Rumi, Movement, and Leaving my car a mystery

This morning I was listening to Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippetts. This particular show was on the Sufi poet and teacher, Rumi.  The guest quoted Rumi as having said something beautiful connected to the dance of the Dervishes, and it connects to several other thoughts I’ve been having lately. 

If you don’t plow the Earth it becomes hard and nothing will grow on it.  Just plow the earth of yourself–get moving. Don’t ask exactly what will happen—simply begin to move and see what comes of it.

Similarly, though in another vein, I remember someone saying something along the lines of keeping their car a mystery.  When asked for further clarification he said, ” If I take my car apart I’ll probably understand it better, but it just won’t drive any more.” 

This twin sense of simply beginning to move, to spin in circles, to plow the other, to resist taking the car apart, seems noteworthy this morning. 

Who do I say I love when I love my God…a promise…a call…a mystery…a Love and a Lover… and these are the things I myself become as I join that dance.

The Impossible Now–Part Four

This is the final installment of an introductory position paper I’m calling “The Impossible Now” or “Towards a Theology of the Impossible.”  There are three previous parts.  You can find them here, here, and here.  In this final installment I talk about “the religious question.”  Cheers!

…The im/possible is refusing, as it always does, to be pinned down and become a part of someone’s strategic planning. It will always retreat from our view, from our expectation, from our massaging of what is possible, and back into the realm of the unexpected and truly unimaginable….

The Event of the im/possible cannot be prepared for and at the same time cannot be depended on. These are horrible words to hear for strategic planning! How then do we live with such (non)knowledge? If authenticity, imagination and experiment are the tools that we shape the relative future with, what are the tools we use to embrace the wildcard future—the im/possible? What can we possibly do or say or prepare in reference to something that lies so completely out of our ability to do or say or prepare for? It is for this place, this absurd, unexpected, undeterminable place that a different set of internal reservoirs are needed. Religion, good religion, seeks to address this sort of question.

Having done all to encounter the present in a meaningful way, we are still often left with seemingly meaningless events that continually take us by surprise, disturbing our best laid plans. This realization is, at its highest, a religious experience. It doesn’t require belief in a Personal Origin, or First Cause. But it does require something of us. That much is certain. The “what” is actually rather well-known. The attributes I’m going to mention are in many ways universals. They’re what philosopher’s might call “un-deconstructables,” in that they are ideals—almost always un-fully-realized urges that keep us reaching toward them. The most famous of Jesus’ early followers, the apostle Paul, said it best, in my opinion, “…in the end, these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love.”

This simple three word formula provides the basis for the intersection between the im/possible and the real. Faith isn’t so much a mental adherence to theoretical propositions about the nature of truth, but rather living today in the light of the future as it should be. Faith sees the idealized Peaceful Tomorrow, the future where swords have been beaten into plowshares, and tanks made into tractors, and determines to live peaceably today, even while the world is filled with wars and rumors of wars. Faith is an active, aggressive leap forward toward the Good, the Just, and the Best in spite of evidence contrary. Faith is an investment in particularity and locality, refusing to be theoretical and (merely) universal. Faith is always personal, though hardly private.

Hope isn’t the spindly sickly stuff of fantasy; it’s longing contentment. Hope sees the possibility of renewal and resurrection where others see lifelessness or death. Hope believes in commonality, compassion and a desire for connection with the Other where fear informs us that only Strangers and Monsters await on the other side of the unknown.

And love…Love is the greatest of these. Even faith and hope must give way before love. What can be said of love? Those who have known both Love and God have said that God is Love. If God can be spoken of and said to be anything at all, God is spoken of as and said to be Love. The substance of the divine is bound up in love. Concrete love. Active love. Visible, tangible, touchable love. Love, which covers a multitude of sins. Love which walks the extra mile. Love which gives up the second coat. Love which willingly lays down its life for another, for the Other. Love, of whom we may sing a thousand songs.

