Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ten Minute Christ

A singing bowl from Nepal given me by a 
Buddhist colleague when I completed an 
interim ministry at MCC San Francisco.

I am struggling to write about a book I first mentioned two weeks ago, A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays, a 1970 book by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama. There are so many stories and insights that I would like to list for you, as I did with the remarkable Cloud of Unknowing. But I feel called to do something more: to somehow translate Zen into progressive Christian experience.

This effort recalls my college class on Asian Religions, taught by Professor Miyuki, a Japanese Buddhist. I was quite proud of my midterm paper for the class, but was dismayed that my professor deigned to give it only a “C.” Having read more about Zen training since, I realize this was the slap in the face that a Zen master might give a disciple, to awaken something in me.

But at the time, my rational, dualistic and discriminating side got the better of me and I met with the professor to explain that everything I had written came from the texts for the class. In accented English, he told me in words that “should” have been my complaint, “You just don’t understand.” In other words, I just didn’t get it.

As the Zen Master Enkan said to a scholar monk of the Sutras (Buddhist scriptures), “Your knowledge is not of any use, is it? It is like a small lamp under the shining sun. It seems to have no light.” As Shibayama explains, “In the face of real experience concepts are like flakes of snow fallen on a burning fire.” He describes words as “just the conceptual shadows of the facts.” As a writer, this is another blow from a Zen master!

So, for my final paper, I simply told a story, drawing from the intuitive, creative side of my brain rather than the rational, academic side. I don’t remember the story, but I remember that my guide in the story, who was also myself, was a little girl.  Professor Miyuki loved it, and gave me an “A,” and I think an “A” in the course as well.

Zen tries to recover the satori, or Enlightenment, experience, believing that Buddhist scholars “tended to place too much importance on the metaphysical or philosophical interpretations of the sutras.” Zen Master Sekito and his disciples were blocked along a mountain path by vines and creepers. The monk ahead turned to Sekito asking for his sword to clear the way, and the Master handed it to him blade first. 
“Stop the nonsense! Let me have the hilt!” the monk demanded. Sekito’s reply was sharper than the edge of the knife. He said, “What is the use of the hilt?” The monk could not utter a word in reply. We are apt to stick to the hilt which is of secondary importance, and miss the Truth altogether (p 26-27). 
This story made me think of how often we Christians “stick to the hilt,” the Bible, our theology, and miss Truth altogether. Scottish theologian P.T. Forsythe held that, “Prayer is to religion what original research is to science.” Spiritual practices open us up to Truth, even in scriptures. As Thomas Merton wrote in Contemplative Prayer, “God’s presence cannot be verified as we would verify a laboratory experiment. Yet it can be spiritually realized as long as we do not insist on verifying it. As soon as we try to verify the spiritual presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.”

Shibayama suggests, “Zen does not remain simply the core of Buddhism, but it works to deepen and revive any religion or philosophy. For instance, there can be a Christian Zen…”

For four or five years I served as spiritual leader of Midtown Spiritual Community here in Atlanta, a spiritually eclectic group, and their mission statement expressed a desire to have a direct experience of the divine. During the contemplative retreat I co-led a few weeks ago, participants told us they preferred our experiential emphasis on spiritual exercises over academic presentations.

When I served as interim pastor of MCC San Francisco, I occasionally sat with their Buddhist group, following the spiritual exercise of zazen. Shibayama explains that, in Japanese, “za means to sit cross-legged, zen, to calmly concentrate one’s mind.”

He says we are to directly realize that “All beings are primarily Buddhas,” and by this he does not mean simply humans or even all creatures, but all entities, from atoms to galaxies. He tells us that there is another saying in Zen, “If one sits for ten minutes, he is a ten-minute Buddha.”

Immediately my heart flew to the “ah-hah” that if Christians could sit still in contemplation for ten minutes, and realize our own incarnations of Christ, we could be ten-minute Christs! It would give a whole new meaning to the Resurrection and to the triumphal return of Christ to this world—beliefs that are often doubted by progressive Christians.

But, like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, we wouldn’t be doing this for ourselves alone. Buddhism teaches the practice of six virtues: generosity, observing precepts and other good deeds, patience and forbearance, zeal, meditation, and true wisdom. Generosity and good deeds are sometimes singled out. And generosity and good deeds are what singled out the first followers of Jesus and attracted others to our faith.

