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