Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bahamas Day 1: Back Where it Began

The palm tree out the window of a church in Harbour Island kicked off the divine adventures recounted in my book.  Now my client there needs a new website, so it's time again to return.  Here's a report of day one.

Andy on the cargo ship SeaLink

ARRIVAL IN NASSAU

The look on the ticket taker's face told me we were in for an adventure. Our  friends on both the big island and the little island had warned us against taking the ferry between islands on a Tuesday. Every other day of the week it's "The Fast  Ferry" packed with tourists who want to see the small island and locals visiting  family or conducting business. But on Tuesday, the same line runs a cargo boat  that makes several stops. We were the only ones in line to buy tickets. "You do  realize you'll be on the Sealink, not the Bo Hengy?" said the gal at the ticket  window. "It makes several stops, and the order of stops is at the discretion of  the captain. It could be much longer than the usual three hours. Much longer."

Strains of Gilligan’s Island rang in my head.
A three hour tour
A three hour tour

Just getting to the ferry had been an adventure. Normally Andy and I fly directly  to the small island, Eleuthera, which is just a five minute boat taxi from our  final destination, Harbour Island. But this time I decided to fly us from BWI to  Nassau, capital city of the Bahamas on the big island.  A new airport in Nassau makes possible a direct flight of only two and a half hours.

 It has been six years since we've been to our Shangri la at Harbour Island, but over 20 years since we've been to Nassau. Driving into downtown Nassau from the gleaming, ultra modern airport, ours jaws dropped at the changes. Massive development on pristine roadways flanked by wide stretches of imported tropical flora created a world class look -- Monaco or exclusive parts of Hollywood or Coral Gables. Private homes on mangrove-rimmed lakes and the massive, half finished Bahia-Mar resort which will challenge the storied Atlantis as the destination resort. Tucked among them we passed the Chinese embassy, engine of much of the growth.

Mind you, this kind of development is not our thing. Although I admired the world-class design, my heart beat faster as we entered the colorful jumble of old downtown with its pedestrian-clogged narrow streets. Off to our left was the  small “Paradise Island” that hosts Atlantis, its jutting coral towers piercing the skyline. The casinos and time share condos around Atlantis form most peoples’ impressions of Nassau. But we passed beyond the high causeway connecting to Paradise Island  and pushed on to our little hotel, the Red Carpet Inn.

There was no red carpet at the Red Carpet Inn. Also no windows. Try to imagine a hotel without windows. There was a nice enough little courtyard with a few potted palms. But the advertised pool behind the complex was closed and off limits “for maintenance.” We had to press a buzzer for entrance to the lobby, and the front desk was barred and glass-enclosed like a liquor store in a red light district.

No matter though. We were happy. The reason we had come through Nassau was to visit our friend, Henry Sawyer, and this hotel was close to him.  I had tried to book us in a wonderful looking and cheap little place even closer to Henry, The Orchard Garden. But it was full by the time I made up my mind to go on this last-minute trip. I was tempted to think my amazing hotel karma had finally failed me. But then I realized it was probably God’s way of telling me we should get our little butts over to Harbour Island as quickly as possible.  And so we planned to spend just one night on Nassau, having dinner with Henry, and then be on our way the next morning.

Except the next morning was Tuesday—the day of the slow boat. Henry picked us up and drove us to the boat at dawn.  We wended our way to the docks UNDER the arching causeway to Paradise Island. The sense was of being in the bowels of the city.  High over our heads, limos carried pale-faced tourists to their pristine destinations. Bellow, a rabbit warren of colorful wooden shacks sold fried fish and booze.  They were mostly closed now, though a few men gathered around some of them, the scent of marijuana wafting through.  Gulls dive-bombed overflowing trash dumpsters. “This is a wild place in the nighttime,” Henry said.
Overhead, bridge to Paradise Island and Atlantis Resort. 

We boarded our boat, climbing stairs to the passenger compartment above the deck packed with crates, tires, and baby palms.  Instead of a restaurant and lounge, a snack stand sold fruit salads, sandwiches, beer, and instant coffee. With only one other passenger, we were able to get one of the tables that would allow us to write these reports on our laptops.  We settled in. What more could a person want?

Indeed, the sunny day and mild winds permitted us to finish the trip up on the observation deck, counting the dozen shades of turquoise in the sea. The captain made only one stop, at the quirky island of Spanish Wells, a former pirate abode. We were delighted by the glimpse we caught of its tidy pastel colored cottages.
Nassau resident Henry sawyer sees us off at the boat
Observation deck all to ourselves
snack bar
The dock at Spanish Wells

But the best part of the trip was the approach into Harbour Island.  Ever since I created a website about the island in 2001 for my client and dear friend Robert Arthur, I’ve wanted a photo of the village taken from the water.  The water taxis we normally take are too fast, too bumpy, and too low to get a good shot on approach.  But now conditions were perfect. I took about 50 shots. You’ll have to wait for the final Website to see the winner, but here’s an old shot to give you the idea.







Monday, July 22, 2013

"Sex, Mom & God," a fan puts me on to Frank Schaeffer

As I reported in my previous post, I had a great conversation this week with a fan of our book from Austin, Texas, Daniel Butler. One highlight: Daniel put me on to Frank Schaeffer, author of this book:

"Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics - and How I learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway"Sex, Mom and God Cover

In this video clip about the book, ex-Evangelical leader Frank Schaeffer talks about his mother, evangelical writer Edith Schaeffer, and his reconsideration of his family's impact on the Christian right and conservative politics.

