Friday, May 28, 2010

Something Is Happening Here but You Don't Know What It Is

There is something brewing among the Catholic laity. It is gathering steam and gaining ground. There is a growing concern about abuses and cover-ups, an indignation over a leadership that seems out of touch. I am reminded of Bob Dylan's hard-hitting, if not unsettling song, “Ballad of a Thin Man” that appeared on his album Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. The recurring line in that song is, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

One of my favorite priests, the late Father Pat Sullivan told us one Sunday of a diocesan meeting he had been to. “I looked at all those priests coming out of St. Paul’s Cathedral,” he said in his Irish brogue, “and I tell you people, it was an undertaker’s dream.” He went on to make his point that with ageing clergy and a shortage of priests, the future of the church is with the laity. For years there has been an increasing shortage of priests, and the response from the Vatican seems to be simply to redouble the efforts that have been failing to attract candidates. The church remains adamant about not ordaining women, ignoring the important role played by women in the early church. It continues to resist anything but a celibate male priesthood, even though the celibacy requirement did not come about until the 12th century (a recent development, comparatively speaking, no?). But the biggest hindrance seems to be an insulated old boy network in leadership that seems unaware and uninterested in what is happening out in the real world, and out in the parishes where the faithful are trying to make some sense of faith and service.

Nicholas Kristof has written extensively in the New York Times about the disconnect between the church hierarchy and faithful who serve on the front lines representing the church to the world. There was an inspiring report just a few weeks ago about the work of simple good-hearted priests and nuns serving the poor in Sudan, in contrast to the robed and powerful in Rome. This week Kristof wrote about Sister Margaret McBride in Phoenix who was recently excommunicated for allowing an abortion had St. Joseph’s Hospital in order to save a young woman’s life. It was a decision which physicians, the patient, her family and the ethics committee were all agreed upon. People who know Sister Margaret are shocked. Kristof points out that when comparing the biographies of the bishop and of Sister Margaret, “Sister Margaret’s looks more like Jesus’s than the bishop’s.”

There are many stories of people doing the real work of serving the poor and feeding the hungry, teaching children and ministering to the sick. They are people whose faith is true and real. They are people who often go unnoticed. At the same time, there are the distressing reports of abuse by priests and bishops who cover up those crimes. There is a hierarchy that is moving backwards to pre-Vatican II days, holding firmly to outmoded constructs while leadership becomes more and more distant from the flock they serve. On May 10, America the National Catholic Weekly ran a news brief of the first traditional Latin Mass in decades at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated by Oklahoma’s Bishop Edward J. Slattery. Accompanying the news item was a photo of Bishop Slattery in his crimson-robed regalia processing down the aisle. The picture drew critical response from some readers who saw the stark contrast between that image and the service that is really needed in the world. One reader thought sackcloth and ashes would be more appropriate for a bishop's attire. Something is happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Bishop?

Many are speaking with their feet. If former Catholics were a denomination, it would be one of the largest in the U.S. Many others are simply going about with their lives, trying to live faithfully. Still others are content to let religion be a peripheral matter in their lives, something to remember at baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

Maybe a lay movement will break loose that will shake the foundations of the old boy Church hierarchy, or maybe the influence of the church leadership will continue to wane. Admittedly, the Third World holds a different dynamic and a different set of challenges from those we see in the U.S. and Europe. Who knows what lies ahead for the largest branch of Christendom?

Something is happening here, and the hierarchy does not seem to know what it is. It is not dark yet, not as long as there are true-hearted saints on the front lines such as Sister Margaret McBride and others who are living out their faith. How will all this play out in the years ahead with laity and the church hierarchy, and the true servants of faith? We'll just have to stay tuned and realize that something is happening here but we don't fully know what it is.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Experiences of Mystery and Wonder - Epilogue

Or should I say prologue?

While writing the series on Experiences of Mystery and Wonder, the process triggered a memory of a poem I wrote back in 1985. It was during one of those times in which I was having to "regroup" and "redirect" in light of the harsh realities of life. It was long before I had an idea of writing about mystery and wonder on a blog that did not yet exist. It also illustrates the comfort gained by acceptance of mystery. I offer it, therefore, as prologue and epilogue.

The Path

I took the noblest path,
and was betrayed.
I remained there until the wind in my hand
was my only direction.
The fabricated hangings of the known world
fell one by one.

But mystery is intact
And the Muse remains;
My oldest friends.


Experiences of Mystery and Wonder - Epilogue

 < Previous post
Or should I say prologue?

While writing the series on Experiences of Mystery and Wonder, the process triggered a memory of a poem I wrote back in 1985. It was during one of those times in which I was having to "regroup" and "redirect" in light of the harsh realities of life. It was long before I had an idea of writing about mystery and wonder on a blog that did not yet exist. It also illustrates the comfort gained by acceptance of mystery. I offer it, therefore, as prologue and epilogue.

The Path

I took the noblest path,
and was betrayed.
I remained there until the wind in my hand
was my only direction.
The fabricated hangings of the known world
fell one by one.

