power tool to create change is litigation since they are not the land or cow owners, they have fought for decasdes to remove cows from public lands, sure that all degradation is their fault.
The ranchers disagree of course.
The mid-80's introduced a wildlife biologist from South Africa named Alan Savory who had also hated cows in his native country. However, one day he noticed something that made his head spin. He was responsible for a wildlife preserve and began to see a pattern emerge along the rivers. He saw the health of the land and its plant life where the wild herds naturally traveled through were much healthier than those places herds did not enter. He tested this and, to his surprise, it continually proved to be true.
Through much further study, it became more and more clear that it was the hooves of the animals, the manure, and the timing of their migration that contributed to this result. Over time, he wondered if this was true with animals as large as giraffes, lions, and hippos, could it also be true for livestock? To take it even further, was it possible that in places around the world where desertification had become the biggest environmental threat, particularly with nothing to cycle carbon, that hooved animals could actually restore the land?
I worked with Alan Savory for much of the last twenty years off and on, and to this day, the resistance to his theory has halted national demonstrations sites and scientific research. Why? Because the environmental community is deeply entrenched in the idea that the cows are at fault, instead of opening their minds to the possibility that it's human's managment of cows that might be the culprit? In fact, it might be cows that could save the planet from desertification if managed according to the holistic principles of nature. It could be any hooved animal, but the deteriorating environment and oingoing development or paving over has diminished natural migrations and herds all over the world in these dry climates with seasonal rainfalls. It is environments with this climate that suffers from desertification, not coastal areas and places with rainfall year round.
Bottom line, the fight goes on because the environmental activists dedicated to getting cows off the land cannot eliminate the cows from their paradigm as the cause of the problem. It has become the deeply held value and the shared goal, instead of holding the shared goal as a healthy landscape and riparian areas - leaving all the tools available to us to restore it on the table. As a result, the most promising tool for restoration becomes the issue, instead of the means to an end.
This is exactly what I did in my spiritual life. Instead of taking the blame off of Christianity as a whole, I made an overall assumption that because my heart could not rest in the spirit of how some Christians communicated Christ's message, or in the words and language of church culture, that Christianity could no longer provide me with spiritual food.
The questions were no longer centered around whether or not it was important to be 'saved,' or whether or not we'd go to heaven. Instead, it was centered on the oppressive nature of Christians in general. This was particularly difficult for those of us who are like me and want to do it perfectly. Our hearts and our conscience could not compromise at this level, and our generation eventually disengaged from an oppressive and parochial format and practice that was steeped in the old and regulated to the point of destroying creative freedom and expression.
I've often wondered if scripture had not been written down, and continued to be a rich oral tradition like the days of old, if we would've disengaged as such a massive exodus.
Or if the language of the church might have been more fluid and real, if we might've been able to connect more readily to its content and rich liturgical practices.
Either way, I've come to a juncture - finally - that allows my personal connection to the mystical to join with my understanding of GOd in a way that is holy and reverent - and real. This is all that mattered all along.
For me, the open ended questions like what does it mean that our sins are forgiven; or why would God require Jesus to be tortured for us if God already loves us; or if it's really necessary to say we're drinking blood in a church service that simultaneously warns us of not getting involved in cults; the list is endless....but they don't matter to me in the long run because they are all the words of men who genuinely believed they were inspired by God. For some, these beliefs and words are the essence of what it is to be a Christian. But this is not its essence for me.
I believe there is so much more to be revealed, and it is in each generation that we begin to understand new and more enlightened ways of this spiritual truth.
For instance, as children we recited the Apostles Creed, which painted a picture of a God on a throne, and Jesus sat beside him, and he would judge the living and the dead. The holy spirit hung out around them too. This is imagery that we've been given that tells the story. But is that story literal? I don't know a single theologian, pastor, or seminary student who would say this picture is literal. It can only be symbolic, particularly since we cannot know God - or see God. But we can feel God. We can express God. We can imagine God too. And we can absolutely honor God, something that is greater than us, something that is beyond all that we know, and all that we understand. Something so holy, so reverent, so sacred that it takes us to our highest selves. The reason this has mattered to humanity since time began is because we sense this higher self. Some through ecstatic experiences, some through simple prayer, some through contemplative practices or rock and roll praise songs. It doesn't matter how we get there. What matters is that we know something is higher than our current reality, and we want to reach out to it in whatever way we know how.
As I allowed myself to loosen my grip, and opened to remembering what defined my experience and understanding of God, it became all too clear that it was never the preacher on the podium, or the rules I was given, or the beliefs I held like a weapon. It was the purity of my heart, the humility in my pain, the longing in my core, the willingness in my surrender, the release in my resistance, the love in my actions, the sincerity in my voice, the honesty in my confession, the passion in my dreams, the justice in my judgments, the kindness in my eyes, the generosity in my spirit, the selflessness in my will, the forgiveness in my anger, the compassion in my soul. This is what being a Christian is to me. It is tripled in power by the authentic opening of my heart to the power of the Christ spirit that is embodied in the life of Jesus. It is this spirit that lives in and through us if we choose it as our spiritual center. It is this that is powered by the Holy Spirit, just as the sun and the earth are connected by the power of energy that travels between them, joining them.
Being a Christian today isn't a religious and fundamentalist journey of right and wrong, or being saved or damnation, or us and them. It's a path that I choose to practice my spiritual life in. It's the path that makes the most sense to me because it is the path of my lineage, and where I found the most powerful and spiritual experiences of them all. To me, this is the mark that validates my choice.
I spent a lifetime traveling along other paths, waiting for an experience like I had in Christ, and it never came. I had amazing ecstatic shaman journeys, tantalizing breathwork sessions that rocked my world, meditation that gave me peace and calm, chanting with Guru Maia that raised my consciousness and opened all my chakras - but none compared to the infilling of the Holy Spirit in that tent in Harlem that took me by complete and utter surprise and lasted for years. This and other holy experiences that have touched me deeper than any other were found in the walk of my childhood faith, even if it didn't look the same as the little Luterhan church on 4th avenue in Brooklyn. This is another aspect of Christianity that I once resented, but now begets respect. Christians are so different, with a multitude of interpretations and differences, and although they argue amongst themselves about who is right, they still share a fundamental faith that love conquers all. And, in the end, those who had crossed the line into Pharasaic behavior have been called to be acountable by the rest of the faith, surrendering some of their power and making their voice slightly softer to make room for the millions of Christians who stood on the sidelines without a home because they could not put a square peg into a round hole. These Christians who see the life of Jesus in a different context, or perhaps with another paradigm, are in the circle again, learning how to live their best life while taking on the mind, and being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
This give me hope that it's not only our biological earth that's self correcting and requires diversity to be healthy, but our spiritual ecosystem as well.