I’m sure what I’ve written here has stepped on a few toes in Zen Buddhism as well as in progressive Christianity, as I am a faulty and limited blogger. I apologize. But just as Zen wanted to enliven Buddhism, so I think a Zen way of practicing our faith could enliven Christianity.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

God, Mother of Us All

Ormewood Church on Easter

This is excerpted from my talk for Ormewood Church this past Mother’s Day. The complete scripture was Wisdom of Solomon 7:22b-30 (NRSV), a portion of which I’ve included here. The “her” is Wisdom, Sophia. Thanks to organizing pastor Jenelle Holmes for inviting me! 
There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy…loving the good…humane…steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. …For she is a breath of the power of God…in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with Wisdom. 
If you saw all these qualities in a personal ad or on a resume, you just might want to meet this person! I say “might” because this is a list so awesome many of us would feel intimidated.

This is a description of Sophia, Greek for Wisdom, and in Jewish wisdom literature, you could say she was the feminine side of God, the counterpart to God the Father. This scripture was written by a Jewish mystic deeply influenced by Greek philosophy who lived around the time of Jesus. As I grow older and the world seems more and more stupid and ignorant, wisdom becomes a quality I pray for in all our leaders and all of us!

In another text it is said that Sophia was with God from the beginning—without Wisdom nothing was created that was created. If this sounds familiar, the mystical Gospel of John takes as its prologue a similar assertion, that the Word, or Jesus, was with God from the beginning, and without Jesus, nothing was made that was made.

On this Mother’s Day, I invite us to think of motherhood as sometimes biological and sometimes spiritual. Note the present tense in the following examples. We need to hear these words even today:

“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” God declares through the prophet Isaiah (Is 66:13).  

Jesus laments over Jerusalem, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt 23:37). 

And the Psalmist gives us that comforting goal of resting in God:
I hold myself in quiet and silence,
            like a little child in its mother’s arms,
            like a little child, so I keep myself.  (Ps 131:2, NJB)

One of our spiritual mothers, the 12th century Julian of Norwich, even prays to the founder of our faith as “Mother Jesus.” 

And, when told his mother and siblings have come to see him, Jesus himself famously says, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Those who do the will of God in heaven.”

I say the Lord’s Prayer every morning. Early on, I changed the “Our Father” to “God, Mother and Father of us all.” I pray this way because my biological mother and father loved me in different ways and I returned that love in different ways, and so it is in our relationship with God, I believe. For many without a mother or a father, or who have an imperfect mother or father, God may serve as a spiritual foster mother or father.

The Christian faith grew from a handful of persecuted followers scattered throughout the Roman Empire in the first century after Christ to the equivalent of almost a state church by the fourth century, becoming culturally fashionable and politically advantageous. Even the Emperor claimed to be a Christian.

This mixing of church and state made some followers of Jesus nervous, anxious that his countercultural teachings, such as concern for the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the old, orphans, children, and those with disabilities would be lost in the collusion and confusion of church and state. They were also worried about the transformation of what had been a Christian movement into a religion and religious institution, the Church.

So, so-called spiritual mothers and fathers went out into the wildernesses of the Middle East to pray. They became known as the Desert Mothers and the Desert Fathers. They did not believe Jesus came to save only Christians—rather, they believed that Jesus could save the whole world from its excesses, its materialism, prejudices, hatred, self-absorption, violence, and cruelty.

They were concerned for the interior life that we in the 21st century would understand as the spiritual life.

But the spiritual life for them was as real as the exterior life in which they labored to be self-sustaining communities that could welcome and feed the stranger, the refugee, the pilgrim, and those escaping mistreatment and injustice, including women.

Paying attention to our “interior dwellings,” our souls, proves to be the beginning of an intentional spiritual life that will benefit our guests, whether young children or elderly parents, neighbors or strangers.

My mom and dad were role models of this spiritual life in different ways. My dad enjoyed studying scripture and teaching Sunday school. My mom was more of an adventurer in the spiritual life, reading the writings of mystics and contemplatives of various traditions. In this sermon, you can hear my father the teacher in my words, and my mother the contemplative-wannabe in my regard for the spiritual life.

But it was not until my mom was in her 80’s that she had what could be called an amazing epiphany. And, a surprise to me, it came at the hands of a Baptist preacher from Atlanta, the Rev. Charles Stanley, whose television broadcast she watched whenever she was unable to attend her Baptist church in Los Angeles. On one of her visits here I took her to First Baptist of Atlanta, by then moved to the suburbs, and she was thrilled to meet Rev. Stanley, though I had explained he was not affirming as she was of gay people like me.