But mystery is intact
And the Muse remains;
My oldest friends.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Walking in Mystery

(Part 8 in the series, Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)
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The very existence of life is grounds for mystery and wonder to me. Consider the fact that life arose on this planet and has evolved in such variety and with such tenacity that every square inch of the planet - land, water, and air - is occupied by some life form. That in itself is a wondrous phenomenon. Even more mysterious and wondrous is the fact that you and I are present to talk about it. We are representative of the arrival of human consciousness. With human awareness, Life became capable of observing and reflecting upon, as well as participating in creation. With 6.8 billion people in the world it is safe to say that not a single sunrise or sunset goes unobserved, and on an increasing basis, hardly a sparrow goes unnoticed.

Why do we have those direct experiences of mystery and wonder? We walk in mystery and wonder every day. For practical reasons, perhaps, it is easy to ignore the wonder or to take the mystery for granted. Then on occasion the curtain is torn for a brief moment and we experience the impact of the vast mystery and wonder that is around us, beneath us and within us.

However and for whatever reason we experience mystery, it seems to be human nature to celebrate it. This is why some television audiences have been enthralled to hear the now familiar French horns followed by the voice-over narration, "Space...the final frontier..." It is why many flock to see the latest horror flick on the big screen. For others it is the eager discussion of UFO's or lost civilizations. Still others prefer the symphony, or a spiritual commitment as a means of celebrating mystery. The examples I have given in this series have been attempts to hint at the essence of mystery and wonder. Early on I talked about a little boy who thought he saw a ghost. Later I related a dream sequence about the creative anima. One illustrates an outer mystery, the other an inner mystery. I have spoken of music and storytelling, seeing lions and watching movies, worship events and natural wonders. All are approximations that are relatively easy to describe. All are illustrations pointing to a greater mystery. Whether we set out to explore the outer world of universe or the inner world of the human heart, we will come up against that awe-inspiring mystery and wonder.

There are a thousand and one ways to culturally and/or religiously celebrate the mystery and wonder about us. We humans are naturally adept at making meaning out of our lives, and doing it in a palatable manner. At some point, or at some level there is the realization that all of our activities and celebrations only hint at the Great Mystery that is beyond words, beyond deeds, even beyond silence, but somehow underlies existence itself.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Responding to the Mystery

(Part 7 in the series, Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)
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My own experiences of mystery and wonder led me first to poetry then to theology, and later back to poetry. I think poetry is a more primary response. Theology, like philosophy and psychology are secondary responses in that they require categories, definitions, rules, and analyses. Music may be even a more primary response to mystery and wonder than poetry since music can be done without words.

There are those who say that the best response to mystery and wonder is a theological one. Others prefer to give psychological and sociological interpretations to experiences of mystery. Carl Jung was one who saw the psychological and theological implications of mystery and greatly elucidated psychological aspects to promote personal and spiritual growth.

One of my experiences of wonder came in a dream. At the time I was not quite sure what to make of it, but as I examined it, it became clear that there were strong religious allusions, classical Jungian psychological elements, and a strong affirmation of the poetic response. This is how I recorded it in my journal on August 31, 1982:

I was awakened, or I awoke, in the wee hours of the morning
in the midst of a most enchanting dream. I do not use the
word "enchanting" quaintly. I cannot remember much of the
dream, but I remember its effect - it was fantastic and
enthralling. When I awoke, my first thought was to get
up and write down what I had just heard in my dream, But
when I realized that I couldn't actually remember the exact
words I instead lay back down and fell asleep - which is
perhaps unfortunate. However, I shall now attempt to relate
the effect and the impression of the dream. Here is what
I remember - it seems that I had given a book of my writings
to a young lady. The lady seems to have been a good friend
and in some way important to me, but I cannot ascribe an
actual person to the image in the dream. My memory of the
lady in the dream seems vivid, yet at the same time I cannot
recall her features enough to know if it was someone I
know in real life. At any rate, she was somehow special
to me in my dream. She began to read to me from my own
writings. As she read, the words were immediately familiar
- and pleasing - to me. It was as though I knew the words
before she read them, which was not surprising since I
had written them. However, as she read, the words took
on some different kind of beauty which completely enthralled
me. Then she came to a poetic passage - it had all seemed
poetic, but this passage had definite rhyme and meter -
now for the first time I heard my writing being sung. I
suppose it was still the same lady, but the beautiful
feminine voice was not coming from any particular direction,
and I was no longer looking at the one reading, but I was
caught up within the magical scene that was being described
in the song. The song was beautiful, almost a chant but
it was a song with definite rhyme and sounded quite
ethereal. By this time I was caught up in another world,
as it were, utterly astounded by the beauty of what I heard.
It was at this point that I awoke and realized that the
words I was hearing were not words that I had written -
not yet at least. I thought, "I must write down what I
remember of the song - it was so beautiful!" But I could
not remember completely even the last two lines that I
had heard. I do remember that some portentous event was
about to be related and the song, at the time I awoke,
was describing the night in which it took place. All I
remember is there was something unusual about the moon
- something, it seems, having to do with its intensity.
There was something about a ring around the moon - I think
- and something about the nature of the moon's light. I
remember visualizing a night-blue sky and a full moon and
an ocean below. The effect of the dream, primarily due
to the song - the words and the music and the vocal quality
- was one of sheer beauty, magic, and delight.
Unfortunately, it is also utterly ineffable.

The following are two attempts to speak poetically to the dream:

To Our Lady

My love bore twilight in her breast,
And starlight beauty shone
That bade me gladly leave the rest
To seek out flesh and bone.

