Enforcing the Pattern

“Hey!” The shout came first, then the young man sprinting across the street, clutching what looked like a moneybag in his hand. Was I witnessing a robbery in progress? He leaped like a hare, weaving through the traffic stopped at the intersection, and I mused that only a person fleeing a crime could run that fast.

Then I saw the bus parked around the corner. It pulled away from the curb just seconds before the young man reached it, and I empathized with the disappointment he must be feeling. My impulse was to offer him a ride. I glanced at the passenger seat to see what I would have to move, and noticed my billfold lying there. I’d pulled it out to pay the highway toll and hadn’t returned it to my purse.

I calibrated the time needed to stuff the billfold back in my purse and stash the whole thing behind the seat, but by then traffic was moving and I hadn’t quite made up my mind, and besides, this was Tulsa, and it probably wasn’t a good idea to pick up a strange man anyway. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have done so, that the human thing to do was to offer help to a person in need.

That feeling was reinforced a few minutes later when I saw the same bus stopped at another street corner. My last excuse, that the young man probably wanted to go 10 miles away and I didn’t have time to take him, evaporated. I could have dropped him off just a half mile from where we began.

Did I mention that he was black? I’m not sure that made a difference in my decision not to give him a ride. We live in a world where a woman needs to think twice about letting a strange man get in her car, regardless of social class or color. Yet I have to ask if my initial perception, of a robbery in progress, might have been different if the young man were white. Perhaps then I would have seen what, in fact, was going on, a person trying to flag down a bus. Did I see a robbery because the person was black? Was I especially concerned with getting my billfold out of sight because of his skin color?

We have to think about these things now, if we haven’t before. This is how young black men get killed — because “nice” people like me assume criminal intent. The moneybag I thought I saw in his hand turned out to be a Seagrams 7 bag, or something of that shape, I noticed as I drove past. That’s an unusual thing for a man to be carrying and I might be excused for thinking it was something else. How easy would it be for a policeman to make the same mistake and fire at a young man running for the bus?

I get a glimpse of the fear black Americans live with and the immense burden of presumed guilt they have to carry. Mystic and activist Howard Thurman, writing in the 1940s, spoke of white Americans’ implicit role in maintaining racial prejudice. “Every member of the controllers’ group is in a sense a special deputy, authorized by the mores to enforce the pattern.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 31)

How do you enforce the pattern of fear, superiority and mistrust? What one action might you take to start breaking down those walls?

Saying Yes

John Lennon met Yoko Ono at an underground art show in London. One of her pieces was what looked like a white canvas mounted on the the ceiling, a magnifying glass dangling beneath. Patrons had to climb a stepladder to get a closer look. There, in tiny letters, was the word “YES.”

I’ve been trying to live into that “yes” of late, to remember the beauty that infuses the world. It’s easy to forget, caught in the hamster wheel of going and doing, or trapped in the worry circuit of my mind. Fear closes the heart faster than anything. Closed heart can’t remember beauty. Frenetic pace is too busy to see.

I experience “yes” as a kinesthetic opening: an elongation of my spine and a horizontal expansion of my chest. I take time to breathe into that expansion when I’m feeling harried, allowing breath to create the space my mind doesn’t think it can have.

In the mornings, I swing my feet to the floor and sit on the edge of the bed for a few moments, feeling for my “yes.” Some mornings it’s effortless to connect with it. Other times I feel the heaviness of being human. Breathing into my heart center helps me remember that there is something larger than this one moment. There is a “yes” waiting to be found.

I walked in a little grove of trees at a nearby park the other day, feeling flattened by a recent encounter with self-doubt. I thought of Jesus walking out in the world in the early morning to pray. I hadn’t prayed in a few days, and probably not in a very meaningful way in a while. I stood in that grove and I asked God for help. An hour later, I was home washing dishes and I realized my funk had lifted. I felt myself enveloped by that “yes.”

“You’re really here,” I marveled. “You asked,” I heard in return. Is it really that simple? I’ve experienced it that way so many times. It seems that the act of turning toward Source opens some kind of connection we forget about in our other hours. We ask and God answers. How much simpler could it be?

And then there’s the next day — sometimes the next moment — when we forget all over again. Fickle human beings. So we bring ourselves back once more. Maybe not with spoken prayer this time. Maybe with breath or with movement or with art. There are all kinds of ways to remember.

What are some of the ways you connect with your “yes”?

Death Changes Everything

“Your birthday’s right around the corner,” the clerk said sprightly as she handed back the ID that store policy required her to check.

“My birthday’s in April,” I replied.

“That will be here before you know it,” she said. And it’s true, I used to start anticipating my birthday this early, savoring the two-month countdown like a child.

