Five years ago this week Carol and I were married in an unusual ceremony.
My wife happens to believe in God and the supernatural. I happen to think there is no God and Nature is enough.
In fact, she is a Presbyterian Minister who directs a large Interfaith Council.
I am a former Presbyterian Minister who worked for many years as an Interfaith Chaplain, who now teaches, writes and manages non-profit housing.
We were married at a Zen Center in a ceremony officiated by a Zen Priest, a Christian/Tibetan Minister, a Jewish Rabbi and a Wiccan Witch. . .all of whom are Women.
Friends and family who attended were Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, Bahai, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sufi, Agnostic, Atheist, Straight and Gay, ranging in age from a few months to 80.
I said it was unusual, didn’t I?
My wife’s parents renewed their vows with us since it was their 50th Anniversary.
My sister and her husband just happened to be celebrating their 27th on the same day!
Now, before someone concludes that my wife and I are just New Age Californians. . .We are not.
Well, we do live in the Golden State, but we’re from opposite sides of the country, have masters degrees and many years of working with diverse groups of people. We have no tolerance for most of the nonsense that passes for “spirituality,” especially when it’s irrational mumbo-jumbo (which a lot of it is). We live in the epicenter of Guru-land, but don’t give that much thought or attention. Too busy trying to do some down-to-earth helpful things for others, teach and build pragmatic, realistic bridges of cooperation.
When people ask why I usually don’t identify as an A-Theist or Anti-Theist I simply point to my years building relationships. Do I agree with the beliefs of many people including my wife? No. But it is the relationships that matter most. Do we discuss and debate? Sure, sometimes. But usually we’re all too busy trying to find ways of working together and making peace possible to spend time being distracted and divided by beliefs.
The essential belief is in relationships, interdependence and trustworthy living, working hard to create that messy and never-quite-finished slippery thing called “Community.”
So, now you know one major reason why I do not have the time, energy or interest in being anti-religious, anti-god, anti-theist.
While the Catholic Church apparently has enough evidence to “canonize” (make the measure of faith) two popes. . .
those who might be better examples of “living their faith” may just be overlooked.
Like Father Frans, an unconventional Dutch Jesuit Priest who was just shot to death in Syria (BBC)
In the early 1990s. . .Frans was given a few acres of flat agricultural land about 15km south-west of Homs. He called it al-Ard – the earth – and he used it to create a spiritual centre that had no precedent in Syria.
“It’s simple, like the earth,” Frans said. “That’s all.”
The dirt track that led from the main road to al-Ard ran between olive groves and vineyards. Frans didn’t use weed-killers or pesticides and there were wild flowers everywhere. In the centre of the land was a vegetable garden where perhaps a dozen people, many of them children or teenagers with disabilities, were weeding and watering the red earth.
Each morning Frans made a circuit of the nearby villages in his old VW van, collecting these young people from their families and bringing them to the farm. In a culture where people with disabilities are often hidden away in shame, Frans was creating a space where they could work together as part of “a community that values everybody.”
If anything, he looked beyond monotheism entirely. He was a serious student of Zen Buddhism and sat in silent meditation every morning. He also taught meditation and yoga in a quiet, light-filled space, neither church nor mosque, that he built at the heart of al-Ard. “For me,” he said, “it is important to start from the human meeting. Not to start with religion.”
That lack of dogmatism may have been one of the things that drew young people to Frans. In 1980 he began walking through the Jebal Ansariya, the mountains that rise from Syria’s Mediterranean coast, with students from his parish. Almost 30 years later, already in his 70s, Frans was still leading an annual eight-day hike across the country, followed by as many as 200 or 300 young Syrians – Christian and Muslim, Druze and Alawite. Though he was reluctant to ascribe any particular purpose to the walks, Frans acknowledged that they had become something special.
“The hike brings people together. They share the common experience of fatigue, of sleeping and eating together, and this builds a link between people. After the hike it is not important that you are Christian or Muslim, it is important that you are present.”