Her “ah-hah” in the final year of her life, she explained with some glee, was that she had always known that God loved us generally, but for the first time in her life she had come to believe that God loved her personally, thanks to Rev. Stanley.

Surprised, I kidded her, “Mom, haven’t you been reading all my books?!”

The 19th century English poet and mystic William Blake summed it up well when he said, “We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

The spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen added that our time on earth is a brief span to say to God, “I love you too.”



A related post: “Peace! Be Still!”

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

"A Flower Does Not Talk"

One of our orchids.
The whole world today, both East and West, seems to be going through a period of convulsion, a time of travail, as it seeks to give birth to a new culture. There cannot be one simple cause for the tensions in so many parts of the world, but one of the major factors may be that while remarkable progress has been made in the use of new scientific knowledge, we human beings have not developed sufficiently spiritually and ethically to meet the new conditions.
It is most urgently required, therefore, that we must work to create a new human culture by striving for a truer understanding of humanity and a higher level of spirituality. 
This seems to echo the observations of Teilhard de Chardin, writing just after World War II, and speaks to our own time nearly two decades into the 21st century. But it comes from a book written in 1970 by Zenkei Shibayama, a Zen master and then abbot of Nazenji Monastery in Kyoto, Japan. The book is titled, A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays, and was translated into English by one of the author’s disciples, Miss Sumoko Kudo.

I took this from my bookshelves very early morning of the Saturday I write this, a little more than a week before leading a contemplative retreat, which I should continue preparing for, but I prefer to write this post, to be published a week after the retreat. The title possibly appealed to me because I am a little anxious about my impending leadership. In her helpful book, Be Still: Designing and Leading Contemplative Retreats, Jane E. Vennard writes that the best way to lead contemplation is to be a contemplative. A flower that does not talk seems a good role model.

As I read Shibayama’s preface and Daisetz T. Suzuki’s introduction, I wondered how I had never read this book that has sat alongside my books of Eastern wisdom for at least three decades. I was moved to find that the introduction was the famous D. T. Suzuki’s last writing, having completed it the day before he took sick, dying the day after that at the age of 95.

Only when I sat down to write this post did I see “Culbertson” handwritten on the title page and realize that this was either a loan or a gift from my friend, Linda Culbertson, executive of the Presbytery of the Pacific.

Suzuki evokes a smile with his very first sentence, “Zen claims to be ‘a specific transmission outside the scripture and to be altogether independent of verbalism,’ but it is Zen Masters who are most talkative and most addicted to writings of all sorts.” As a would-be contemplative who obviously loves words, I find this comforting.

He then writes how Zen Masters enjoy bringing their readers “to bewilderment with their apparently irrational and often irrelevant utterances.” I underlined “bewilderment” because yesterday I used a fanciful version of the word preparing a guided meditation for the retreat, writing, “We will flee from the familiar to the wild-ness and bewilder-ness of the wilderness.” Suzuki asserts that their purpose is to lift students to “the higher way of observing things.”

“Zen tells us to change or reverse our usual way of understanding,” he writes. “Zen always aspires to make us directly see into Reality itself, that is, be Reality itself, so that we can say along with Meister Eckhart that ‘Christ is born every minute in my soul,’ or that ‘God’s Isness is my Isness.’”

Yet the author, Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, cautions in his preface, “We should not too easily conclude that there is just one Truth, and that East and West are after all the same.”

Hallelujah!

The book’s title is that of the author’s poem:

A Flower Does Not Talk

Silently a flower blooms,
In silence it falls away;
Yet here now, at this moment, at this place,
            the whole of the flower, the whole of the world is blooming.
This is the talk of the flower, the truth of the blossom;
The glory of eternal life is fully shining here.

I think I’ve found my personal reading for the retreat.


I will be speaking during the 11 a.m. worship this coming Sunday, May 13, 2018 at Ormewood Church in Atlanta.

Related Post: A Flower’s Tears

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Souls "Flung Up to Heaven": Maya Angelou and Hildegard of Bingen


This week I am co-leading a contemplative retreat at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. Four years ago on this site, Dewey Weiss Kramer gave an uplifting course on Hildegard of Bingen for Columbia Seminary’s Spiritual Formation Program. I decided to adapt today’s post from my reflections on that experience.

I am writing this in the wake of the news of the death of Maya Angelou, and this propinquity prompts me to note Hildegard and Angelou’s shared recognition of our musical and lyrical needs spiritually, as well as the role that deprivation plays in appreciating those needs. Both Hildegard and Angelou played many roles in life, and both were strong and savvy women, unflinching in challenging injustice as well as carving places for themselves in patriarchal systems and cultures.