That was before two difficult dates found a permanent home on my calendar. February 17 will be the third anniversary of my father’s death; March 14 the second anniversary of my mother’s. Two hard anniversaries to get through before my birthday rolls around. I don’t know that I’ll ever launch a February with the same offhanded glee again.

“It changes everything,” a wise woman said to me when I told her about my mother’s death. Of all the comments people made at the time, this has been the most true. Death of a parent changes everything. The people I’ve known since before I was born, who created me out of their flesh and blood and DNA, have moved on. They don’t exist anymore (not on this plane, at any rate).

That’s a profoundly disorienting reality. Their final faces linger in my mind: Dad with his death-bed sweetness, Mom with her labored trek into wherever it is she went. Will I see them again? I have no idea.

I settle into the coming commemoration of their deaths. They will be days of sweetness as well as sorrow. I’ll drink a toast to Dad in the colored beer glasses I remember from childhood. My sisters and I will call or email on the day Mom died. If I’m lucky, I’ll experience a kind of visitation from one or both of my parents, a remembering so immediate it will sear me with its pain.

Then I’ll move forward into springtime, counting the next few weeks until my birthday.

Finger(s) Pointing to the Moon

My friend Jay shared a new take on the old adage of the finger pointing to the moon. That’s the idea that the constructs we create to understand reality are not reality itself, just as the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. Jay talked about walking outdoors with his newborn great-grandchild and pointing out the full moon rising in the twilight sky.

“Then I realized the only thing he would see is my finger, not the moon,” Jay reflected. “I looked at the moon and I looked at his face and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” Jay realized that the baby in his arms is every bit as sacred as the astral body that lights the sky.

That’s a beautiful reminder of what we have right here, right now. And of the impossibility of trying to contain that miracle in any kind of words, or thoughts. Yet that’s what religion does, with the best of intentions. Every world religion is a finely tuned system, the product of centuries of deep thought as to what constitutes reality and how we may best participate in that. They’re valuable guides. Our only fault is getting so identified with them, with the finger pointing to the moon, that we forget about the moon itself.

The seminary training I’m receiving is all about making plain the way we identify with the finger. We deconstruct our consciously held beliefs, examining how they formed in the context of their times. We study bone, muscle, ligament, tissue, and say, “See? It’s only a finger.”

Yet that examination is a finger of its own. It’s another system of belief that forgets about the transcendent More. Academia is so wrapped up in its own concerns that it overlooks the wonder. The heart of faith is conspicuously absent from many of the classes I take.

I’d like to venture a guess, from this admittedly rookie position, that this is largely what is wrong with mainline Christianity. Liberal churches have been bleeding members for years. I wonder if this clinical, cut and dried approach isn’t part of the problem. I like to quote that line attributed to laconic country dwellers in New England: You can’t get there from here. You can’t get to faith from a purely analytical stance. It requires a leap, as Kierkegaard said.

I’ve spent recent weeks struggling to remember that the moon exists. Glimpses of a larger reality penetrate my malaise: the face of God in my friend Jay’s arms, the sound of nuns singing their evening prayers, the vibrant grey and russet tapestry of the winter world.

Which Jesus?

“She’s fun, she’s smart — and she knows Jesus,” my sister-in-law said, singing the praises of her new neighbor. I’ve heard her use that phrase before. “Knowing Jesus” means something very specific to Karen, a certain way of being in relationship with God. But which Jesus is that? I wanted to ask. Is it the atonement Jesus or the wisdom Jesus or the apocalyptic Jesus or the social justice Jesus? What makes you so sure there is one right answer?

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight says people relate to Jesus as if he were a Rorschach ink blot, seeing their own beliefs reflected in him. That’s probably true of all the ways we look at the world. Our own understanding is necessarily part of what we see, isn’t it? That turns out to be a very modern proposition, I have learned. The classical approach sees truth with a capital T: an objective reality that can be known if not fully understood. There is no ambiguity in the Jesus my sister-in-law knows. She believes the facts about him are made plain in scripture. Yet the lens through which she reads scripture has been shaped by the creedal controversies of the early church, Anselm’s theology of atonement in the Middle Ages and the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth in the 20th century.

There is no such thing as truth devoid of its context. My neoplatonic belief in a God of emanation and return dovetails with the Eastern mysticism I was exposed to as an impressionable teen. The Christian faith I have claimed is an outgrowth of the liberal tradition developed by Schleiermacher and other Enlightenment thinkers, who argued that we can only know God through our own experience. When carried into community, this approach views our shared life together as the means to realize God’s kingdom. Liberal theology emphasizes ethics over eschatological (end times) hope. Two other strands of thought affect my Christian orientation: the mysticism I’ve gravitated toward since early childhood and the ongoing quest to separate the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith.