Our deep need to account for the unaccounted for, forces us to build up, to work on, a different skill set entirely. The things that are simply cannot prepare us for the things that are not. For those sorts of im/possible occurrences we must draw on the deep fountains that lurk at the corner of our being, not quite yet realized, still in formation, and dependent on some previously unforeseen happening to unleash their potential in our lives. In some strange way, these too, carry the stamp of Artistry. Art, in all of its forms, somehow allows to us to look upon, and hint at, those things which we cannot view in a straightforward way. Artistry gives birth to the Encounter of im/possibility which we are able to meet with arms open, acting out of faith, hope, and love.

God is Dead

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?–Friedrich Nietzsche

There is no Sovereign holding the “whole world in his hands.” There is no longer any kind and benevolent Maker to encourage us towards a prophetic imagination. The Prince of Peace could not survive the ravages of war and blood and dirt.  There is no one listening on the other side of our prayers. There are no answers that will come if we just wait a little longer; no yes, or no, or maybe to emerge in a few moments.  God’s provision is gone.  God’s goodness is not there.  There is no hopeful tomorrow to pine after. No messiah coming again, for he has already come and look what we have done to him.  God is dead.  God is dead. God is dead.

But we are living still.  How then shall we live on this Good Friday?  Shall we sink into less than who God created us to be? Will we, in the presence of God have become mature adults, and in the death of God shrink backwards into spiritually retarded children?  Or will commit our essence into His hands even as he has forsaken us? Must we now become what you made us to be–fully grown sons and daughters of God?

God. Thank you for dying.  Thank you for forsaking us. Thank you for keeping your part of the promise and allowing us to, at last, grow up.  Today, We celebrate your death.

The Impossible Now–Part Three

…we build Emergency Rooms…

Of course this doesn’t stop the im/possible from occurring again. Wildcard futures, the unexpected and unpredicted, keep on happening; but just not in the same way. If we can count on them, they are no longer miraculous; they would have crystallized into just another part of the natural world. The im/possible, in order to remain impossible, will always recede back into the swirling primordial waters of the edge of chaos where it awaits upsetting the apple cart another time, in a different way than before. Going back to the Exodus narrative we see this played out in several places. The absurd provision of manna, a sort of cake-like heavenly food (whose name literally means “what is it” and emphasizes the confusion such im/possible events leave us with) is a seminal occurrence in Hebrew literature. However, the manna’s presence ends as the Israelites cross over into Canaan. Most interpret this to mean that God’s miraculous provision was no longer needed in the light of the bounty of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, and so God withdrew the needless gift. But in another reading, the manna actually disappears just when they need it and can count on it the most. It’s been forty years that they’ve relied on manna from God-knows-where. In some ways the generation that grew up with manna pudding and manna tar-tar has no concept of how to hunt or gather, let alone cook, anything else. Their conquest of the land will take another entire generation—who doesn’t need a regular stock of food and supplies for such an undertaking, especially one such as this that they have learned to depend on? In a sense, the rug is being pulled out from under the Hebrews’ feet. The im/possible is refusing, as it always does, to be pinned down and become a part of someone’s strategic planning. It will always retreat from our view, from our expectation, from our massaging of what is possible, and back into the realm of the unexpected and truly unimaginable.

The Impossible Now–Part Two

…There’s another kind of future, one we’re even less equipped to face….

Truthfully, the kind of event I’m envisioning can’t be prepared for. We cannot even begin to imagine or plan ahead for this kind of future—the wildcard future. It’s always out of nowhere. Nobody sees it coming. As post-structuralist philosopher Jaques Derrida said, it is the im/possible—the impossible that becomes possible by colliding with our immediate reality. The im/possible is truly unimaginable. And of course, the unimaginable happens all the time. We hear it in the sobs of the newly widowed, “I never thought anything like this could happen.” We observe it on the shocked faces of political pundits as outsider-unaccounted-for’s win primaries and then even presidential races. We feel it from time… to time…to time. In fact we encounter the im/possible so often in life that it’s a surprise that we’re surprised. Of course the examples I’ve used are basic, even bottom of the barrel; they’re somehow incredible familiar events. Truthfully, the reason why they’re familiar to us at all, why we relate to sentiment of the grieving widow or the shocked commentator is because we expect the unexpected. Culturally, we’ve built them in to our routine. Think about emergency rooms. What a strange place. It’s an institution built entirely on the premise that we will be taken off guard. Emergency rooms are a societal contingency plan. They’re an admission of our own lack of control. But even this apprehendible-unanticipatible is not the im/possible I speak of – not really. What I mean is an event outside of the built-in contingency plans; circumstances that overturn the apple cart altogether.