My love bore sorrow in her eyes,
And joy within her heart
That made me fully realize
An ever missing part.

My love bore grief within her bones
And victory in her brow.
Her strength rolled back the massive stones
That held my heart till now.


To the Queen of Heaven

I do not know how long I slept
Before being awakened by the dream
And by the voice of the Lady.
I was on the ocean
or on a mountain
or between earth and sky.
Her voice was so lovely, I barely noticed
where I was.
I cannot tell which was more beautiful,
the sound of her voice
or the words that she spoke.

I knew her face
But could not call her name.
She spoke of a wonderful time to come,
A magnificent event.
The sound of her words vibrated my heart.
Then she sang,
And beauty was heightened all around.
I was caught up in wonder.
I slowly became aware
that I knew every word she would sing
Before she gave the words voice.

As I watched her singing
Somewhere between earth and sky
I realized that the words were my own.
It was my joy to hear her singing
the words in my heart;
Reading from the book that was to come.

I do not know how long I slept
Before being awakened
By the voice of the Lady.


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Friday, May 21, 2010

The Wonder of Music

(Part 6 in the series, Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)
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After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
- Aldous Huxley

It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain; of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.
- Benjamin Britten.

Music is the silence between the notes.
- Claude Debussy

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
- Victor Hugo

Music is a marvelous thing. For many, music is the best way to express that mystery and wonder of life that we have been talking about. Does music simply remind us of those numinous events, or does it actually create a numinous experience? Music is such a bountiful treasure; did you ever wonder where music came from? How did we come by this gift? Who first invented it? How did we learn such a marvel? Who first heard the harmony of life and gave us songs to reflect that harmony?

Some say that music is a gift from Heaven, a treasure sent down from above. Do all good gifts come from above, or do they come from within? Perhaps music came from within humanity’s own vast creative capacity. What if music originated with a baby’s cry that went directly to its mother’s heart? Perhaps it arose from the sound of a women’s voice, bidding some man to stop and rest. Maybe music began with a shout in some village, interrupting the morning with news of joy. It could have arisen from someone wailing beside the bed of a departed loved one.

However it is that we came by the gift of music, it is a gift worth celebrating. Music connects us with the joys, hopes, desires and sorrows of life. Music connects us with one another. Good music is almost always a communal effort. Not only does it require a number of musicians coordinating their skills and efforts, it also is dependant upon the craftsmen who made the instruments and those who invented those instruments in the first place. Great choral works may feature a single artist, but they are supported, made full and complete by a larger chorus. Furthermore, great music requires more than the artists who create and perform – an audience is essential. Those who hear are participating in the music event just as surely as those who perform.

Music connects us in even more ways. Each generation has its own music which helps to shape, define and celebrate that generation. Any Baby Boomer who watched The Big Chill or Forrest Gump on the big screen readily connected with the music – it was the sound track of their shared lives. Most people have favorite music that makes them come alive. Many have favorite rock albums which they identify with certain phases of their lives. Even music on a small scale connects us in important ways. A mother singing a lullaby to an infant at bedtime can relax the child as well as bring calm and comfort to the household.

What kinds of music do you enjoy the most? What songs would you put on your Top 10 list? Can you think of a numinous moment you have experienced in which music was the primary factor?

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Experiencing Wonder in Storytelling and Cinema

(Part 5 in the series, Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)
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I think that the movie is the perfect medium for mythological messages. The medium is so plastic and pliable and magic things can happen. And then the combination, you know, of fantastic landscape and possible modes of action and voyaging that we can hardly conceive of in good solid terms ... That’s a mythological realm, and movies could handle this kind of thing.
               - Joseph Campbell, “The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell,” Mythic Dimensions (1997),
                 Tape 3, Side 1

One Saturday afternoon I went downtown to the public library to see what movie videos were available to check out. As I entered the large glass doors of the modern glass and steel facade of the new library building, I felt a little guilty about going there to find a movie instead of a book. Then it occurred to me that what I was doing was much more in line with what my ancient ancestors probably did. I was going to a public place to find a story, just as in the old days people gathered to hear stories from storytellers. Maybe they gathered in the village or around a fire. They would have heard stories of heroes and stories of where they came from. In those pre-literate days, they would have heard favorite legends that had been passed down through oral tradition.

The Earliest Stories

I can recall a story teller from my own pre-literate days. She was the Sunday School teacher for the pre-school class at Wedowee First Baptist Church. Back in the late 1950s there was not a lot of technology in churches. We may have had a flannel board, but that was the sort of gadgetry that was usually reserved for special occasions, like Vacation Bible School. Our teacher, when I was in the pre-school class, was an older grandmotherly type. On more than one occasion, which is probably why I remember this, she would tell us about how the world began. The only technology she had was plain white paper and an old shoe box full of broken crayons. When she got ready to tell us how the world began, she would hand us each a sheet of paper, then ask us to find a black crayon in the box of crayons. We kids would then go digging around looking for the right crayon.

“I found one,” someone would say.

“Here’s one,” someone else would chime in.

“Let me see that,” the teacher would examine the crayon. “No, I think that’s purple. I want you to find the blackest crayon you can see in that box.”