Working on the land, sitting in silence, walking across the countryside. For Frans, these basic human experiences were the most reliable way to create “a kind of unity, a human complicity, a human comprehension.”
I would have liked this man. I could imagine joining his work and his walk. I nominate him for Secular Sainthood (canonized as “the measure of a good human being”)
Regarding the “miracle” test for sainthood. . .what happens when one “miracle healing” is followed by a “miracle killing”? (crucifix dedicated to Pope crushes a man to death in Italy)
As a former Christian Minister who led hundreds of Easter services over the years, these holydays continue to get me reflective. My wife (a Presbyterian Minister) was amused this weekend when I brought a bible to breakfast to read her a passage from First Peter about Jesus preaching to the dead in “prison” since the “days of Noah.” I assume this is the origin of the strange idea of “purgatory.” Over waffles and poached eggs we had a light conversation about the psychology of persecuted peoples and their need for stories that give meaning and hope. As we finished I made the comment, “You know, if people hadn’t made these stories so literal and presented them from the beginning as myths of meaning and hope, we might all read them alongside Greek myths and other fables to enjoy and draw common ethics and such from them.”
There are times I consider writing another book and I would title it, Saving Jesus (from his followers): A Secular Chaplain’s Gospel. Or something like that.
He’s a “searching” skeptic who’s curious about what people believe and why they believe.
So, he visits various sanctuaries, meets people and builds relationships, all while having fun with it.
The part I really like is that Zach has cerebral palsy, but it’s not his DIS-ability that hits you.
It’s his Ability to draw people together as People.
(This reminds me of when I was a Shelter Director, coordinating people of different faiths and no faiths in a volunteer effort to open sanctuaries as common, safe space for people needing shelter. People helping other People. Not so complicated, is it?)
For me, this is simple, common sense and profound: It’s not so much about meeting Faith to Faith, but about People working together Face to Face.
I admit, it can be fun to make light of Religion and Faith. This “holy week” I’ve already asked two Ministers I know, “If there was a Last Supper, what was the Last Breakfast?” Some folks find these poking questions rather funny and I think we all should. It reveals the humanity hidden behind all the righteous ritual and “holy talk.” It’s time to get real and lighten up, Theists and Non-Theists.
During my 25-plus years as a Chaplain among “outcasts” “cast outs” “marginalized” women and men, I listened and learned (laughed a lot too). In the endless stories of human beings I heard a lot of truth. Hard truth. Nothing but the truth. . .except for the lies. Mostly those we tell ourselves to feel better. I hung out with huge numbers of people you’re not supposed to hang out with. And it made me a better person. I left my faith in some bushes and weeds along the path, but I journeyed many rivers of lives and thoughts and beliefs that made me deeply grateful.
My Address is a River, a book of chaplain stories I published in 2010, ends with a riff on forming circles of houseless people in a city park, of directing a shelter that became a “lifeboat” for many, and my own question, “Where is America?” I quote this line from the Sufi poet Rumi, “Who cares what is going on inside my house? There is blood on my doorstep–don’t ask me why.” And then I write,
In today’s America a growing number are asking why. There are too many who have fallen at the doors of our cities, our neighborhoods, our congregations. Chaplains move, sit, walk, stand, shed tears with those who are falling and we are companions for the survivors of poverty and homelessness. Along with my team I led memorial services for over one-hundred houseseekers and travelers. Some whose stories are glimpsed in these pages are no longer with us, but their blood is on our doors. Like a passover of the dispossessed, we cannot but take sides. We are either in the camp of Pharoah or the Liberator. The ancient story has become our own.”
I am forced to make some conclusions,
America is not the promised land anymore. . . . Is there hope this side of the river? I believe there is. I have to believe there is. We are a river of Americas, and a country of rivers.