Some reviewers call it hilarious venom, and others call it graceful redemption. The San Francisco Book Review said
"This memoir/diatribe on organized religion is so shockingly bold and intimately revealing that it will spin your head around whiplash-quick, and cause you to double check to make sure you read the words correctly… Schaeffer comes to a jarring conclusion for fundamentalists, Roman Catholics, Jews, and Muslims alike, that if we don't set aside our dogma and start making a serious effort at getting along, we will end up destroying ourselves and everything we thought we believed in."
I guess I'll have to read it to judge for myself.

Daniel and I actually talked more about Schaeffer's previous book: Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism), as reported in this previous post.


The Fire of God: Love or Hate?

Daniel Butler
I received a thoughtful, 8-page letter from a fan of our book in Austin, Texas, and got to meet the sender, Daniel Butler, an ex-evangelical who loves the lack of dogma and the social action in his Unitarian church but misses the sense of the sacred. We discussed all my favorite topics over coffee while his family vacationed in DC last week.

We are fans of all the same thinkers: Wilber, Haidt, Pirsig, Cayce, Tillich,and McLaren. He introduced me to the work of Hank Schaeffer, whose Sex, Mom, and God I'll write about next.

I ran him out to Highview to get an autograph from my co-author Bishop Thomas. Daniel thanked us for the example we set of being able to discuss contentious topics openly and affably.
Daniel Butler and Bishop Phil Thomas at Highview Christian Fellowship

"Teri was great to dialogue with, she just never got the part about God having a stern side as well as a nice side," Bishop said, referring to our chapter, "Learning to Love the Wrath of God."

"Oh I get it now," I said.

Daniel responded by telling us how Frank Schaeffer talks about the fire of God in his book, "Patience with God: Faith for People who Don't Like Religion or Atheism." Whipping out his Kindle, Daniel quoted a poetic passage about how some people could experience the fire or energy of God as terrifying while others could experience the same energy as radiating love.

Other topics from Daniel's letter that I may follow up on later:
  • New Thought as less flaky than he thought
  • Postmodern moral flatland
  • Christ consciousness
  • Three Faces of God
  • How to tell right from wrong
  • Polarities
  • Parallels between Evolutionary Enlightenment and fundamentalism 
  • Libertarianism
  • Homosexuality
  • Sex with sheep
His letter ends sweetly with this:
I like to think truth is a both/and dialectic where as you say, "Being and doing, faith and works, heaven and earth, conservation and progress, union with God and communion,"dance (awkwardly, but nonetheless, dance) together. I want to thank you and the Bishop for this glorious ride.

Daniel Butler, Teri Murphy, Phil Thomas




Saturday, March 9, 2013

"Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?"

I was hooked on the first page of, "Does This Church Make Me Look Fat," and by the end of chapter one, I forced myself to stop in order to draw out the pleasure I anticipate. The last time I got so excited by the first page of a book was for "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," which I eventually threw across the room feeling hoodwinked--despite its one scene wholly fulfilling its implied promise of reintegrating the divine in postmodern life.

This second memoir by Rhoda Janzen was just given me as a birthday present by my friend Laurie Moison--previously a powerhouse in the Evangelical women's movement (yes!) and now landing with a glorious splash in New Thought.

Reviews on the back cover say
"Snort-up-your-coffee funny, breezy yet profound....Too much spiritual writing these days claims that religious practice is about healing or developing the self. But Rhoda Janzen sets out on a path to become more loving, grateful, and helpful to others. This is particularly impressive given that she's writing about a period in her life when she's got a scary, life-threatening illness and a brand-new family."

I sense that Janzen's journey may parallel aspects of my own joyride through goodness at a Black  church as told in my book, The Bishop and the Seeker. Here's an excerpt from the first pages of "Does This Church Make me Look Fat?"
"Having divorced after a fifteen-year marriage, and having returned in a scattershot way to the dating scene, I naturally had limited faith in my judgment. So when I found myself falling for a Jesus-nail-necklace-wearing manly man, the kind whose hands were so huge they ripped his jeans pockets, I thought my common sense was all a-pother. 
Working against me was the fact that I am an egghead intellectual. Have you noticed that sometimes scholars do one tiny thing really well, but at the expense of more important things?  For instance, I can diagram any sentence from the late fiction of Henry James. Why anybody would want me to is a mystery, but you'd be surprised at how many requests I get. We're talking about sentences that march on and on, to and fro, like a bewildered Energizer bunny. I have limited life-management skills, yet I can diagram these sentences with the speed of an idiot savant. Why is it necessary to diagram any sentence? you ask. Good Question.... 
My new boyfriend's vocabulary could have passed muster with toddlers and kittens... He caricatured the impossible male physique--chest like a scenic vista, cannon arms, a waist that disappeared into his jeans like a genie into a bottle... Put him in a suit, he looks like Secret Service. When you put other men in suits, they look like accountants or limo drivers."
So what could possibly persuade such a man to consider wearing green sequined panties?