The when we all had our black crayons, she would instruct us to color our whole page black, until no more white could be seen from the paper. After allowing time for all the children to scribble on their paper, the teacher would say, “Now look at that paper – all you see is black. That is what it was like before God made the world. There were no trees, no birds, no people, no lakes – there was not even any light. Can you imagine no light at all? There was nothing anywhere before God made the world.”

Our preschool teacher was no childhood development expert or theologian, but she was able to lead a group of preschoolers who were incapable of abstract thought (according to the experts) to a sense of wonder about their world and their own existence - and a sense of awe at the possibility of nothingness. I know because I was one of those preschoolers.

The Cinematic Stories

We love stories – good story tellers can take us to that sense of wonder and mystery. In our day, the movie makers have stepped in with ever-increasing technological advancements to engage us in the art of storytelling. The cinematic experience can provide a rich medium for story telling which allows for a greater sense of wonder. The cinema combines drama, light, pictures and technical skill which, if the story is a good one, can heighten that sense of wonder.

The movie theater itself can help to set the stage, so to speak. It creates a space not unlike the cavernous cathedrals of a past era. As the lights go down and the screen comes up, our sense of anticipation increases. The theater also provides a communal setting for a shared experience. Even if we do not know anyone else in the audience, there is something about a public gathering that magnifies the significance of the cinematic encounter.

And then there are the stories: love stories, adventure, action, war stories and tales of suspense and horror. There is science fiction and fantasy which allow us to explore the boundaries of our imagination and frees us to think of new possibilities. What movies would you place on your top ten list? Ask yourself what it was about those films that made such an impact? Sometimes there is the social impact as in Norma Rae which illustrated the need to improve working conditions in textile mills, or Erin Brockovich which highlighted hazards of industrial waste and cover up. Then there are the tragic love stories seen in Romeo & Juliet and Titanic. Some seek out horror stories like Poltergeist and Halloween that make you glad to leave the theater for the light of day and the security of the real world. The Star Wars movies and the Star Trek series gave us action and adventure and allowed us to dream of other worlds. Who can forget the magic of E.T. or the joy of seeing the little guy empowered in The Karate Kid? Then sometimes you just need to laugh. A great comedy can cleanse the mind and body with laughter.

The cinema is one place where we are allowed to vicariously experience a wide range of emotions, and that is probably a healthy thing. Sometimes those vicarious emotions are important safety valves and sometimes they achieve that element of mystery and wonder. Technology can add to that sense of awe and wonder, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey or more recently in the 3D movie Avatar. Stories are important to us, and whatever medium is used for the telling, I suspect that we will continue to gravitate to those stories that bring meaning to our lives while conveying that sense of wonder.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Experiencing Wonder in Worship

(Part 4 in the series Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)

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The Three Paths

In the Bhagavad-Gita, the Lord Krishna explains to the young warrior Arjuna that there are three paths to salvation – three ways to achieve oneness with Ultimate Reality. There is the path of selfless action, the path of self transcending knowledge, and the path of devotion. I’m no expert in Hindu philosophy, but when I first read of the three paths to salvation, I saw parallels in my own Christian experience. One can find examples of commitment to religious life that fall within these three categories. For some, action is primary. We see that in the hundreds of charitable agencies and the social justice committees that one finds in many Christian denominations. For others, knowledge is the key. Theological studies come to mind as well as Sunday school lessons and apologetics. Then there are those who focus on devotion. There are many examples of devotion ranging from daily prayer to public worship to Eucharistic adoration and veneration of the saints.

In my own experiences and observations, I have seen how religious groups will emphasize one or another of the three paths. Baptists tend to emphasize knowledge over devotion and action. Pentecostals and charismatics are stronger on devotion with their emphasis on praise and worship. Catholics often emphasize devotion and action. Liberal Protestants are strong on action and knowledge but are less inclined toward devotion. The Salvation Army stakes its whole identity upon action. What about your own faith tradition? What do you see emphasized? Which of these three paths are you inclined to take?

On the Path of Devotion

In matters of public worship, we tend to structure things to be conducive to the experience of wonder, but that wonder does not happen every time. How many ho-hum church services and dull sermons have you sat through? When that moment of wonder and transcendence does come for you, it may not necessarily happen for your neighbor in the next pew. We treasure those moments when they occur, knowing that it does not happen every day (nor would we necessarily want it to happen every day).

By the time I was a teenager, I wasn’t fully cognizant of the concept of worship or of any particular experience of mystery and wonder to be found at church. My own understanding of wonder in the context of worship was expanded in an unlikely place while I was still a teen.

I had been invited to attend a special service at a local Assembly of God Church. I was assured that I would receive a blessing if I went. The church was a small cinder block building with a tin roof and plain windows that had to be opened in the summer since there was no air conditioning. The first time I went, I didn’t make it to the front door. I was running late and the service had already started by the time I arrived. Because of those open windows, I heard the service before I even turned off the road. Such exuberant singing and hand clapping was going on, my plain vanilla Southern Baptist nervous system was a bit unsettled by all the commotion. I could not see myself walking into that building, so I used the lateness of my arrival as an excuse to turn around and go back home.

