The last year has brought unexpected awareness. The a-ha's were completely unexpected, but I receive them with actual glee, as odd as that probably sounds. The awarenesses and understandings that surfaced have been so deeply resonant of my soul's desire and my time tested and genuine experiences of true joy and aliveness in life to date. This has made it so affirming, so confirming, so lovely to walk these questions right into finding much of my own personal truth and untruth in the very best ways possible - through discovery, authenticity, and vulnerability.
How did religion turn into a top-down, oppressive, boring, and disconnected experience?
Bureacracy, that's how.
Have you ever seen the Methodist Book of Discipline? I'll never forget my friend Steve Rich saying to me, "You can always tell the entropy of an organization by the weight of its manual." At the time, he was referring specifically to the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, but it stuck with me because it resonated.
Organized religion is no accident as we all know. Denominational religion mostly has innocent, and highly authentic roots driven by sincere passion and love for God, and usually by a devoted and loyal follower of Christ.
A devoted follower of Christ is not someone I'd identify as a member of a religious institution or a clergy member - although it could include them on occasion. A devoted follower of Christ is someone who is inspired and committed to the intentions and teachings of Jesus, and his understanding of God.
When someone looks closely at the teachings of Jesus without their personal ego or lens sighted in, the lessons are simple and profound. And not religious.
Belief and Experience.
When I look back to the days of the Jesus Revolution, a time in which I experienced my most powerful spiritual awakening of all, there are clues lying around in plain sight as to how what I thought Christianity was, and what it turned into, were two different animals altogether.
Nicky Mercado. Latino. Saved. Teen Crush. Harlem Tent Revival. Major Shift in Reality. Spiritual Experience that literally shifted reality for me even though I didn't understand what was happening...or what had happened.
I was not praying for something to happen. I was tagging along and enthralled by what seemed almost to be a freak show. People screaming, dancing, yelling, hollering, falling, fainting, praying. I was one of the only white people in the packed tent on a hot, humid summer night in Harlem. Bags of heroin, cocaine, pot, money, you name it was being thrown up on the stage platform in front of the preacher's - and whoever else was up there with him - feet. The stage was covered in drugs and paraphernelia. People were singing as I recall but I didn't know the songs. Nicky was off doing whatever it is people do at these things. I talked to whoever came my way if Nicky wasn't by my side. I'd always loved anything that wasn't within my own culture, and this may have been just minutes away by subway, but oh my lord, was it miles from life as I knew it. This neighborhood and mine couldn't have been more different.
Our schools had been integrated through bussing, from what we then called the ghetto, but we didn't wander into Harlem or other primarily African American neighborhoods on our own. It was a sure recipe for disaster in those days. Racial riots and muggings were the norm, and anyone as white and blonde as I was, not to mention being a young girl, was an ideal target for a few bucks. The predators among them would feel my fear right away. But I didn't feel anything like that in this tent. This was heaven to me.
But not in a religious way. I just loved other cultures, and poverty infested Harlem was simply another ethnic group from my lens, another ethnic group that I had never had as much exposure as I wanted to so this evening was full of wonder and joy.
I remember the sweat dripping down my forehead, and occasionally peeling my shorts away from my sweaty skin to get air up my pant leg because it was so hot. I never have handled heat or humidity well. The dark skinned folks around me were sweating much more profusely than I was, but they seemed so much more comfortable in that state.
The crowd up toward the stage was getting more crammed together, and bodies were pressed against me while arms were reaching over me towards the stage. Sometimes they were throwing something on to the stage, and others were simply singing with their hands raised passionately in the air. Somoetimes they waved and sang, or moved back and forth. There were a couple of wheelchairs around me too. The preacher was yelling something about heaven and being saved, and quite frankly, after attending and teaching Sunday School for 17 years, I was confused why I understood so little of what he was talking about.
To be honest, the heaven and saved stuff he was saying wasn't of great interest to me. However, I do recall thinking how weird it would be if these people knew something we Lutherans didn't. What if being saved was the only way to heaven, and all the baptism stuff was just something the Lutherans had misread. I planned on finding out more about this next time I saw my pastor - which in those days meant little. I rarely attended church since I graduated high school.