The answer in the first chapter took my breath away. I'm hooked.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why Jesus, Moses, Buddha, & Mohammeded Crossed the Road


Speaking the day after the death of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens at the hands of a mob angered by a slur against Mohammed, Brian McLaren warned us that all religious and political belief systems build their identity by demonizing others--and all religions have a potential to make a contribution to peace. (Integral theory would explain this as levels of development within religions.) McLaren was speaking about his new book, "Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?"  at an event sponsored by the Emerging Christianity Meetup in DC.

To see the whole story in Christianity, he advised that we never tell just one Bible story in isolation. Most Bible stories exist in counterpoint to other stories that make an opposing point. McLaren told us he had learned this lesson from Tom Boomershine, founder of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. As an example, he says that when you tell the story of David vanquishing Goliath with a pebble, you should also tell that David was later denied an opportunity to build the temple because of his violent past. The Bible must be studied for its entire story arc he said--echoing a point Bishop Thomas made often to me in the adventure described in our book. McLaren also shared documentation from his book about how the slavery brought by Columbus decimated native peoples of the Caribbean in the name of Christianity.

Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?
After several jokes about his provocative book title, McLaren challenged us to imagine what it really would be like if the Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed found themselves on a road together. He believes there would be fellowship, compassion, and perhaps even some jousting in good fun--but none of the violence promoted by followers in each of the religions they founded. I liked the polarity in the way McLaren posed the question to us: "Is it possible for us to have strong faith--not a wishy-washy anything goes-- and still respect the beliefs of others?"

In questions at the end, my friend Stephanie Fast noted that the Bahai religion developed through periods of violent persecution in the Middle East and thus became a religion devoted to peace, citing their scripture "Better not to be religious than to kill in the name of religion."

McLaren noted the extraordinary devotion to peace of the Bahais, but cautioned against setting up any religion as the peaceful one--especially when it is new. The crowd laughed knowingly as he added, "My Mennonite friend tells me there is no conflict among Mennonites--but a lot of passive aggression."

followup discussion about McLaren's book will be held by the Emerging Christianity Meetup later in the month.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Being Known: Science & Faith at Emerging Christianity

A spacious openness to possibilities by both speakers marked another sizzling Meetup event for the Emerging Christianity Conversation in DC. About a hundred people packed the U Street Busboys & Poets on March 28th to hear Psychiatrist Curt Thompson and NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty discuss their books on science and spirituality.



This is your brain on love, justice, and mercy
Thompson told us that neuroscience shows that the way we relate to each other, through our attention and the stories we share, rewires our brains.  Therefore the most important choice we make is which "biggest story of all" we tell ourselves and others. None of us can be absolutely certain how and why we're here. But all of us want a better world. Therefore we should consider adopting a story that takes into account everything we know and produces the most love, justice, and mercy in the world. "For me," he said, "that story is the story of Jesus as told in the Biblical narrative."

It's rare to hear this kind of spaciousness around our choice of beliefs. And when I do hear it, it's usually from peers who have decided that the "Biblical narrative" is the story least likely to make a better world. So I was on the edge of my seat for the perspective from this doctor who prescribes spiritual practices for his patients.

Thompson is author of "Anatomy of the Soul: surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships." He is also the founder of Being Known, which seeks to help people "explore the integral relationship between deep, meaningful connections with God and others--being known--and the development of healthier minds, healthier communities and ultimately, a healthier world." Being Known posits that we most help others grow when we listen with interest and compassion to their stories. As one example, he told us that most sociopaths did not receive compassionate attention in their first 18 months of life, and thus their brains don't spark emotion centers when viewing images of harm to others.



Science and Faith
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty started her remarks by following the brilliant instructions of Meetup coordinator Glen Zuber to tell the experience that led to her interest in science vs faith. She told of interviewing a cancer survivor whose illness became a spiritual journey. During that interview, both women suddenly felt a warm, moist, compassionate presence in the room. It was so startling, that it launched Hagerty on a career of interviewing scientists about transcendent experiences.

Her book, "Fingerprints of God: the Search for the Science of Spirituality," examines scientific findings on questions like why some people are more spiritual than others; whether our brains have receptors for spiritual communication;  and if is there any evidence for God at all. One scientist told her, "Neurons fire in you're brain when you feel love. But that doesn't mean love isn't a real thing."

Listening in a (tag) cloud
I experienced the evening as one of those "tag clouds" often seen in blogs, with the speakers' words ringing bells of crossover interest with my own passions and those of my Integral Emergence Meetup. For example, one of the regular SPIRITUAL PRACTICES that my INTEGRAL group engages in is Waking Down, a GROUP PRACTICE in which we simply LISTEN WITH COMPASSION to the STORIES each person tells. Also, my book tells MY STORY of encountering CHRISTIANS who do not believe in evolution, but who believe that the BIBLICAL NARRATIVE leads to the most LOVE, justice, and mercy in the world--an experience which birthed my interest in shifting focus from our BELIEFS ABOUT GOD to our SHARED EXPERIENCES OF GOD.


More grist for a practice group
I bought both Thompson and Hagerty's books. They're sure to provide grist for the project I'm considering of building a practice group around Brian McLaren's Naked Spirituality.





Friday, March 23, 2012

Rock Church Launches at State Theater


When the ushers offered earplugs to my grey-haired husband, I knew we were in for a ride at the first church service offered at the State Theater—the DC region's premier rock concert venue in Falls Church, Virginia. "The Surge" community church was launching an experiment in attracting the unchurched. My husband Andy—who loves anything new—was attracted by a high-class postcard we received in the mail.  