Later, I was able to visit the little church and to get there on time. It was quite an experience to say the least. You have to realize that this was the early 1970s before Pentecostals had entered into the mainstream of society. I was 16, maybe 17 years old, and teenagers were supposed to be hip and cool (I suppose that is still true of teens today). These were backwoods country people who worked hard for what little money they had. You wouldn’t have found a professional or a socialite in this group. Neither was there a businessman or a politician among them.

Joining in the Chorus

I looked around at this rag-tag group of country folk. I thought to myself, I am still in high school and probably more educated most people in this room. What in the world am I doing here? I was accustomed to “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Substantial hymns sung from substantial hymn books. These people were singing Stamps-Baxter tunes from worn out yellowed paperback books. I remember the man who got up to lead the congregational singing. He was a red-faced man with a pot belly and wearing a baggy suit jacket. His idea of directing the congregational singing was to roll up his paperback songbook into a tube and wave it around. To really encourage participation, he began to slap that rolled up songbook into the palm of his other hand as he leaned forward toward the congregation, walking from one side of the church to the other.

After every verse of this one particular song was sung, the song leader directed us to continue with the chorus, singing it over and over. The name of the song was “Some Day.” I had never heard the song before, and have not heard it since, but I still remember the chorus:

Some day, some happy day
From sin, set free;
I’ll live with Christ for aye
Some day, some day.

As a teenager, I wasn’t particularly interested in someday – I was more interested in the here and now. I wasn’t even sure what living “with Christ for aye” was supposed to mean. I don’t know how many times that chorus was repeated, but the red-faced man up front, as well as the crowd in the pews seemed to know exactly the right number of times to sing it in order for it to have the most satisfying effect. While this song was being sung, I was looking around, not feeling any particular kinship with these country bumpkins, still wondering what I was doing there. Then something happened. For some reason, I knew that I should stop being so judgmental and self righteous. For some reason, I said to myself, “You can stand apart or you can join in and see what happens.” For some reason, I decided to join in, singing and hand-clapping with abandon. It was an inner shift that created an inner opening.

Somehow, within the space that those people had created for worship, the possibilities of “some day” cascaded into the “here and now”. I found myself experiencing that divine reality that dwells with us each day. It is part of our breath and bone, present at all times, but often not recognized. We were celebrating that reality together. All of us were caught up in the wonder of a divine and loving presence. I could have missed it, but for some reason on that night I chose to join in with that group of sincere people with whom moments before I had found so little in common. My heart learned something that night. And my friend was right – I did receive a blessing.

Many Avenues

If devotion is your path, there are many ways to get there. Usually it depends upon where you feel most at home. Since I have come to experience liturgical worship, I have found that even within one liturgy there are many avenues. My first experience with liturgy was in the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the Episcopal Church. Later I learned the Roman Catholic tradition, which follows the same liturgy that I had become accustomed to among Episcopalians. My wife and I visited a predominately African American Catholic Church in town. We were impressed that within the same liturgy they took their own music and customs and made the place really rock – it was great! The same was true when we visited the Hispanic Mass at our church – same liturgy, different music, different energy.

Of course, there are many other means to worship and devotion within many other traditions. Sometimes seeing how other traditions connect with the eternal gives one a new appreciation for one’s own tradition.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Experiencing Wonder in Nature

(Part 3 in the series Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)
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I daresay everyone has experienced a sense of wonder, and I would venture to say that everyone has found that sense of wonder in nature. “Breath-taking” and “awe-inspiring” are terms often ascribed to nature. There are innumerable examples which can connect us immediately with the wonder of existence, causing us to marvel at the mystery of the universe. John Muir spoke of nature in terms of religious grandeur. He even referred to “the scripture of nature.”

You probably can think of moments when you have sensed that wonder, perhaps at the ocean side or at a beautiful mountain vista. Maybe it was on a lake or a river, or hiking down a canyon or into a vast cave on a guided tour. Your most recent experience may have been a view of the sunset or sunrise. When I was in college, one of my classmates spent the summer with an inner city mission in New York City. He told of one of the projects in which children from the inner city were taken out to a camp where they could experience the trees, lakes, and mountains away from the tall buildings, asphalt, and constant noise of the city. I thought that event was probably the greatest gift that could be given – letting kids who had perhaps never even seen the countryside experience the life-giving and healing forces of nature.

I remember one moment of awe and wonder that I experienced years ago in west Texas. I was driving across country and found myself driving through Texas in the middle of the night. It must have been about 11:00 p.m. and I was on the interstate highway, driving through a heavy fog. Suddenly, I drove past the fog, and there was nothing but clear sky. I was not accustomed to such long stretches of flat land where you could see the horizon in the distance unencumbered by hills, trees or buildings. There was virtually no other traffic on the road, and I was far from the city lights. I was amazed by the brightness of the stars that night, so amazed that I pulled over to the side of the road and got out of my car. From one horizon to the other on that dark clear night I saw nothing but stars. It was as if I were in space looking out at the far flung worlds and galaxies. Many times in my life I had looked up to see the stars, but I could not remember ever being able to look straight ahead and see just as many stars. I was at the center of a veritable dome of starlit wonder.

What is your most memorable experience of wonder in nature? How did you interpret that wonder, and how did you respond?