Angelou took the wistful title and theme of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, from a poem by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  As a poor African American girl turned woman from the backwaters of the South, Angelou knew deprivation on multiple levels.

Hildegard, from a wealthy family in Germany, used her privilege to create and defend a group of women religious, but wrote some of her most profound words and theology when her community was deprived of singing in worship by church hierarchy.

I fantasize about the harmony that these giants, Hildegard and Angelou, might make now that both have been “flung up to heaven,” in the words of the title of the latter’s last book, A Song Flung Up to Heaven.

At nine years of age, Maya Angelou chose to go mute for five years after naming her rapist and believing it was her words that killed him. It could be argued that her six memoirs that followed, perhaps all of her writings, were born out of that silence, a kind of self-imposed spiritual discipline that emulates the contemplative silences of the monastic life.

Silence may have allowed her to listen closely to those around her, better able to capture their choice of words and phrasings; to see life for what it was, better able to be a truth teller in a world of denial and deception; to deeply smell and taste and touch the world, better able to depict scents and flavors and textures; and then to conjure her worldly, earthy, and cultural experience in lyrical but accessible language.

Similarly, Hildegard’s contemplative life empowered her to describe her visions, coaching artists in their design, then to interpret “their truth,” their meaning spiritually and theologically, in her rudimentary Latin, the mystical language of the time.

And, of great interest to this writer, Hildegard listened to the music of the soul, creating her own forms of spiritual music that did not follow the conventions of the day, thus creating an ethereal, unearthly music, music that serves as a haunting reminder of the harmonies inherent in Eden (not far from that of angels) and in the unfallen first human creature, of whom she said, “If he had remained in his original state, the weakness of mortal man would not have been able to endure the power and the resonance of his voice.”  I have some sense of this, having heard Maya Angelou speak and read her work with a musical, resonant, majestic intonation.

We are blessed that Hildegard and Maya both found their voice.

I am one of those persons of whom Hildegard writes “sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of celestial harmony.” Maybe these are echoes of the sound of Eden, as Hildegard suggests, or premonitions of heavenly bliss, or “the music of the spheres.”

I hear that music in lyrical writing, whether poetry or prose. That’s why I was so taken with Hildegard’s prayer, “O ignis Spiritus Paracliti,” which, even without music, sings to me, especially that phrase, “O sweet savor in the breast.” Like the Lord’s Prayer, it would be a worthy part of every liturgy.

Harmony comes from the integrity of body and spirit that I experience with Hildegard in the sacrament of music. Augustine’s reservations about the sensuality of music is the very thing that draws me to it as an instance of the Incarnation of God. Music is the Word made flesh—again.

“The body is the vestment of the spirit, which has a living voice, and so it is proper for the body, in harmony with the soul, to use its voice to sing praises to God,” Hildegard affirms.  Just as for Hildegard encountering one of the Trinity is to encounter all of the Trinity, in my view, to encounter an instance of Incarnation is to encounter all Incarnation.

That’s why Hildegard’s understanding that Incarnation was not the result of The Fall but intended from the beginning makes sense to me, especially as she views Creation itself as an incarnation of God, its fecundity, its greening (viriditas)—in my words, a divine impulse, a holy “oozing,” and the soul’s melody.

And the soul’s melody is not just human, it is in every creature, every atom, in the whole of the cosmos—nothing is truly inert in Hildegard’s view, everything is a “sounding icon” and “vibrations” of God’s self in everything.

As I wrote in Communion of Life:

Our original sin
Is not the seizing of forbidden fruit,
But failing to see
The infinite in the finite,
The luminous, sacred essence
Of the garden;

Failing to revere
The life that gives us life;
Trampling on the taboo,
Sequestering, quantifying,
And qualifying the holy—
The heart of our garden.

Forgive us, earth,
Be merciful in our willful ignorance
As you are gracious in your altruistic nature.
Hold us accountable, and then,
Hold us.

Reading this you will understand why I was so taken with Hildegard’s fresh understanding of human alienation, that the first human transgression was refusing the white flower, the fruit of humility offered by a benevolent God: “Its scent comes to the human’s nostrils, but he does not taste it with his mouth…for he tried to know the wisdom of the Law with his intelligence…but did not perfectly digest it…or fulfill it in full blessedness by the work of his hands. … He did not seek God either by faith or by works.”

  
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