Nicky was gone for quite a little while, and I was getting a bit antsy to head back to Bay Ridge. My wanting to leave had nothing to do with not liking being there because the people were wonderful. They made me feel at home and I remember wishing I actually knew them in real life. But I didn't. I was just really hot and tired of standing to be honest. As I looked around, distracted from whatever the preacher was saying, I felt something inside shift. It was subtle, but not - if that makes any sense at all. Something came over me, but it was from the top of my head yet, simultaneously, from the inside out. I've never been able to explain it to anyone in a way that satisfied me.
There was a shift. A movement of sorts, as if something had draped itself around me from my head down while rising inside me. I was clueless, but aware. I just stood there.
When Nicky got back, we stayed a little while longer and then headed back towards the subway for the ride back to Brooklyn.
I told Nicky what happened, and he prayed over me, for me, about me...he just prayed a lot - and I let him because I was much too polite to tell him to stop. He was so into it he even rambled on in Puerto Rican for a long time. I just felt kind of numb, but bubbly.
It was an exciting night, and if I was to describe in retrospect, I'd say it's one of the first times I actually felt like God was in the room. I knew well enough that God was always in the room, but this was different somehow. It may have been the first time I experienced, witnessed the real faith of others. Faith that was expressed openly and passionately. Desire for God or a desire to know God that was sincere and honest. Sure, it was a bit crazy - but I thought that was actually very cool because it was real. I was from Brooklyn and we like it real.
Another dynamic that I realize, in retrospect, that was in play was this event was in a completely different culture from mine. This made it that much easier to observe without judgment. I was an observer which gave me permission to be curious and interested, instead of being in the familiar surroundings of my own culture or people where there'd be expectations of me, or where my mind would not stay open because it would tell itself there was nothing new to learn, see, or experience here. The mind is a trickster in this respect. The ego will do anything to keep itself as the main attraction, not wanting to be outshone by our true self who is our real being and the place we connect to God as we understand God. It is our highest self, our deepest place. Our ego is our mask and outer layer.
I went to sleep that night in the same bed I slept in every night. I was living with my parents, and getting ready to go to college soon. When I woke up the next day, I was different. That's the only way I can explain it. I was different inside. Way different.
But it wasn't that I'd changed exactly. I was me. But I was even inside. Perfectly even. Warm. Happy. Content. Safe. Protected. Kind. Compassion flowed within me in a way I hadn't sensed in a long long time. I lived in a difficult environment with a raging sister and it was often miserable. The warm calm reminded me the fear of her was non-existent. Something had happened inside.
Thats all I knew. No bright lights. No angels. No falling to the floor. No special prayer to Jesus. No going up to the stage. None of it. Just a strange thing happening the night before when I wasn't even thinking about that stuff, and waking up like this. There were, of course, the prayers by Nicky but they seemed ancillary. He was always doing that stuff lately.
This sense of calm, and a desire to learn more about God became my new normal. I'd clearly had some kind of conversion experience even thought I still didn't fully understand what conversion meant since I was already a Christian. All I knew was it felt damn good, and I did not want it to go away.
I often hear people talk about God as being truly loved. Their awareness of God's love is so profound and probably the most strking experience of their Christianity. This is not how it felt to me, nor has it ever.
I'm not saying I'm not loved, but to be honest, I don't know. I suppose I simply assume God loves me just as I assume God, whatever or whoever God is, knows it's mutual. But what was apparent, was the deep knowing. It was an incredibly deep and powerful knowing that just was. My fears and anxieties were released. As if they were helium balloons attached to me and someone had just quietly stuck a needle in them and set what was inside free.
I no longer felt alone at all. It wasn't like I had an image of some God who was hanging out counting every hair on my head, like the Bible says. Not at all like that. It was more grown up than that. It was more of a reassurance.
Everything within me knew everything was going to be all right. Forever. Always. It would forever be all right, for always. There was no longer anything to worry about. I just had to do my very best. I had to be honest and kind to others. I had to listen to the deep place because it was there I'd know which roads to take or which paths to follow. There was a trust that if I made the choices that led towards understanding God better, I'd gain a stronger and more powerful understanding of how God works in the universe which would, in turn, help me to help others more and to understand myself and live my best life.
I realize this all sounds very untheological and fundamental, but that's what it was. It was not theological and definitely elementary. It was perfect.
And that's how it was for everyone else getting involved in the Jesus movement, as I learned in time that it was called. It hadn't yet taken hold when I went to the Harlem revival tent, but just a couple of years later, when I was in college, this movement had grown to have a life of its own.