Beneath posters for Lez Zepplin and a Michael Jackson dance party, we were greeted warmly by people wearing the kind of T-shirts favored by rock band roadies. We served ourselves coffee and snacks at the bar, and brought them to our ringside table. I have always loved the State Theater's layout of multiple levels with tables, bars, and balconies surrounding a mosh pit area below the stage. Lights were low, and a media team manned the Star Trek-sized control deck. Clips from I Love Lucy played on a giant screen over the stage. Kids were led to their program in the mezzanine lobby by a woman in a Mad Hatter's hat.








The "show" began with a rock band playing several Christian songs that weren't familiar to me—the singer in tight jeans and high boots showing off a great voice. Because we're used to the roof-rocking decibels at Black churches, Andy didn't need the earplugs. I noticed that the only people rocking out to the music seemed to be me and the sharply dressed young black visitors at the next table. "We're not Baptists," joked pastor Dwaine Darrah. But the crowd loosened up as soon as the band switched to a familiar rock tune as the pre-sermon selection: Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business."


If you ever get annoyed
Look at me I'm self-employed
I love to work at nothing all day


And I'll be...
Taking care of business every day...

Andy and I exchanged smiles; all our friends are—or want to be—self-employed. We'd never really listened to the lyrics before.

Expanding the Margin
Pastor Darrah speaks behind a stuffed penguin,
one of several light-hearted touches at the opening
service of the Surge
The song was a warmup to a sermon on "The Margin," which Darrah defined as the amount extra between what we have and what we need—in love, money, or our spiritual lives. He read from Luke 10:38, the story of Mary absorbing Jesus's every word while her sister, Martha, is distracted about getting the dinner served. "Why do we let so many things distract us?" the pastor asked. He ended the sermon by asking each person to consider spending five minutes in silence each day as our "homework" for the coming week.

Silence as a common theme
This theme spoke to me as a common one in several of the movements that I've been experimenting in. I belong to three spiritual communities: a predominately Black church in Fairfax with a traditional Christian message and stomping praise, a Spiritual Living Center in Falls Church with a message of oneness and empowerment for the spiritual but not religious (SBNRs), and an Integral Emergence group that meets in homes around the region to experiment with practices for developing mind, body, spirit, and emotions. Lately I've been checking out the local Emerging Christianity movement as well. All of these except the traditional Christian church emphasize regular silence as a key to spiritual maturation. So it was a delight for me to hear silence recommended alongside a Christian message.

Opportunity for Experiment

I learned from Surge member Greg Johnson that the Surge is the May-December love child of an aging, ecumenical, congregation in McLean and the youth-oriented, New Life Christian Church with campuses in Chantilly and Haymarket. The McLean core continue to host community activities at the red a-frame they call "the barn" at the corner of Westmorland and Kirby Road: offering day care,  language and exercise classes, monthly song-writers' concerts, etc. Johnson, whose recent post at the Surge blog says that holiness is most easily seen in people, called the State Theater venture, "a first fumbling attempt at a risky, radical demonstration of good stuff God has given."

The possibilities are endless in such an amazing venue—I visualized battles of the bands, performance art, small group discussions around tables, bust-out praise, speed praying, and even silent contemplation. If The Surge keeps pioneering, they could open boundaries not normally crossed.

photos by Greg Johnson

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Urban Meditation: My First Lectio Divina with Emerging Christianity

I loved my first experience of lectio divina in the Urban Meditation series of the DC Emerging Christianity Meetup last night. It perfectly balanced a key polarity I wrestle with in The Bishop and the Seeker: Following our hearts vs. following scripture.

Divine Reading
Eight of us gathered in an architectural gem of an apartment building just off 16th street in Mount Pleasant. Coordinator Glenn Zuber started by reading from the work of Basil Pennington, a Cisterian monk who brings contemplative practices into the lives of spiritual seekers. Genn told us that we would hear a scripture four times, each time from a different perspective or level. We were not to analyze or figure out its meaning, but simply let the "living Word" speak to us directly--to experience "union or communion with God."

Glenn Zuber
Glenn did a masterful job of setting the tone by lighting a candle and guiding us through a visualization of releasing concerns to be fully present. Then he read Matthew 20: 20-27. In this New Testament scripture, the mother of James and John asks Jesus to make high places for her sons in his kingdom. After each reading of the story, we sat in silence, told our experience, or contemplated a piece of art depicting the story. Then we each wrote a brief prayer capturing our intention or request about what the reading illumined for us. We could choose for this prayer to be our "homework" for the week ahead.


My Intuition is Your Holy Spirit
This is it, I thought. This is a perfect synthesis of the two points of view Bishop Thomas and I took in our book's chapter, "My Intuition is your Holy Spirit."  I start by arguing that no holy book can cover every modern scenario, we must each follow our hearts. He tapped into my own doubts by countering that we never have clear vision or motivations; we must rely on a "standard" that stays firm. And while I think of that standard as the world's wisdom traditions--including the Bible but also science, I came to realize the truth in what he said. We need an "all quadrant" perspective of sources, as Integral theory says (inner & outer, self & group). Bishop Thomas and I then had a great discussion about the Holy Spirit as the dynamic force that brings to life the static standard of the Bible. This practice is a beautiful way to integrate them, I thought.

