Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trepidations and reflections on faith in Lent

We are not to simply bandage wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spike into the wheel itself. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

In spite of injunctions like this, we have mounted huge systems of “mercy” that purport to “bandage wounds of victims of injustice”.  And we have elevated millions to pedestals of heroism for having joined those systems. We have even created schools for mercy training, in our search for relief of our own shame and guilt and yet the wheels of injustice continue to spin beyond our control.

In Christian circles, there is a debate about the application of the concept of salvation, as to whether or not that applies to the individual primarily or to the community itself.
 Logically, there can be no complete separation, given that the saving of the community would have to include the individual. Salvation, considered the key to the eternal life of the kingdom of heaven, seems to require a transformation of the heart/mind/spirit/body from a sinful and secular self-directed impulse to a more spiritual, ethereal and elevated commitment to a different way of being, as a disciple of a Risen Christ whose death on the cross at Calvary and Resurrection were an atonement for our transgressions. And who are we to presume to know better than God whether our sins do not qualify for such forgiveness? Millions of people, having read and studied and prayed about their relationship with God, have foundered on the shoals of their own false humility, playing God, in their own lives, as if they knew better. Neither false humility nor false exaggeration of one’s sacred and ethical purity will open one’s eyes to a full appreciation and acknowledgement of the full truth of one’s spiritual fitness. And what if our spiritual fitness is never questioned by the God of unconditional love?

It is Lent, that part of the Christian calendar that posits a critical examination of our lives in light of the forty days and forty nights in which Jesus is reported to have wandered in the wilderness, prior to his crucifixion.  Some put ashes on their foreheads, on Ash Wednesday, as a symbol both of belief and discipleship in the depths of suffering Jesus experienced, and holds out as a model for our own potential transformation. Without suffering, we are and will be unable to enter into the Kingdom.

Transgressions, suffering….forgiveness, resurrection, rebirth….these are words bandied about in Christian circles, in our stumbling attempt to make sense of how our faith and the story on which it rests intersects with our lives. And any attempt here by a mere mortal to make a final explication has to be considered tentative, faulty, incomplete and open to deep criticism.

It was St Paul who wrote that we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. And while there is no denying our sinfulness, (in those things we have done and those we have failed to do), there is another lens that we can invoke through which to look at our sins. John Milton reminds us that we are not punished “for” our sins, but rather “by” our sins. And there is an inscrutable sense in which none of us is blind or deaf to our own sins of commission/omission. The Christian church has, in the words of some cynics, kept Satan (the opponent, adversary of God) in business for thousands of years. So deeply ingrained in the theology of the Christian church is the sinfulness of human beings that some argue this quality of sin, imperfection, weakness, (of the flesh, of the mind, of the spirit) is the primary qualifying trait of humanity.

Some proponents of the faith argue that, without a moment of miraculous realization of the gift of God’s forgiveness, and its acceptance, “being born again,” one is not and cannot be “saved”. Others, (among whom count your scribe) prefer a protracted life-long process of both openness to and receptivity of God’s grace, that gift which we struggle to find, and struggle even more to explain, by which humans come to a conscious (and unconscious) awareness that God’s love is so mysterious and so ubiquitous and so penetrating that for most, only those moments when we are, have been, and will be experiencing the darkest night, is there some kind of light that penetrates our personal cave.

The narrative, from scripture, that depicts the supreme act of love, as humans would be able and willing to conceive it, emerges from the story of Good Friday, the commemoration of the death of Jesus (that man/God figure in history who never claims to be God, but rather walks and talks as the Son of God). Crucified, Jesus is reported to have been missing from his burial tomb, although witnessed by Mary Magdalene, and then, the story says, He ‘rose’ into heaven. This story of the triumph over death, Resurrection, is symbol of not only God’s power and also the power of forgiveness which accompanies belief in, faith in, acceptance of and following the path of Jesus’ teachings, prayers, and memorial acts such as The Last Supper, now celebrated in the Eucharist, the Mass, or the Communion.

Much has been made, by church teachings, of the need for humans to repent, confess and move beyond their sins, some would argue, as a singularly potent teaching by which to seize and to maintain control over parishioners. The Penitential Rite, the act of Confession, has been imprinted in both the practice and the prayer books of some religious communities, and clergy have been instructed on how and when to “hear” confessions, a process considered integral to the path of Christian discipleship. As one who has been on both sides of the “confessional,” I am conscious that the act of telling another of the burdens of the heart, soul, mind and spirit can be healing, and when linked with the potential of the forgiveness of God, conveyed through the clergy, at a time of significant import in the life of the penitent, the elevated impact of such a moment is frequently long remembered.

There is evidence, also, that psychiatrists have referred troubled clients, seemingly near the end of their clinical therapy, to the client’s clergy, for additional healing, from a spiritual perspective. And there is little doubt that one’s turbulent mind and heart and spirit, depending on the trauma through which they have passed, can be ameliorated, and integrated into one’s full conscious with the help of a skillful therapist and/or an empathic spiritual director.