I attended some Bible studies and classes, went to church occasionally, but I never dove into a full fledged church life. The experience of the Holy Spirit alone was so powerful that everything else seemed to pale in contrast. When I went to church the personalities of the preachers or the congregation never seemed to fit the experience I was in. Now and then I met someone, besides my best buddy Nicky, that could guide me in a direction that took me deeper into practices and understanding, but overall, I didn't sink comfortably into a religious life. I just walked day to day in the experience of getting to know what I understood as God in a way I'd never experienced before, and I continued to learn more about Jesus. I wanted to know everything there was to know about who Jesus was, what he stood for, what he actually said and taught, what he did, and if we were actually able to have what some called a personal relationship with him, what that was like. I wanted to do it the best way possible. I wanted to do it right, and I wasn't convinced the people in churches I went to knew the answer to that. Some people didn't even seem to understand what had happened to me in that tent. But I knew. I had no doubt, and even in my life away from church over all these years, I've never doubted what happened to me there in harlem that night. Not ever. Not once.
I've spent a lifetime looking for people who got it. Although there are more chapters of my life with other Christians that were important to my life, there has only been the rare ocurrence of finding a place where I felt my experience could be received and my walk in faith and knowing (for lack of a better word) understood. Salem Gospel Tabernacle in downtown Brooklyn was one of those places.
One comforting thing about living for a while is there is a guarantee that we will change, our needs will change, the culture will change, our friends or family will change, and churches will change. God, however, does not change.
At the risk of sounding disrespectful, and I assure you that I am not, my relationship with God has often reminded me of training my horse and playing golf.
One of my favorite books on training horses is called, "There are no problem horses. There are only problem riders." This is what it's like with God. When we feel disconnected from our spiritual life, or start having a bad attitude, or notice we are finding a lot of fault with others, or lose our passion for our work, there is something amiss in us.
God has not disappeared. God is not punishing us.God is not playing hard to get. We are simply not centered in God. When we can find our ground, and center in God, engage in our spiritual practices, connect with other people through whom we experience God and love, the answers will always come or the solutions will simply surface. It's not very difficult if we're willing to participate, take risks, listen, and act.
One of my character defects usually rises to the top when I start something new that interests me. Especially something that's lights a fire in my belly, and I want to do it better than anyone ever has, or at the very least, the very best I possibly can. I consume it, inhale it, absorb myself into it. This is particularly true when the people involved also inspire me. If they believe in me, support and encourage me, and are there when I come face to face with a brick wall and are willing to help me climb over it if necessary, I will go to the ends of the earth to reach my goal. I think we all respond well in these circumstances - if we're not addicted to drugs or alcohol, mentally ill, or being abused or oppressed.
When I started out wanting to be the best Jesus follower ever, I had some stiff competition. This is the one place I stumble. If I can't see anyone beside me, I'm fine. I keep my nose to the grindstone and keep going. But if there's someone in my sights who I think might surpass me, or is simply better than me, I can lose sight of the target quickly - and lose hope. And faith in myself. And, in turn, in God.
It took me many years to realize that a spiritual path is like playing golf. There is not a place to reach, there is no perfect. Other than in our brokenness. It is only in our vulnerability, in our willingness to learn, in our desire to grow, in our committment to staying awake, aware, conscious of those around us, and in our ability to be honest with ourselves and God that we are living and walking our path perfectly. It is only perfect when it is imperfect because it is only in growing that we are still moving forward.
Golf is a game that each time you think you've reached a place of accomplishment, something else pops up to trick you, teach you, challenge you, and stretch you. This is what our life is, and it is this very aspect of living the journey that makes it wonderful. This is the richness and fulfillment. It is allowing for the space to be who you really are that gives us true happiness.
The challenge presented to us is to learn over and over again how to allow for creating the clearing, the space, the opening that allows it to happen in.
Werner Erhard and EST.
The 70's brought with it a plethora of experiential and psychological workshops and spiritual journeys that intrigues this new generation. Those who had been raised in traditional churches were now traveling to India to meet gurus, or heading to Buddhist retreat centers to learn how to simply be. Life became more complicated in some respects such as...., but religion was put aside and replaced by the doctrine and dogma free expreience of a more simple spirituality.