In this Passover and Easter season, it always seems strange to me that “holydays” are celebrations of OUR tribe, OUR beliefs, OUR story joyfully telling ourselves and the world that WE are the INSIDERS. Hooray. As I see it, we have thousands of years of distraction. . .centuries of passing over the slaves and dispossessed here and now, of crucifying the innocent (or even guilty. . .who isn’t?) with our exclusionary neglect. The blood on the doorposts is not just Jewish blood; the chalice is filled with someone else’s liquid life and how could that ever taste good or make us feel better? Blood is blood. Life and death mingled in a world of suffering and pain and loss. If you read the stories this way, maybe there is still something to salvage in the tales of Egypt and Palestine. But if it’s a comforting message, if people simply leap to liberation and proclaim “It’s OUR Holy Land!” the story is just another fractured fairytale. If it’s merely a leap from crucifixion to resurrection, with flowers and frills covering up the splinters and stains, the story is no better than a weary old fantasy.
And the one who walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to their own funeral dressed in their shroud (Walt Whitman)
Is there any meaning left in these ancient stories? I think there may be. But only if they serve to remind the masses of believers that believing is never enough and may not always be good. I would audaciously claim that non-believers may be the salvation of meaning for these stories. Especially given that we are the outsiders in a world dominated by your faith. As my book tells it, if we’re open to it, we may all find our way back to a river, our real address, our true home, where no one is excluded; it’s here, among the outcasts, and we find that we are outcasts too. And in that discovery, we are shocked to find we belong to a community whose blood flows in a much more ancient, much greater river than anything the ancestors imagined. Not a holy or heaven-minded circle, but a very natural, earthbound, shall I say Secular, flesh-and-bloody belonging.
If you participate in Passover or Easter this year, I wish you well. But I particularly hope you are willing to at least consider the possibility that the blood on the doorposts is fresh and you may find your God is the outsider with a strange name, and without an address.
Seventy-five years ago (1939), John Steinbeck gave us his epic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Biblical title with some religious themes, and some of the best comments on religion we have in a novel. Poverty, immigration, prejudice, surviving a national disaster like the dust bowl (or not surviving). A family living on the edge with only each other to hold onto while searching for. . .America.
“He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. . .His truth is marching on.” Empty words for many left with little comfort and long periods of suffering.
For a while I considered writing a book called something like, Steinbeck’s God. The way characters throughout his many books wrestle with religion and questions of faith and meaning give a lot of material for anyone in human service.
Here are some lines I marked a long time ago while active in jail and street chaplaincy:
“Tom looked at Casy’s waving toes. ‘Could ya come down from your thinkin’ an’ listen a minute?’ Casy turned his head on the stalk-like neck. ‘Listen all the time. That’s why I been thinkin’. Listen to people a-talkin’, and purty soon I hear the way folks are feelin’. Goin’ on all the time. I hear ’em and feel ’em; and their beating their wings like a bird in an attic. Gonna bust their wings on a dusty winda tryin’ ta get out. . . .
‘All along I seen it,’ he said. ‘Ever’ place we stopped I seen it. Folks hungry for side-meat, and when they get it, they ain’t fed. An’ when they’d get so hungry they couldn’ stand it no more, they’d ast me to pray for ’em, an’ sometimes I done it.’ He clasped his hands around drawn-up knees and pulled his legs in. ‘I use ta think that’d cut ‘er. Use ta rip off a prayer an’ all the troubles’d stick to that prayer like flies on fly paper, and the prayer’d go a-sailin’ off, a-takin’ them troubles along. But it don’ work no more.’
Tom said, ‘Prayer never brought in no side-meat. . .’
‘Yeah,’ Casy said, ‘An Almighty God never raised no wages.'”
. . .
Tom studied him with half-shut eyes and he put on his cap again. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘this ain’t no lan’ of milk and honey like the preachers say.'”
Listen to people and pretty soon you hear the way they’re feeling.
Beating their wings like a bird in an attic.
Rip off a prayer and all the troubles would stick to it. . .but it doesn’t work anymore.
Prayer doesn’t bring the food or the jobs, pay the bills, give land to live or end the suffering.
No matter what the politicians or preachers preach, this is not the land of milk and honey, not the promised land.
Sounds silly doesn’t it? Almost nonsensical. Finding, creating, building a middle ground, a grounding where differences can live side by side, where even theists and non-theists, believers and non-believers could meet and get along and do something good and creative. . .is that possible?