It’s difficult to get concrete with that term, “the im/possible.” Partially this is true because as soon as the unexplained and the unexpected enter our universe, we begin to explain and expect it. The impossible becomes…possible. That’s why I notate it with a little slash separating the word, because it is simultaneously possible and impossible.  Take a Biblical example, something outlandish – the crossing of the Red Sea for instance. In the book of Exodus, as their Egyptian taskmasters and previous owners are in hot pursuit, the children of Israel get stuck between a rock and a hard place. The armies of Egypt are behind them, and a body of seemingly un-crossable water is ahead. What happens next is remarkable. The im/possible occurs. There’s a divine intervention. The wave’s part and dry land appears. The ex-slaves pass through the clearing just in time and the story ends with pursuant horse and rider being swept away by the collapsing wall of water. Miraculous. My point isn’t the “fact” of the event; whether it happened that way or not. Actually my point is the absurdity of it all. These things don’t happen every day. It couldn’t have been expected or anticipated. And while the cries of the desperate would have certainly bordered on polite requests for rescue, no one could have imagined that the Sea itself would have been parted. Within the context of story itself it is a brilliant example of the impossible intersecting reality. What’s more is that the event is not only unexpected but is also unexplainable, at least within the text. The author of Exodus doesn’t attempt to give detailed scientific or historical precedent for the event but allows it to remain teetering on the edge of chaotic disturbance.

Several years ago the History Channel aired a series called “Mysteries of The Bible.” It featured various scholars, historians, archeologists and other experts in the field, each of whom took their best shot at rationalizing a handful of biblical stories such as the one above. I’ll never forget the slough of explanations for the crossing of the Red Sea. There were several of them. One focused on wind power and hurricane strength to clear water, rather instantaneously, from sea floors. Another proposed a case of mistaken identities; the body of water mentioned in the book of Exodus couldn’t have rationally been such a huge expanse as the Red Sea we know of, so it must have been a smaller one, such as the Sea of Reeds. The Sea of Reeds, being rather shallow, could have conceivably dried, in due season, in one place or another, allowing for a mass exodus such as the one described in the Bible. On and on the explaining went, until any logical person watching the show would have been sufficiently convinced that the real crossing of the Red Sea was slightly (or vastly) different than presented in the Biblical rendition, but was therefore entirely possible, conceivable, and explainable. In other words, the im/possible just became possible. As soon as the unimaginable future enters into our reality we immediately reconstruct our thinking to account for it. We rationalize how we could have been prepared (had we only thought far enough ahead or enough outside the box). As this happens an event ceases to be impossible and starts to acclimate into our version of reality. Experts figure out the science behind the magic. Historians matriculate the timeline of crucial events. Theologians and philosophers craft carefully articulated statements of description and prescription. Going back to a previous example, we build Emergency Rooms.

Expectancy

Each man was judged according to his expectancy.  One expected the possible; another the eternal; but the greatest of all expected the impossible… Johannes Silencio

Flame and (im)possibility

This morning I’ve lit a candle in my office, symbolizing “the Prayer” and the “Divine Presence”.  I keep looking at it, watching it flicker back and forth and dance to and from itself.  It occurs to me that the flame is never stationary–it never stays still, it’s never in the same place it just was.  In a sense it is constantly dying and being reborn, some place else.  I think that is somehow like God.  But just as I get my hands around never being able to get my hands around God, I notice something else about this candle.  There actually is a stationary center–the wick.  And it’s odd because that is the very core of the flame but also absent of the fire.  In other words, the place the fire is, it is not.  The absence at the center is the flame.  This is also like God I think. 

Deep faith requires, I think, radical uncertainty.  “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief” (Mark 5).  True hope, as Paul says, is “hope against hope”.  And real love, not false or easy likability, is unreasonable and absolutely against common sense.  It is patient and kind (when it shouldn’t be).  It keeps no record of wrong and isn’t easily angered (when it should).  Faith, hope, and love…these are the tools that are, as Derrida might say, of the (im)possible.  They are (im)possible instruments through which we embrace the (im)possible God. 