The mother of the sons of Zebedee presents her boys to Jesus. My eye was captured by that
perfect sphere on the right. And what is that thing on the bottom right, anyway?
After the session, our hosts Ruth and Jose served us pasta, wine, and a loaf of whole grain bread. While casual, the meal retained a sacred glow. Lectio divina (divine reading) is definitely a practice I want to integrate in the Integral Life Practices group of my Intergal Emergence Meetup.

See more about Genn Zuber's work in this post: Networking with Emerging Christianity. Why isn't there a Meetup like this in every city?






Monday, March 12, 2012

Networking with Emerging Christianity

Glenn Zuber
The DC Emerging Christianity Meetup lets Christians ask questions and try out practices in a context bigger than their own churches.  I met yesterday  with coordinator Glenn Zuber to explore some parallels with my DC Integral Emergence Meetup. Our shared interests in practice groups, Brian McLaren, and a more integrated life sparked fresh ideas for both of us.

After only a year, Glenn has almost 400 members in his Meetup. He sponsors a creative array of activities--from book discussions, to labyrinth walks, to lectio divina, and even parties for Spirit, Art & Wine. His biggest turnouts feature his friend Brian McLaren, pioneer of the Emerging Christianity movement. (See my review of one such event at "Tough Questions, Humble Men.")

 
Bringing together Art, Science, and Social Justice
Can we bring them back together?
With background in both evangelical and mainline churches, Glenn has been an assistant minister and a teacher of religion, history, and philosophy (currently at Trinity and previously at Fordham, Manhattan College, Indiana University-Bloomington, and Emmanuel School of Religion in Tennessee). He's looking for ways to integrate art, science, and social justice in the way Christians live and worship. He has tried opening a soup kitchen, but not yet found enough volunteers with sufficient commitment. His wife Jennifer heads a non-profit that provides PR assistance to faith leaders who talk about justice issues in the public realm.

I gave Glenn a five-minute introduction to Ken Wilber's Integral Theory, He was especially interested in the perspective on truth, beauty, and goodness: that they were fused in Medieval times: art wasn't beautiful and science wasn't true unless the church said they were good. After the enlightenment, T B and G were burst apart and fragmented; Art could be about ugly things, and science could challenge notions of good. So now our job is to re-integrate them--voluntarily and at a higher level of awareness.


Spiritual Practices to the Rescue
Both of us believe that regular spiritual practices pave the way for this re-integration. I'm eager to try out Glenn's lectio divina group and to share ideas from my Integral Life Practices group. And some of the people in my Meetup who have left their Christianity behind may find Glenn's group a safe place to reconsider it. I'm also eager to explore the work of a postmodern Christian philosopher Glenn put me on to: Peter Rollins, who says:
If someone believes everything I believe I still have to ask “why?” I need to work out how the beliefs function for that person. Do they act as a security blanket preventing them from encountering the world, or do they function as a means of more fully entering into the world they inhabit?

The Work in Networking
Managing the Meetup has taken a lot of hard work and conflict management, Glenn says. In fact he is thinking of writing a book on the possibilities and challenges of Meetups.

UP Next: I'll report my experience of Glenn's Lectio Divina

Friday, February 24, 2012

Whitney Houston Funeral Brings World to Black Church

Whitney Houston's funeral shows off
passion and authenticity of Black church

Watching Whitney Houston's funeral with fellow guests in the lounge of New York's Manhattan Club doubled my enthusiasm for visiting Harlem's oldest Black church the following day.  I figured that CNN anchor Piers Morgan’s amazement at the music, passion, laughter, and authenticity of a Black service would double the crowds at Abyssinian Baptist Church, which normally has strict crowd control for "tourists."

Inside Abyssinian
Passing
We passed 500 tourists in line, put a knowing look on our faces, and slipped in a side door--led by my husband's intrepid ex-wife Chan, who is Black and had attended Abyssinian occasionally when she lived in New York.

I am used to being the only white face in a Black church because of my life-changing encounter with the pastor of Highview Christian Fellowship, as told in The Bishop and the Seeker. But my family got more than we bargained for as we found ourselves down a rabbit hole of winding hallways that led first into the children's program, then into the kitchen, and then into the line for the handicapped elevator. I kept trying to blend in behind Chan, but the wheelchairs just kept coming. So we slipped around one more hallway to find an alcove where members appeared to be waiting for the early service to let out. As the doors finally opened, the choir came out,  making me suddenly afraid we were about to walk out into the choir box. In fact it was the main floor of the church, and the usher led Chan down to the third row center--probably a VIP row, surrounded by the white-hatted deaconesses. The Rev. Calvin Butts asked visitors to stand, and several of the deaconesses turned and greeted us warmly. But I think I was still blushing when the service ended two hours later. Here's what the famous Reverend said about the Whitney Houston funeral.

One funeral among many
Rev. Calvin Butts
"I caught as much of the funeral as I could in between the chores my wife had for me... I haven't called Cissy yet; I'll wait till all the attention dies down, that's when people really need to hear from a friend." Then he sai that sad as Whitney's loss was, another death was just as sad last week. An 18 year-old chased into his home by police who shot him in front of his grandmother, supposedly while dumping marijuana into the toilet unarmed.  "I have calls in to both the mayor and the police commissioner about that, but they haven't returned them yet," he said. "They sure are eager to talk to me around election time though."