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Seeing the Lion

(Part 2 in the series, Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)

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The lion has roared. Who shall not fear?
- Amos 3:8

Several years ago I heard Michael Richards ("Krammar" on the Seinfeld sitcom) telling a joke on David Letterman's Late Night program. It immediately struck me as one of the most theological stories I had heard in quite a while. Michael Richards said "Did you ever hear a kid talk about his trip to the zoo? You ask the kid, 'What did you see at the zoo?'

'Oh, we saw a lion (expressed in a ho-hum fashion, eyes half closed).'

“That kid didn't see a lion,” Richards continued. “What you do is when you take the kid to the zoo, you pick him up and put him over the fence where the lion is. The lion is coming up to get a closer look. The kid is yelling, 'Aaaaauuugh! Aaaaauuuugh! Aaaaauuugh!' Then just in the nick of time you grab the kid by the collar and yank him back over the fence. Then you tell him, 'Now! You've seen a lion!' "

A mystic can understand the theological truth of that story. So when you think of modern theologians you can think of Paul Tillich, Rosemary Ruether, and Michael Richards. Tillich, a systematic theologian, spoke of God as the Ultimate Ground of Being. Ruether, a liberation theologian, talked about authentic vs. inauthentic ways of appropriating the transcendent. Richards cut to the chase when he said, "Aaaaauuuugh! Aaaaauuuugh! Aaaaauuuugh!"

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Childhood Encounter

(Part 1 in the series, Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)
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It may not have been my first experience of mystery, but it makes for a good story. I was eight years old and it was a breezy summer evening. We lived in the country and our closest neighbor owned a horse pasture that lay between our house and his. On this particular evening, I happened to be out in the back yard as dusk was slowly moving to twilight. I looked down below our yard to where our neighbor's pasture ran adjacent to the woods. It was there that I saw the strangest sight. It resembled a white sheet floating in the air and dancing about in the lower corner of the pasture. I was astounded and perplexed. I had heard ghost stories and had seen them portrayed on TV, and I began to wonder if I might actually be seeing a ghost. The sight must have been two or three hundred feet away, so I slowly walked down toward the pasture fence to get a better view.

My heart was pounding, I was breathing deeply, my eyes were unblinking and fixed upon the mysterious object that floated, danced, and changed shape as it moved about in sometimes a circular motion, sometimes an erratic fashion. I felt both fear and fascination as I continued to creep in for a closer look. As I got closer, I heard snorting and footsteps – it was definitely alive. How much closer should I get? Should I bolt and run back to the house? At that critical moment my eyes detected what I had not been able to see further back in the dim twilight. I saw the shape of a brown Shetland pony who had white shoulders and a white back. Our neighbor was temporarily keeping a friend's pony in his pasture. There was a brief moment there when fear and laughter co-mingled. Suddenly the movement, the snorting and the hoof beats all made sense as I realized that from my initial distance I had only been able to see the white markings on the pony.

I ran back to the house in excitement. I had to tell someone what I had just experienced. The first person I saw was my older brother who was watching TV.

"Richard!" I said, "You gotta hear this – I thought I saw a ghost!" I then began recounting my twilight adventure. My brother, who was four years older than I (in fact, he is still four years older than I am) interrupted my story.

"Did you say you walked down to see it?" he asked.

"Yes!" I answered.

"You didn't think it was a ghost or you would have run away."

"But I did think so at first," I countered.

"No," he said, "you would have run."

Seventeen years later I was in seminary in California. In a Philosophy of Religion class I was reading Rudolf Otto's classic work, Das Heilige. Actually, I was reading the English translation, The Idea of the Holy. Rudolf Otto was writing about encountering mystery and wonder in the context of religious experience. He didn't like to use the word holy because of certain baggage that came along with the word. Instead, he coined the term, numinous to refer to the experience of mystery, and he used the term, mysterium tremendum to refer to the divine mystery itself. He wanted to get back to a more basic primal concept of religious encounter.

At one point Mr. Otto said that when one encounters the vast and indescribable mysterium trememdum one has the feeling of fear and the urge to run, but at the same time one is attracted to the mystery. When I read that, I wanted to go back to my brother and show him, "You see! Here's a German theologian who says you can experience fear and attraction simultaneously – that’s why I didn't run but went to get a closer look, even when I thought it might be a ghost." But I didn't tell him that because he's four years older than I am. Besides, I doubt if my brother even remembers the incident.

Looking back on that encounter long ago, I realize that all I need to know about experiencing mystery and wonder I had already learned by eight years of age:

1. I had other-worldly terminology to ascribe to the experience.
2. I knew the simultaneous feelings of fear and attraction.
3. I learned that it is difficult to convey to others the impact of a subjective experience.
4. There will be people who will discount one's experience of mystery.
5. I learned that truth does not diminish the impact of a subjective experience of mystery.

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Experiences of Mystery and Wonder

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“I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.” – Harry Emerson Fosdick

To live in the world is to live in the presence of mystery and wonder. We go about our daily lives and our daily routines doing the best we can, making the most sense that we can of what life is about. Perhaps the ordinariness of life is what gives us some sense of constancy and security, but many people want more that just the ordinary. Some will seek out the mystery and wonder of life. Others are just as happy to go about their business, and then are surprised by wonder, maybe even engulfed in mystery.