One of the first trends that took a fast hold on the urban cultures of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York was a man named Werner Erhard and a workshop he developed called EST, which stood for Erhard Seminar Training.
I was introduced to it in 1975, and finally attended this two weekend intensive training during the bicentennial weekend in 1976. Erhard and his then trainer, Stewart Emory, were hard core, confrontive trainers who called people on stage throughout the weekend and confronted them about various issues they were facing in their lives. The workshops took place in major hotels, with about 2-300 people in the room. It was highly structured and organized, and many experienced it as oppressive. People were not permitted to take bathroom breaks except during designated times, in addition to many other rules that exasperated participants until they surrendered to how it was.
This workship was not that great, in my opinion, but due to my age, it was one of the best teachers of my life. I was only 19 years old, and just starting out in life. It did not conflict with my religion, and I don't recall feeling there was any issue in this regard.
The group was diverse in age, race, and other factors. There were three takeaways that stand out for me still, forty years later.
I am the creator of, and responsible for, everything in my life. This means everything. From people starving in Africa to being fired from a job, to being an alcoholic, to getting cancer.
Life is experience. Period.
There is no 'it' to find. This is it.
Everyone was searching at that time. When the upper structure of the United Methodist Church talks about wanting to direct their message to the spirtual, but not religious, I want to laugh. It is a wise thing from a business perspective because it is a market that has potential, but it is not exactly a new idea. The spiritual but not religious population was the people I attended workshops with in 1975, not those who might be interested in church today. Today, it is everyone. It is not a niche market, or a market segment. It is the majority of the world population.
These three takeaways formed a context for me to operate out of that was extremely useful.
Most Christians I knew feared the workshops, and thought they led people away from God. I didn't experience it that way whatsoever. People would have whatever experience they chose to have. If faith was an important part of someone's life, it could remain that. However, if people were looking for something else than what they are experiencing, or who they are, or new answers hidden somewhere in plain sight through religion, gurus, or other spiritual teachers and advisors, or astrology, etc, Erhard was saying what you get is what you get.
If you're looking for a high, you can take drugs. If you want who you are, and what you get when you're clear, this is it. You get to do what you choose to do with it.
For instance, my experience of the Holy Spirit was, for me, my experience of the Holy Spirit. I was not told it was not real, or I was illusioning something that didn't exist because I sought somethng that wasn't there. I knew that my experience was what it was. But it wasn't something other than what it was. Unless of course, it was revealed to me that it was something other than what it was. Which had not yet happened, so it was only what it was and I get to do with that experience what I choose. In my case, what I chose to do with that experience was trust it.
I chose to follow the teachings of Jesus with integrity and thoughtfulness to the best of my ability. I chose to begin practices that fed my spiritual life as a CHristian. I also chose not to become weighted down with legality that didn't resonate as true to Christ, or attend a church that was not spirit filled or grounded in love and mercy.
I chose to go deeper in my spiritual experience, and took advice to read the Bible. But I also read Nietsche and Francis Schaeffer, Jung and Scott Peck and Charles Swindoll and a myriad of other authors who challenged religion, or declared it. I wanted to make decisions from my heart, learn to have discernment that was based in clarity and listening to God as I understood God, and not be oppressed and controlled by being told what to think. It was the spirit that led me, not fear. It was my one ground rule, even in the face of many who were beginning to form a growning evangelical movement.
The sad part was that even at that young an age, I sensed a division beginning. A division between people that could put us in different camps, instead of unifying us as one which was my heart's idealistic and true desire.
I'd been pained watching Viet Nam vets come back from war and ridiculed, shamed and discouraged. I'd watched dear friends, one by one, be drafted or wait for the list to come out with their number on it. These were scary times for young men with hopes and dreams, and their own ideas about the war - and left without choices about fighting or not.
In hindsight, I realize I had embarked on my Christian spiritual path more like an ancient, than a contemporary or traditional believer. But I didn't know that then. All I knew was I'd know the spirit when I felt it, and I hadn't yet.
I wasn't as concerned with what churches said they believed, as many are now. I was more concerned with the authenticity of their experience and their congruence and/or sincere desire to walk as Christ did, or with CHrist. In this regard, I wasnt as concerned with how they framed it, and trusted each persons walk with Christ would be as it needed to be for them, as long as it traveled in the direction of his message, was inclusive, of love and be love, and a heart that opened to the possiblities of what we cannot see or know. Beyond that was not my concern in my opinion, nor did I want to be part of anything that divided people unless it was a clear case of the sword, as Jesus called it...which indicated cutting away that which is not of God, or of love.