This is where the flame and the flicker are taking me this morning…

A Guest Appearence…

Recently my wife Jessie read a book that I was sent for review. Her thoughts on it were great and so she’s making a guest appearance here at sensualjesus.


Eve is a novel–but don’t let that throw you for a loop.  Like Richard Rohr says, “It’s all true, and some of it really happened.”  The fact is: I couldn’t put it down from the instant I started. Elissa Elliott, the author, did a wonderful job of painting a picture of who Eve could have been and the struggles her family could have gone through. The book is written from the perspectives of Eve and 3 of her daughters, Naava, Aya and Dara. Its story line alternates between flashbacks to life with Elohim (G-d…) in the Garden of Eden and then the journey that transpired after being tossed out. Honestly, and maybe surprisingly, I found myself easily relating to the woman of Eve and inwardly nodding, “Well yeah, I’ve also felt that way before”. As a wife, Eve argued with her husband, Adam. He could be annoying and push her buttons. Sometimes the attraction wasn’t there. But they continued to choose each other. As a mother, Eve was often times disappointed in her children’s actions and choices. She did and said hurtful things out of anger. She played favorites. She blamed herself for the way they turned out. But they were hers, so she loved and forgave them. Ultimately, Eve doubted God’s very existence, even when he had been so real to her in the Garden. She was angry at his absence. She often times lived in the past and what “could have been”, instead of dealing with the present here and now. She became depressed and tired. She had regrets. But she once again chose to love, she chose to forgive, and she chose to have faith. In the end, what makes this a great book is the same reason why the creation/Genesis narrative is a great story—because it’s True. It describes something that we all can identify with, but don’t want to identify too closely with, so we use stories to glance at it out of the corner of our eye.  I walk away thinking about the incredible word “choice”, and how I’ve never really associated it with other words like “grace” or “love” and most of all, “faith”. But maybe faith and volition have a lot more to do with each other than I’ve thought.  Like most folks who have been married can attest about love, faith also may be less of a feeling or a presence, and far more of a decision to move forward.  I would definitely recommend it.




Art.

Sorry for the proliferation of quotes…but I think each of them is inspiring and gives great insight.

Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb…the most active and dynamic of all? …It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God…” –Mary Daly (theologian)

“We must accept that this creative impulse within us is God’s creative pulse itself.” Joseph Chilton Pearce

“God must become an activity in our consciousness” Joel Goldsmith

“Why should we all use our creative power….? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.” Brenda Ueland

“The purpose of art is not a rarified, intellectual distillate–it is Life, intensified brilliant Life.” Alain Arias-Misson

“It is the task of art to undo the work of our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits…making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us…” Marcel Proust

I find myself in a reconstructive phase where I am re-imaging, along with others, what a collective of people engaged with God, each other, and the world around them could look like.  In many ways this is, as my friend Ryan observed, a very personal activity of “leaving behind an artifact”–a commemoration of the journey I’m on. 

Church is a hard word for me. Mainly because I’ve been actively engaged in comparing the Worst of what it has been and has become with the Best of other faith traditions or my own idealism. Still, it becomes easier for me to use this word when I talk about it using metaphores.  Church as…well, for one, (and owing a stiff tip of the hat to Troy Bronsink for the specific articulation of this metaphor)…art. 

That’s right…you heard me…Church as Art.

I believe that this is actually the most important and basic foundational piece of moving forward with people trying to live in the way of Jesus.

First…allow me to define Art.

Anthropologists define art as “the creative use of imagination to interpret, express, and engage life, modifying experienced reality in the process.”

To put it in my words, art is approaching life with a degree of authenticity, imagination, and experiment.  In this process, one often births artifacts–visible and tangible reminders of the places we have been and the beliefs we have held. 

Art isn’t limited to paintings, sculpture, drawing, music, etc… (though it certainly does include those). Actually art is simply creativity expressed. 

Why is this important?