Experiences of mystery and wonder: we all have those moments. This week I’ll be posting some thoughts and observations about those experiences using the following topics:

1. A Childhood Encounter
2. Seeing the Lion
3. Experiencing Wonder in Nature
4. Experiencing Wonder in Worship
5. Experiencing Wonder in Storytelling and Cinema
6. The Wonder of Music
7. Responding to the Mystery
8. Walking in Mystery

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sitting on the Rim


He felt unsettled
As he sat on the rim
Of the canyon.
Unsettled by the vastness below
And the distance beyond.
A feeling of smallness,
The irrational urge to leap –
Then the soaring condor
Caught his eye.
Now buoyed by the vastness
Of air and space
He took in the whole panoramic view.

Coming home,
I walk inside feeling unsettled.
Feeling unsettled,
I am pushed out to the rim
Of consciousness.
The vastness below
And the distance beyond
Make me weak.
There are a hundred ways
To turn back
In search of firm, familiar, solid ground.
But today I will sit on the rim
Feeling unsettled
Waiting for the condor
To assure a grander view.

- Charles Kinnaird


Friday, May 14, 2010


I gazed upon Stonehenge as I stood
On the wind-swept Salisbury Plain.
The dim past was close at hand;
The land spoke to those who would hear.

There was wheat-stubble smoke,
and the sun burned red
On the wind-swept Salisbury Plain.
Earth, sun,
Wind and smoke,
Drawn together where mind touches stone.
The golden wheat joined in the chorus
And chanted with me,
"Our fathers lifted their heads here."

- Charles Kinnaird


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Are All Religions the Same?

Stephen Prothero has a new book out, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter. Prothero is very gifted in presenting matters of faith and religion to the American public. His previous books include American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, and Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t. In his latest book, Prothero argues that we are not advancing toward a better world by claiming that all religions are essentially the same. He opts for realism over idealism and says we do more good by a healthy understanding of the differences found the world’s religions. Click here for an article by Stephen Prothero about his book.

I am one of those who may lean too far in the “all religions are the same” category. My wife and I have had this same discussion. My view is usually something like, “Religion is a universal human trait. Because religious practice arises in every human culture, it will follow similar patterns.” Or I’ll say, “When you read the mystics and spiritual masters of each religion, you find the same concern for compassion toward other people and acknowledgement of a reality greater than ourselves.” Then my wife will say something like, “I’m sorry, but you cannot tell me that those (suicide bombers, fundamentalist Christians, or any number of representatives of unhealthy religion) are in the same path as the Dalai Lama (or some other representative of healthy religion).”

Prothero’s point is well taken, however, that we cannot just gloss over religious differences and think that all religions are the same. It is also true that what a person believes about God or ultimate reality will affect how that person engages with others in society. Prothero uses a sports analogy to drive home his point. You cannot say that baseball, football and basketball are the same, because they have different goals and rules. You cannot say that baseball is superior because it scores more runs, when the other sports do not even have scoring runs as a goal. I have a clergy friend who was telling me about an interfaith group she was a part of. There were Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Christians in the group, and they did not try to say that they believed the same things. What they were trying to do was to find ways to live together and projects in which they could cooperate. So I can agree that all religions are not the same.

Prothero uses the sports analogy. I might use a different analogy, though. People throughout the world speak different languages. Even though these languages are not the same, and often concepts are lost or diminished by attempts at translation, each language has grammar and syntax, and each language has communication as its purpose. So in some sense, languages are the same even though the words and sounds are completely different.

I really love matters of interfaith. As a religious person, I am fascinated by other religious people and am often surprised when I find ministers whose livelihood is religion to be so uninterested in other people’s religions. I have spent much time with other communities of faith, not in any official capacity, just as a face in the crowd – a present observer. What I have discovered is that the way to really get to know a faith community is to sojourn long enough to know what songs they sing together, how they treat one another, and what they contribute to the larger community and the world. This gives me more understanding than studying theological treatises or reading position papers.

I have also found my own faith practice enriched by encounters with other faith practitioners. One of my favorite books that I found at the library years ago was The Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. Goldman. Goldman’s approach is different from Prothero’s. Goldman is a journalist and an observant Jew. The book is about his experience taking a year’s leave of absence to study at Harvard Divinity. He states that his preconceived notion was, “If you know one religion, you know them all.” Diana Eck, professor of World Religions at Harvard, gave him a wake-up call on the first day of class when she said, “If you know one religion, you don’t know any.” Goldman came to understand that “It is unfair and unwise to understand one religion by the yardstick of another.” The author came to appreciate other faiths in the course of his studies by seeing them from the inside. There is a good review of the book I found online at

The reviewer includes a quote from the book that gives a good flavor of Goldman’s intent in writing the book:
"I am sitting in a black Baptist church and feel swept away by the incredible combination of pain, joy and music ricocheting through the building. I am sitting in a Russian Orthodox Church surrounded by statues and icons, and feel a sense of mystery and transcendence. I am sitting among Quakers at a Friends' meeting and feel a serenity I have never before known. In each case I leave as a Jew, rooted in the richness of my own faith but nourished by the faith of others."