Karen and I have approaches to faith so different as to be almost two religions. Add the sacramental faith of Roman Catholicism, the charismatic worship of the Pentecostal churches and the dizzying array of postmodern approaches, and it gets hard to know, which Jesus are we talking about?

Sometimes I feel like the blind man with the elephant, reaching out for Jesus and touching …. what? An archetypal presence? A projection of my own consciousness? A discrete entity capable of effecting change? Maybe even the Son of God? There is something there. I have known it with a certainty that makes all uncertainty disappear. And so I keep groping. Somehow, beyond any category I can grasp with my mind, there is something real we call Jesus. Maybe I’ll never understand. Maybe Jesus is the mystery that will never be solved and my search is the striving for control that is ultimately illusion.

I pray, dear Jesus, not so much to know you as to love you, to surrender myself to your love, again and again. Help me be alive in you. Help me see your aliveness in every other living being. Help me live in a way that nurtures that aliveness in myself and in others. Amen.

Teach Me How to Pray

The afternoon sun illuminated the undulating mounds of the summertime ski slope. I paused as the rest of my family continued the hike and turned to survey the valley below. We had climbed so far — halfway to the sky, it seemed to me. I felt like Heidi in the Swiss Alps, light years away from the mundane world of the city. I was alone, truly alone, even as I heard the voices of my parents and sisters above me. Yet I wasn’t alone at all. I was part of everything and everything was part of me. I stood in wonder, reveling in the completeness of this one shining moment. The sun was warm on my face. The good smell of earth filled my nostrils. A slight breeze moved through the grasses. Everything mattered. We all belonged.

Teach me how to pray. Alone on another hillside, fifty years from the earlier one. I’ve climbed up from the campground below, following an overgrown spur to a trail blocked by fallen trees. The humidity of this rainy June presses against me, feeling like weight against my bare skin. I crouch and crawl through the tumble of logs and pick my way past them onto the trail. I see the same sights that so excited me when I was here several years before — grey tufted moss hanging from the trees, yellow cactus flowers blooming. They don’t seem so special to me now. I am hot and tired, worn, cranky. I sit on a rock, my little dog at my feet.

Teach me how to pray. It’s been a confusing year for me. My sense of spirit, of presence, of God — of that which exists beyond words or knowing — has been shaken to the core. I’ve been in conversation with something beyond myself for as long as I’ve had conscious thought. Now I wonder if anything is there at all — and if there is, if it doesn’t properly belong inside me, if it isn’t time to bring back the projection of God to the is-ness of human experience. Yet I thrive on the practice of devotion. It’s a good fit for me, a form of worship that allows me to surrender my own limited perspective to something More.

Teach me how to pray. It doesn’t seem so important anymore to find one cohesive system of thought, so disrespectful to mix modalities. I turn to Mother Earth, to the brothers and sisters of trees and woodland creatures, to Jesus, whoever or whatever that might be. “Do you even exist at all?” I say aloud. To pray in the face of not knowing might be the most powerful prayer.

Teach me how to pray.

Opening to God

Just a little bit of an opening. That was my prayer as I went to sleep. That I would find just a little bit of an opening for God to enter. It’s hard for God to reach us when we don’t allow a way in. We can’t participate in the Mystery when our hearts are closed to it. We have to have some fraction of receptivity, no matter how small. A chink the size of a mustard seed will do. God can do big things with a mustard seed. But we have to bring our willingness to bear.

It’s been hard to find that willingness. My seminary coursework has wreaked havoc with my faith. How’s that for an irony! I went into it wanting to know more about God. What I’ve found is how humanly constructed religion is. Yet there’s a truth that transcends human manipulation, a truth that underlies all our theories and beliefs. That unknowable truth — that’s God. All religions point to that. All humanity yearns for that, no matter the veneer of cynicism we adopt. We all want to know we make a difference. That we matter in the world. That there’s some force or energy that’s with us, despite all appearances to the contrary.

All we have to do is ask. It amazes me every time, how simple the solution is. When I ask for God’s presence, it’s there. But it has to be a real asking, a real openness, a willingness to let go of the blocks that stand in my way. Somewhere in the depths of my being I cling to pain and brokenness. Prayer is asking a presence far vaster that this tortured mind to help me find my way to wholeness. Wholeness is there, waiting for me. I only have to remember.

This particular day I remembered when I saw the new leaves of summer shining on the sycamore tree at a nearby park. I lay on a bench beneath its branches, gazing up at emerald beauty so complete it made a lie of the internal anguish I’d been feeling. There is no separation between that beauty and our own hearts. We all belong here. We all matter. God is remembering that — over and over and over again.