The REAL contribution of the Black Church?
After polished traditional hymns, the sermon itself was on "narrow is the gate," with calls for social justice via both  personal and political action.
Tara Murphy's
sacred African dance
My family's conversation afterwards showed off the whole Spiral Dynamics of values about church. Over smothered chicken and collards at Spoonbread 2, I said that much as I loved the polished elegance of the Abyssinian service, the unique contribution of the Black church is the more raw passion at churches like Highview. Chan, who came of age in the sixties, disagreed. That rawness fuels stereotypes and is an obstacle to development of the Black community, she said, while Abyinnian's polish--along with its social action and community building under adverse circumstances--is the real contribution of the Black church.

Her daughter Tara Murphy, who leads a troupe for sacred African dance, said that ecstatic expression is key for all of us to connect with the Divine. (Tara had an ecstatic moment herself when one of her heroes, Judith Jamison of Alvin Ailey Dance Company, was presented as a new member during the service.) Tara's husband Chris said that modern life seduces us to believe that "progress" can solve everything. But humans need the meditative, mind clearing effect of ecstatic states--and if we don't get it in a context of sacred community, we'll seek it via intoxication with drugs, power, or possessions. "All of you are right," I said. These values are polarities; they appear to be opposites, but each can be served in its time and place.


Go Ahead, Visit a Black Church
Me at
Abyssinian's
front door


My hope is that the funeral of Whitney Houston will encourage many people to visit a Black church to experience for themselves the transcendent states possible in passionate praise.  And with luck, you'll also stumble upon a church equally eager to encourage you to love ALL your neighbors with acts of service. But take it from me--come in the church by whatever door they hold open. For the gate may be narrow, but the path is straight.
 


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Does Mature Prayer get Better Results?

Jehovah's Witnesses get their prayers answered more often than members of any other religion, according to a Pew study that Lynne Feldman called to my attention to via the Facebook page for Integral Spirituality Nexus. This intriguing fact made me smile because of my adventure with a family of Witnesses recounted in my book. And it provided grist for an all-too-brief exchange about prayer among some Integral buddies of mine.
New Thought Practitioner:  Affirmative prayer gets results by raising our level of consciousness around circumstance.

Interfaith Celebrant:  That may be possible for people who have achieved the level of "Christ consciousness," but not everyone should expect those results.

Me:  Ah, but a Pew study says the people in  religions that are least focused on consciousness report getting the most frequent answers to prayer--with Jehovah's Witnesses at the top reporting one answered prayer a week.

Senior Integral Guy:  Of course we know from postmodernism that our experience (of the results of our prayers) is shaped by our conditioned beliefs about it.

This rich exchange could be mined for weeks. But only a few hours later I found a transcendent response in  Brian McLaren's latest book, "Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words." In it he lays out four seasons of spiritual growth with spiritual practices appropriate to each one:
  • Springtime of Simplicity (when answers about God are black and white, and  worship is the best prayer)
  • Summer of Complexity (time for confession, petition, and intercession)
  • Autumn of Perplexity
  • Winter of Harmony

McLaren provides spacious definitions of confession, petition, and intercession, casting them in a mature and radiant light (with confession sounding a lot like shadow work). But then in his Complexity chapter he asks the big question:
Will our prayers do the trick, get the job done, flip the switch, close the deal, guarantee results, be effective? Will prayer change things? You may have already noticed that until now I've largely left these questions unasked, much less answered...

Here's why. I'm writing about the summer season of complexity in the spiritual life as someone who has already passed through it a time or two; I've gone on to survive some autumn and winter seasons as well. These experiences have changed me...Back then I would have had a lot more to say than I do now about "praying effectively," "claiming your miracle." and so on.

But from where I am now, with some autumns and winters under my belt, I actually think a better way to deal with these questions is to say, "Yes, think about these questions... But don't pretend you have solved them once and for all. Because later on you'll be seeing things from a different perspective, and from that perspective much will change. What seems like a problem now won't be so much of a problem then. The important thing both now and then is to keep praying, whatever answers come or don't come... Because however much or little prayer changes THINGS, prayer certainly changes YOU, and you need to be changed. Remember that you still have a long way to grow, and the best way to grow is to keep praying, to keep strengthening the sacred connection."

McLaren continues:
In life's summerlike season of Complexity, if we do not practice confession, petition, and intercession, we will not keep growing in the sacred connection.
  • If we do wrong, then denial, pride, or shame will cause us to disconnect. [hence, confession]
  • if we're in need or pain, then exhaustion, anxiety or disappointment will cause us to disconnect. [hence, petition]
  • and if we're faced with the suffering of others, then we'll succumb to the temptations to disconnect through apathy, despair, self-distancing. [hence, intercession]
As a result our hearts will contract, not expand. And as a further result, the world, deprived of stronger compassion in people like us, will inevitably grow worse and suffering will increase.

But if through confession, petition,and intercession, you and I strengthen the sacred connection in the midst of life's complexities, what will happen then? Won't we become--habitually, radically, truly--more aligned with God's compassion, more empowered by it, more resonant with its holy frequency? And won't more of us who are more filled with God's compassion help make a better world?

I absolutely love his perspective. There's still a few loose ends I'd like to tie up in that discussion among my friends. But for me, McLaren's answer transcends the questions. And McLaren's prayers for the seasons of Perplexity and Harmony are simply stunning as well. I am more and more intrigued about the possibilities for a practice group built around "Naked Spirituality."





Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tough Questions, Humble Men at Emerging Christianity Meetup


From left: Brian McLaren, Tim Kennedy, and Alex Bowen
share space on the stage at Busboys & Poets
with the overflow crowd of  150 Emerging Christianity Meetup fans
as portraits of the Dali Lama, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King look on.

Brian McLaren
Brian McLaren's call to a faith that is dynamically open to mystery kicked off a sizzling evening sponsored by Emerging Christianity Meetup at Busboys and Poets last night in DC. Brian is a hero of mine for boundary busting books like "A Generous Orthodoxy," and "A New Kind of Christianity." But tonight he was appearing along with two young documentary filmmakers on the topic of staying civil while asking tough questions.

The film makers, Alex Bowen and Tim Kennedy, are producing "Anything Less Would be Uncivilized" which tells peoples' stories of how asking questions shaped their faith. What impressed me most about these two earnest and sweet young men was the humility with which they approach their project. Besides starting off by acknowledging their wives with, "Behind every great man...stands a woman shaking her head," they both spoke of the need to stay humble by remembering that God loves the person you are debating with. I completely got from them that they are masters of walking that talk.

Get this man a PR agent. Alex Bowen
is much cuter than this photo.
Can you tell why bald Mclaren said he wants
some of Tim Kennedy's "hair karma"?


Questions from all over the map
Questions afterwards showed the range of people drawn to this event. One woman simply asked for an example of how it looks to ask a question in a constructive way. Tim replied with a sweet story about the first time he told his mother he wasn't going to church on Easter because he no longer believed everything the church taught. "It was hard because I wanted to say no in a way that showed respect for her." Alex broke in with his own story of needing to apologize after roughly grilling one interviewee in the film.

Godspell

Our tablemate, the son of a pastor whose fresh-faced enthusiasm and openness caused me to flash on the Jesus character in the movie Godspell, asked how we can tell which kind of questions are good for the church. His quieter friend asked if listening to someone meant you had to agree with them: for example agree with a homosexual that homosexuality is not a sin. Another questioner set the record for most mixed wavelengths in one question: "I'm going to come right out and admit that I'm a born again Christian, so go ahead and throw rocks at me if you want. But clearly we all know anyone who believes homosexuals are sinners is following a degraded form of Christianity, just like those people who follow the Word-of-Faith movement. Is the reason we need to ask questions so that we can counter all those false Christianity movements?"

McLaren's answer to this question was a tour de force in more ways than I have room to recount--as was Alex's answer when asked about the line between encouraging questions and becoming a universalist (one who believes all are saved.) "You have to be willing to go wherever your questions lead and be willing to be called a heretic, if necessary, just as Jesus was," he said.

Practices to Support Each Other
Because of my interest in practice groups, I asked, "What practices can we support each other with to help maintain the humility it takes to be a good listener?"  McLaren got a laugh by suggesting that apologizing when we've been a jerk is so painful that doing so often may help stop bad listening--and also that our spouses are in the best position to tell us when we need to do so. I'm exploring the possibility of building a practice group around McLaren's "Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words."


Turn that camera around!
My sense of the documentary clip Tim and Alex showed is that they've got it backwards. The experts and average people they interview have great ideas and stories to tell. But the film makers themselves seemed the best living role models for the thoughtful, good-humored, and respectful inquiry the film promotes. Their goal is very similar to that of my own book, The Bishop and the Seeker.which tells the story of my heart and mind-opening encounter with a Biblical literalist bishop. Join me in helping support the guys' project at Kickstart.


Follow ups
50 people were turned away from this event, so watch for followups at An Emerging Christianity Conversation in DC. This Meetup is run by Glen Zuber, an ex-pastor and professor of religion and founder of Iona Conversations. (Wilber fans: If you check it out, notice how its goals align with the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness.) I'm looking forward to more!

Practice Group for "Naked Spirituality"?

I'm exploring the possibility of building a transformational practices group around the book by Brian McLaren, "Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words."  The groups I've been experimenting with for a couple years are built around maturing through stages similar to the "seasons" of spiritual growth that "Naked" lays out. What I have in mind is part house church, part meditation sitting, and part tough-love support group--all designed to help us maintain our "awakening" or "Christ consciousness" as we interact with others in our normal day.

So far I've found rich community in groups based on a format by James Jones and inspired by  the books "Essential Spirituality" by Roger Walsh and "Integral Life Practice" by Ken Wilber and Terry Patten. As a next step, I'm drawn to the idea of mixing "spiritual but not religious" people with the kind of open-hearted and open-minded Christians I'm meeting at the Emerging Christianity Meetup in DC. I think they have much to teach those of us who may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater of the restrictive religions we grew up with.

Watch for more info here, and please contact me if you're interested in helping to organize such a group.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Polairities: Religious Seekers and Finders both Right

Barry Johnson
More and more, I am seeing my experience as a spiritual seeker among those who believe they've found the Truth to be an uncovering of polarities.  Barry Johnson, a leader in the hot field of polarity management, defines polarities as "situations in which both conflicting points of view are true."  Polarities are unavoidable  problems which cannot be solved, but can only be managed, he says.