Believe it or not we do not see the world as it is, but actually as we believe it to be. We are constantly engaged in interpret ting our environment through a complicated series of images and the framing stories that we tell ourselves.  When our ability to engage those with imagination is damaged we begin to interpret the world in harmful and unproductive ways. 

Culturally, few of us are immune to the lack of creativity that dominates Western culture for the last 250 years.  Left brain logistics are taught, reinforced, and invisibly upheld as the dominant way of viewing the world. Newtonian science has instructed us to see the universe as a great clock-like machine–Enlightenment inspired creatonism has maintained a view of God, actually not as creator, but as machinist or cosmic tinker. The professions that were most desirable in the last two centuries have been ones that processed accounts, calculated numbers, memorized tombs of law, and treated patients with cold impersonalities.  This sort of rigid thinking has led to the most atrocious wars known to man, the most destructive weapons capable of being used, and a general lack of wonder, mystery, and awe towards the universe.  Without imagination, fear NOT hope takes over. We become territorial, isolated, and repressed.

The solutions we are often offered for our world problems are as calculating and cold as the last, failed, set. In fact, some have commented that the central aspect of Western culture today is the failure to create anything new–caught in a holding pattern where regurgitation is the only option. For something to change…well…something’s gotta change.

And something IS changing:

Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs. Today, those capabilities are still necessary. But they’re no longer sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent”

Imaginers NOT Managers

“The spiritual life of the West, which is impoverished and depressed could be seen as a failure to engage with imagination”. The Bible is approached boringly, with absolute literalism.  Church boards or elder councils are filled, not with artists and imaginers but with managers and pragmatists.  On and on it goes…while the spiritual life of the West starves; not for lack of truth but for lack imagination on how to engage and express it.

Simply put, if religion (in the best sense) hopes to address the needs of the world today, hopes to relate to God in anything but rote isolation, hopes to experience lasting renewal it must reactivate it’s view of God as Artist(literally Creator), of spiritual community as Art (literally the product of imagination, experiment and authenticity), and individuals as artists (those who labor to conceive and birth visible expressions of hope and love.)

Was Jesus Creative?

Some people will challenge spiritual community, or church, as Art purely on the basis that they fail to see Jesus as a cultural creative.  I think this may be short sighted. It may also stem from a literalist and unimaginative reading of the ancient texts.  Consider that in the earliest communities of Christians thought it was important to remember 34 miracles and not one of them was a repeat of the one before. Consider that Jesus’ profession might accurately be called “story teller” because of his preferred mode of communication. Consider that a number of times he compelled his students to think creatively about how they would approach his world.  Consider that one of his apprentices would later remember Jesus’ ministry not as miraculous but instead filled with artwork…pictures…symbols…literally SIGNS. 

I would suggest that viewing Jesus as an artist and provocateur may be one of the most important shifts in transitioning from a shame based reading of Christianity to one of hope and joy.

Unblocking

This will require some unblocking.  Most of us mistrust our creative sensibilities.  Imagination is culturally another word for “fake” or “not real”.  And so many have been conditioned to think critically not creatively that their inner critic is a giant compared to the grasshopper of their imagination.  In order to approach the deep issues facing the world currently, in order to live and participate in community and indeed perhaps even in order to approach God in a journey of transformation, we may need to simply learn how to approach a blank page or a canvas or a lump of clay.  The liberation of one faculty of creativity allows for release in other areas also. 

So…let’s be creative…let’s explore and discover and then express those monumental and mundane artifacts that are generated.  Let’s celebrate. And most of all, let’s learn to re-engage the God, each other, and our selves with experiment, authenticity, and imagination…as art.

Which One Do You Feed?

From the sermon and the National Prayer service this morning:

There is a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom:  One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces.

“There are two wolves struggling inside each of us.” the old man said.  “One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear… The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love…” 

The grandson sat, thinking, the asked “Which wolf wins Grandfather?”

The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

I feel like I learn this lesson every few days, if not every few minutes. It is so powerful to me.  We are, as was said earlier this week, called to be co-creators in an uncertain destiny.  This is done using not the tools of critique and negativity but rather using the open eyed square shouldered sense of hope each of us has access to. 

I love it.

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