Moments of tragedy, births, deaths, divorces, serious calamities….these are all moments which know no ethnicity, and no religious affiliation, and no clearly prescribed healing process. They are, however, moments that have indelibly imprinted themselves on the parchment of our mind and spirit, leaving scars and tares and tears, and a memory cache of pain, often more than our conscious being can tolerate at the time of the occurrence.

Consequently, those emotional and psychological bombshells lie like hidden mind fields in our unconscious waiting for the time when, often after decades of avoidance and relegating to the attics of our memories, somehow the time and the circumstances make their unpacking feasible and perhaps even necessary. At such times, the search for a professional partner to walk beside the unpacking process takes on a meaning and an urgency that was never present previously.

Our spiritual life, while not restricted to our psychological health and wellness, is nevertheless integrated and implicated with it. Troubled minds and spirits walk among us every day, some seeking “sedatives” or pain-killers like alcohol, illicit drugs, gambling, sex, and even the respectable addiction (especially for many  men!) WORK. Often emerging from families of origin in which they were emotional, physically, sexually and/or psychically abused, these men and women struggle for the rest of their lives to understand, and to re-envision how they would approach their abuse if it occurred today, and their process of integration, (or individuation, for Jungians) invariably presents the gift of new life in insights never recognized before, in the forgiveness of their betrayers, in the release of their desire for revenge, or perhaps in their renewed attempt to build new paths of reconciliation given a new confidence.

All of these possibilities constitute metaphors for “new life” that rich and potentially ephemeral notion around which the pathways for most humans yearn, hope and sometimes realize.

Realization, however, is never “achievement” and herein lies the great “rub”.
Henri Nouwen, the great Roman Catholic pastoral teacher, speaks of what he calls the “redemption complex” by which he suggests some people seek to work their way into heaven. Their worship, and even their ministry is calculated to “earn” them a permit to an eternal life. And there is some scriptural evidence for “good works” as a consequence of a life of faith. However, attempting to negotiate with God, on exclusively human, and extrinsic terms, ignores the more mysterious more ephemeral and more profound openness to and receptivity of grace, and that not of yourself but from God.

Having spent my early years in a Presbyterian church where I first heard the word “predestination” whereby all events have been preordained by God, including the fate of an individual soul, that revered “permit” to enter heaven. As a theological theory, instrument, by which to divide the “saved” from those “damned” I absolutely reject the concept. While none of us can claim to know fully the mind, heart and purpose of God, I hold a firm conviction that any God worthy of the name is more than capable and willing to wrap arms around every human being, irrespective of the offences they may have committed, planned, supported or omitted. And even this conviction is not without serious conflict among some literal, fundamentalist, evangelical faith adherents. In fact, it is one of the more jagged and cutting knives to slice through the church community, along with many others like the acceptance/ordination of women, gays and strangers.

Perhaps a world view that incorporates a search for a path of reconciliation with even the most heinous of “neighbours”, premised on the clearly acknowledged reality and truth that no man is without stains on his biography and his spirit, is the most faithful iteration and incarnation of a Christian faith to which we can aspire.

And, aspiration clearly falls short of realization. There are some Christians who prefer the notion of God as a surrogate for the word/concept/notion of relationship…and that God is more a verb than a noun…..and there is much to be admired in that view.
After all, we are all becoming, changing, (not only through the replacement of every single body cell) but also through our encounter, re-encounter and reflections on both of the people events, ideas, beliefs and triumphs and disasters we have witnessed and experienced. And God’s revelation, contrary to the strict literalists, continues to be a potential accretion to our sensibility, our insight our imagination and our capacity life a full and grateful life, among those near and dear to us.

Anyone who has had the privilege of participating (not merely observing) an autopsy cannot but be moved by the intricate complexity and balance and sheer wonder of the human being, body mind spirit and the inexpressible whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Anyone who has permitted him or herself to become fully immersed in a Beethoven symphony, or the miracle of birth, or even the awe of the moment of death….and the moment of being so completely and unconditionally loved by another that only an act of such love as the Christian faith points to in Calvary and the Resurrection could be worthy of comparison…

And there is another of the many traps in which we enmesh our perceptions, our beliefs and our capacity to remain open to and thus vulnerable to a relationship with a mysterious, unknown and unknowable God, notwithstanding our perpetual and endless search.

Whatever faith community seems appropriate to our spiritual yearnings, like the Jews, we will forever remain ignorant of the “mind” of God, yet that unknowing will never prevent or pervert our search for a relationship with the power of the universe, whomever and however we conceive of that power to be best presented and adapted to our deepest and highest potential.

And only armed with the kind of courage and discipline and unwavering commitment can we even begin to contemplate “driving that spike into the wheels of injustice, in the name of God! Bonhoeffer returned to Hitler’s Germany, his homeland, as the next step on his path of discipleship and was ultimately killed for his faith and his determination to drive that spike into the Fuhrer’s wheel of injustice. Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, returned to speak from the same podium used by the Fuehrer himself, as an act of defiance on behalf of his Jewish brothers and sisters. The world is replete with wheels of injustice begging for a spike to bring it to a halt.


Fighting with different faith beliefs, or faith communities, is a sure path to irrelevancy, although, it says here, it will take some a long time to come to that view.

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