Of course it is.
The ground and grounding is our humanity, our humanness, our common needs on the common earth. Make up a word, like “groundingnessly.” See if that works. How do we describe something that’s wild and strange and not definable?
Does it always make sense? Is it supposed to be “fun” and neat and clean and easy? Give me a break.
I lived in a forest cabin on an island for a few years. The simple life praised by Henry of Walden and John Burroughs of the Catskills. Carried water from a well. Used a waterless compost toilet. Heated the one-room space with wood I cut from fallen alder trees. Closest neighbors were chipmunks and chickadees, owls and coyotes, eagles and herons. Orcas and gray whales swam near the salty shore not far away. I kept busy by not being too “busy” (too much like that “being productive” life on the mainland). Yet, I scribbled a little, the scribbles became those leafy things we call books, carved as they are from thin slices of skin from rooted, grounded, living things.
I became “The Pathfinder.” I worked in the woods, finding or opening paths in the thick woods, at first merely to discover what was out there, to see what no one else was seeing or could see. Hours and days and months, in rain, snow , wind and heat, out in the “overgrown undergrowth” with moss and duff and vines and fallen giants. With frogs and nuthatches and snakes and spiders and teeming silence. A tangled mess of dirt and damp stickery things. A delightful, untamed, untameable mess. And the mess was me.
All this was symbolic, if I thought about it (and I often didn’t, thankfully). Wiping sweat and dust off my face, I would reflect on years in the thick mess of twisted and overgrown humanity. The pain and suffering and lostness of the urban jungle, or at least the suburban savanna. The transition from chaplain of sacred things to a chaplain of secular things simply and naturally grew on me. More of a blending than a transition, a dissolving or dissipation of the spiritual into all things secular. God became Nature, Nature became God and Nature became Nature, enough just to be Nature.
I tried to be careful opening these pathways into whatever. I knew I was harming habitats and their inhabitants but my guiding philosophy was Do No Harm, as ironic as that sounds, and is. It was hard work. Swinging a machete, clipping or sawing branches, digging with a heavy mattock, dragging my muddy boot over rain-softened earth. Clearing winding and twisting paths (never too clear or straight!) to walk in spaces where people never walk. I thought of Muir, old John Muir, bounding into the boundless wilderness, beckoning, “enticing” generations into “Nature’s loveliness.” Opening lands few if any had ever seen. Working hard to protect wild land by drawing people to see it and learn to love it. A double-edge sword though, isn’t it? To conserve and preserve wild places you have to convince people to love, honor and respect those places, so you bring them there, you open the way for them to come for themselves, all the while risking they will see a tree or an animal or the land itself as a “resource” to use and use up. You risk the destruction of the sanctuary when you open the doors, but they must open.
It’s all common ground though, isn’t it? This earth with all its earthiness, is all we have. Some may dream of heavens in the heavens or some other, more beautiful, better world. But how could there ever be such a place? Muir, Burroughs, Thoreau, Emerson and many others have reminded us: We are HOME, here, now, in this wonderful wild place of endless, perhaps “eternal” Beauty. Why would we want more?
All comes back full circle, winding back around on these muddy and misty and sometimes bright warm trails to all that we have and can hope to have. Are we believers or non-believers? Are we women or men, this color or that color, this culture or that? What piece of land on the Big Wet Spinning Rock do we call our “homeland”?
I don’t think this is about thinking “outside the box.” Our challenge is to think Outside. . .out to Nature. . .and into Nature. . .our own nature, that is inseparable from the universe, the cosmos—the Nature “out there” is the Nature “in here,” within. This is our common ground. Dirty and earthy and weird and wonderful as it is.
There really is no “Middle Ground.” There is no middle. It is the ground under our feet. Call it heaven if you wish. But it is a Wild Heaven because it is, and always will be, our common, Wild Home—our cabin in the woods on this Island, not in the middle but on the far edges of space. Where there are, we know, no edges at all.