Some of the polarities I run up against in my experiences recounted in The Bishop and the Seeker are
  • Self vs. Group
  • Action vs. Surrender
  • Intuition vs. Standards
  • Union vs Communion with God
I hope to be using the concept of polarities in the future as I seek to "manage" these conflicts in my own life and in my several spiritual communities.


Rural Virginia Blocks Interfaith Retreat: Evil or Polarities?

WaPost photo of Laura George

The week after I met Laura George, the Washington Post ran a piece (7/8/11) on her suit against the rural Virginia county that blocked development of her interfaith center in the wake of opposition from Christian churches.

I had wanted to meet Laura because of the similarity of our missions to narrow the cultural tensions between those who might be labeled "spiritual" and "religious."  Depending on your point of view, the quest of her Oracle Institute to reach out to Evangelicals has been beset by a run of very bad luck, by forces of darkenss, or by a case of polar value systems inflaming each other where they could have been enjoying the kind of party Bishop Thomas and I had in the encounter chronicled in our book, The Bishop and The Seeker.

Pentacle logo of Oracle Institute
represents five major religions
At the very least, the story is a case of really bad marketing. Laura's institute selected for itself a name, a logo, and a  building ("the Peace Pentagon") guaranteed to raise red flags of  "new age sorcery" in a conservative Christian environment.We discussed Oracle’s use of the Pentacle icon, which Laura says stands for spiritual unity among the five primary religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam). I counseled her to consider focusing instead on the values she has in common with the local folk. She says she seeks to teach no particular beliefs, but only to focus on the centrality of love. What does the Bible have to say about that? And in her interest in sustainable communities, there is much she could learn from the locals, I suggested.

I met Laura on the 4th of July in her aptly  named town of Independence. Just the day before I attended church in the nearby community of Pulaski. Their Bible Study discussion of whether our thoughts can be sins proceeded from much more literal interpretations of the Bible than my own. But I think some new thinking may have been provoked on all sides. Indeed, my own family--which includes agnostics and Buddhists--had a rich discussion of the topic afterwards at lunch. Values and beliefs that seem opposite can have connection points at many levels that are invisible when one is taking sides. My prayer for Laura George is that her institute will have an opportunity to expand on that dynamic--whatever name or shape her building finally takes.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Comments from those reading the book

Please share here how the book is affecting you. Here's a starter comment from Julie Estep of Chico, CA, one of the first people to buy it.

"I suppose it need not be said that the book is a “bridge-building” tour de force, given its ambition and scope. It echoes and grounds conversations that, doubtlessly, innumerable New Agers, meta-philosophers, mystics, and non-traditionalists have been constructing in their heads for decades. Your book provides a succinct, precise, and unique mirror, which is one of the many things that make the piece so valuable. Readers will say: “OmiGod! Yes! Exactly! Thank you!”"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Highview Series 5: "My Intuition is Your Holy Spirit"

Follow our hearts or follow the scriptures? This was one of the main themes throughout  the dialogue in our book, so Bishop Thomas and I saved it for the last night of our discussion series at Highview Christian Fellowship.

At the beginning of our story, I'm all for "heart" or direct divine guidance, and he's all for the unchanging standard of the Bible.  But as our story progresses--and as our discussion series progressed last month--you could see both sides expanding to include some of the other's conviction: me because I realized how susceptible we humans are to mistaking ego for revelation, and Bishop Thomas because my concession of that freed him to focus more on the mature spiritual stages in which we have wholly incorporated the scriptures into our  way of being. Indeed, I came to see that most of my peers absorbed the Judeo-Christian ethic so thoroughly in childhood that they don't appreciate how much it still does serve as a "standard" against which they measure their intuitions.

"You call it Holy Spirit, we call it Spirit," said Rev. Trish Hall, minister of my other church, The Celebration Center for Spiritual Living."


One Standard, Two Answers
From Chapter 27 of "The Bishop and the Seeker," we read how I challenged Bishop T about a situation in which I seemed to be getting divine guidance that contradicted scripture. A friend was in the hospital, but I got a feeling that I didn't have to go visit her that day.

"Scripture tells us we should fulfill other responsibilities," he said.

"Ah. So you're saying a decision to go could be supported by scripture, and a decision not to go could also be supported by scripture?" I asked.

"Yes, it depends on the situation." he said.

"But suppose I didn't have other responsibilities that evening. I just had a feeling my friend didn't need me--perhaps because she had other visitors or was being discharged. Shouldn't Spirit be able to communicate to us new information like that that isn't in the scriptures?"

"You can take that attitude," he said. "But you may be wrong."

And THAT was a major "aha" for me. When I follow my inner knowing, I risk the possibility of being wrong. If I follow the pre-set standard and things don't work out, its not my responsibility. So how responsible am I willing to be?

Overcoming "the World"
"But what about the affect of the world on us?" asked one participant. And that made me realize that both our traditions, Christianity and New Thought metaphysics, share a passion to overcome the influence of "the world" of public opinion. Personally, I was  lucky that my mother taught me, "Never follow the world, most people are boobs."  But of course, that left me prone to judgment which may be just as difficult to overcome.

Following up
Several people asked at the end of the evening if we could continue the discussion informally, which I will be happy to do. Just let us know if you'd like to sit in.
All My Ministers
My favorite photo of the series:
Me between Rev. Trish Hall of Celebration Center, and my co-author Bishop Thomas.