Another book that I found at the library which I loved so much, I had to buy it is The Jew in the Lotus, by Roger Kamenetz. The author is a poet and English professor, and not-so-observant Jew who was invited to accompany and chronicle a delegation of rabbis who travel to Dharamsala, India for dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama had invited them for a visit because he wanted to learn from them “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” The book is a wonderful discovery of Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism (with delightful input from Hassidic scholar Zalman Shachter-Shalomi). The effect upon Kamenetz was a rediscovery of his Jewish roots. Click here for a review of the book. Kamenetz’s own account of “What I Learned about Judaism from the Dalai Lama” can be found here.

A third treasured book that I read years ago is A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, by Jack Kornfield. Kornfield is a prominent interpreter of Buddhism to modern American life. His book was one of the most affirming books to my own Christian practice that I have read. I mention it just as an example of the value of learning from other faith practices.

Prothero is correct in explaining that we cannot gloss over religious differences and claim that we are all really saying the same thing. He also gives some helpful information about the different goals of the different religions. As a seeker, however, I must add that Ari Goldman’s approach (and Kamanetz’s discovery) of having one’s one faith strengthened by encounters with other faiths is very appealing to me.

So are all religions the same, or are they different. My answer is a resounding “Yes!” (Those with mystical tendencies will understand).


Friday, May 7, 2010

Beyond Petroleum: To Ecological Disaster

White sands of the gulf beaches, estuaries and delicate ecosystems, livelihoods of hardworking fisherman – all of these lie in the path of the ominous oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico making its way to shore. The pictures posted with this blog entry were taken a few years ago when my daughter and I visited the Mobile Bay area. We saw the beautiful sands of Orange Beach, and viewed the lush natural habitats on Dauphin Island and Mobile Bay. Much of the beauty of the area lay in its lack of urban development.

News articles this morning tell of efforts to contain the spill from the off shore BP oil rig accident that occurred April 20. We hope their efforts are fruitful, but we all know that disaster is eminent. All who have enjoyed the beauties and the bounties of the Gulf may never see recovery in their lifetime. We can talk about who is to blame, whether it be greedy oil companies, unregulated and deregulated corporate practices, slow government response, or a populace insistent upon abundant fuel for an unsustainable lifestyle. Perhaps there is enough blame to go around. The important thing is to learn from this tragedy.

We could learn the importance of government regulation of industry. We could learn that giving free reign to corporations does not lead to civic responsibility. We could learn that there is no longer a choice between environmental safeguards and profit margins. We could have learned all of this before. We have ample examples of irreversible environmental damage.

There is the Ducktown Basin in Tennessee that was laid waste by just a few years of copper mining in the 19th century. In more recent times, we see in China and the former Soviet Union the kinds of pollution and environmental damage that can occur in industrial nations without proper regulations. In addition, we have had enough examples of damage from oil spills in our country, most notably the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 and the Exxon Valdeez disaster in 1989.

The damage to the Gulf, ecosystems and shoreline of the Gulf States will likely be widespread. All we can do now is to work together to minimize the damage. We should be able to see more clearly the consequences to future generations when make decisions based on immediate profit without regard to accountability or sustainability. We should see that now, but then again, we should have seen it before.

"Not dark yet, but it's gettin' there."


Monday, May 3, 2010

Memories, Sacred Objects, and Chance Encounters

One of the treasures of our household when I was growing up was a brass elephant bell. About the size and shape of a cantaloupe, it was a pleasure to look at, satisfying to hold, and it made the loveliest of sounds. The top half of the bell was solid, with a knob at the top. The bottom half was made of many prongs that continued the spherical shape of the bell. When picked up, the clapper in the center would strike along the prongs of the bell and would cast a delightful blend of chimes and bongs.

That elephant bell always sat in the corner of our living room. From my earliest days, I can remember the delight of handling the bell. As toddlers, my siblings and I each in our turn found joy in rolling the bell across the floor. I was still a small child when my parents explained to me that the beautifully pleasing bell was an elephant bell, and that it was given to them as a wedding present. That knowledge only made the bell more special. Elephants were fascinating! They were big and exotic. The fact that it was a wedding present gave the bell the highest aura of respect.

I can remember as a child thinking that my parents’ wedding was the most important thing I could imagine. I suppose I knew instinctively that it was the cornerstone of our family. It was the event in the distant past that made it possible for my brothers, my sister, and me to be here. It was the foundation of my security. That the bell was a wedding gift let me know that it was uniquely theirs – enjoyed by all of us, but a special possession of my parents.

Several years ago, when my daughter was eleven, she and I went browsing around in a second-hand novelty and antique shop. On a shelf I spotted a perfect replica of an elephant bell. Only 2½ inches high, it was more the size of a plum than a cantaloupe. I picked it up and slightly tilted the bell. That same magical sound flooded around me. It was not as large a sound as I knew from my childhood, but it was similar enough to carry me back to that secure, enchanted time.

My parents are both deceased now. My siblings are scattered, miles apart. The instant I picked up that elephant bell replica, I knew that it belonged in my house. It was only $6.50 – I would have paid much more to have it. As I was purchasing it, I told my daughter all about the elephant bell that had been in my home when I was growing up. I brought my find home, found a place on a shelf in our living room for the bell and told my wife the whole story.

My bell became a sacred object the moment I picked it up in that shop. It calls forth the spirits of my mother and father as the chimes meet the ear – just as surely as a photograph when the image meets the eye. The bell summons my own history, honors my ancestors, and recalls my inward delight as it calls my soul to contemplation.

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