The ancients were the early church, the original followers of jesus. They were led by the spirit, alive in the spirit, coming together as a community of people with hope, love, faith, mercy, and justice. They were inspired and bonded. They cared about and for each other. THey ate together. They shared life together. As a result of their experiences in these early days, and in the absence of anything like this before, they began what we now know as organized religion. They put together the elements of what was most meaningful to them in this experience, which included faith, what they believed to be true, and the practices that spiritually fed and nurtured themm and others. I imagine it was their hope to share what worked for them - just as AA says 'we want to share what it was like then, what it is like now, and..." This new tribe was, essentially, the beginning of what we now know as Christianity. It was innovative, spirit filled, inspired, authentic, and congruent to who they were as a whole. My imagination tells me this was a group we'd want to be around, or we'd think they were nuts. Maybe they were like the wonderful people in that Harlem revival tent. It's hard to know, but anyone who has practiced any form of sincere Christianity can probably imagine the authenticity and pure spirit this group rose up from. This was likely the polar opposite of a group of Pharissess or some of the fundamental extremism we've seen recently in American media.
(The Book of Acts 2 tells some of how this group began, and continued in those earliest of days)
The blending of religions is threatening to many, and its understandable. On the other hand, it would be wise for us not to jump to conclusions and assumptions based on our own ideas or worldviews about a particular group before we let it settle in our heart, and use the tool we've been given.
I am so deeply grateful for the times I've stopped to truly listen - not only to God, but to others - before coming to a conclsion or jumping to a judgment. This applies to politics, ideology, issues in general, and other aras of contention and potential conflict.
My experience with my Mormon neighbors, my gay friends in the west Village, my Indian employees, and countless others over the years whose beautiful friendships and guidance I would've missed without the ears and heart of God's.
Christianity itself is a blended religion, that is a compilation fo rabbinic Judaism, Greek philosophy, the experiences shared by Jesus Christ, Gnosticism, and even Roman paganism. It was how these elements and practices were joined that felt right to pracrticing CHristians at the time, just as those practices we now include in our church services or private practice at home that we experience as right for us. There are certain guideposts to use in determining what is right and consistent with the teachings of Christ.
Personally, my guidelines have always included what I mentioned earlier with one direction always in play. Each practice or choice must always point to love, or be in love. My practices must be centered in relationships, love, compassion, mercy, justice, healing, raising of the dead, communion, faith,self honesty, eliminating negativity, belief, kindness, and this also includes self love. If I do not love myself, as in self care, health, good coices, I am not loving God or others as well.
And as much as these have been guiding principles, and sometimes consistent practice, they are also sometimes completely absent from my mind. Forty years of journeying is a long time that has been a path of experience. If I did it perfectly, it would more likely have turned into a legalistic journey of rules, than an expressive and organic path in love and trust.
Francis Schaeffer appealed to my intellect. Or at least the minimally formed intellect I had at the time. He didn't make me feel like I was being conned quite frankly. Although only 17, it was important to me that I wasn't betraying the religion of my youth or doing something totally stupid. The truth is I didn't want to be a religious freak, yet I couldn't deny the experiences I'd had. There was no way to deny them, and no way to explain them. The only option seemed to be to learn as much as I could by some who I could respect, and use the knowledge I gained combined with my own experience to determine who I was in this new reality that baffled me.
I knew one thing for sure at that time. If I was going to fully committ and do the deep dive into this way of life, I wanted to be fully engaged and sure it was the best path for me. This was not an easy choice because...
I wanted to be cool so much more than I wanted to be a Jesus freak.
I wanted to party so much more than pray.
I wanted to be lusted after so much more than dismissed as prissy.
Yet, one thing always won over all of these nagging feelings.
I wanted to do the right thing.
And what if God had really called me to something with a great purpose? What if my life could make a real difference in the larger scheme of things?
These questions meant more to me than anything else on the table. I wanted to live a life that made a difference. I wanted to matter. And I wanted to belong.
Even if it was religion.
But I wasn't sure I could do it well - or perfectly. And if I didn't have the confidence to do it perfectly, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it at all.
I still had an awful lot to learn.