Tuesday, July 30, 2013

More Religion-Science Difficulty

This news story this morning concerned new science standards for schools in Kentucky. “Supporters and opponents of the Next Generation Science Standards sparred during hearings in Kentucky last week, as critics took issue with the standards’ teaching of evolution and climate change.

“The new standards were developed with input from officials in 26 states –- including Kentucky –- and are part of an effort to make science curricula more uniform across the country. While supporters feel the standards will help beat back scientific ignorance, some religious groups take issue because the standards treat evolution as fact and talk about the human role in climate change.

“Matt Singleton, a Baptist minister, is one of the opponents who spoke to the board about why the standards should not be adopted, according to The Courier-Journal [Louisville, KY's newspaper]. 'Outsiders are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship almighty God,' Singleton said. 'Instead, this fascist method teaches that our children are the property of the state.'

“Another opponent, Dena Stewart-Gore, suggested that the standards will make religious students feel ostracized. 'The way socialism works is it takes anybody that doesn’t fit the mold and discards them,' she said, per the The Courier-Journal. 'We are even talking genocide and murder here, folks.' "(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/next-generation-science-standards_n_3672418.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009)

Of course I don't know other things that were said at this meeting. These quotations, as reported here, intermingle religion, science, states' rights, people’s fears about oppressive ideologies, and loaded words like “elitism” and "outsiders" and "genocide" in ways that make you wish for the clear, evidence-based and reasoned discussion that science and logic strive for. I also strongly disagree with any explicit or implied use of the Holocaust in a discussion of an issue that falls far, far short of that horror.  

Let me repeat something I wrote in another post a while back, concerning a situation in Sedalia, MO. I'm religious and I love science, so this kind of story distresses me. But I want to respect the people in this story and think about a few of the issues involved.

On the basis of these quotations, the people concerned about the Kentucky school standards apparently consider evolutionary theory a “religion” or, at least, a philosophy that competes with traditional religious belief and impedes "the right to worship almighty God."

If one understands certain distinctions, aspects of this issue may fall into place. A hypothesis is an assumption that something is true, but that assumption is still undergoing experiments, discussion, and testing. A theory is a “model” of reality that has stood up under many experiments over many years, has been discussed in peer-reviewed journals, is compatible with other theories, and can potentially anticipate other observations and theories.

Evolutionary science is a theory in this respect: it is a sound scientific model that explains data in many different fields like biology, paleontology, and others. Evolutionary theory is science. There are no alternative theories that are accepted by a majority of those in scientific community; this is not because scientists are closed-minded to other theories but because this model has been studied and refined for years and is viable. No other scientific models make as much sense and explain as many phenomena, from an empirical standpoint.

Science concerns the observation and explanation of physical phenomena. Although science does address questions of cognition and behavior, science does not answer questions of theology and spirituality. Science is “methodologically materialistic,” that is, its procedures and methods are aimed at physical phenomena.

But at this point you can take at least three philosophical positions. The first, which I hold, is that science and religion are complementary sources of truth. The invisible world exists but it is approached through religion, faith, faith-encouraged reason, certain kinds of experience, and tradition rather than empirical examination. Science can describe phenomena according to empirical methods, while religion can declare truthfully that "God created the heavens and the earth."

The second position is “epistemological materialism”; there may be a spiritual world, but since we cannot know it through science, we cannot know anything meaningful about it. Religious belief is a matter of faith but not reason.

The third is “metaphysical materialism”: we cannot know the spiritual world through science, therefore the former does not exist. We can explain everything meaningfully through science, including the reasons why we’re religious, moral, etc.

I think many people become upset about evolutionary theory because they believe it necessarily falls under the third position and, therefore, is an atheistic philosophy which is being taught to our children. No, evolutionary theory, properly speaking, is a scientific theory that explains physical phenomena. But among scientific theories, evolutionary theory seems the very threatening to theological doctrines like the image of God in humanity, sin, redemption, and the inspiration of the Bible. Somehow even the antiquity and vastness of the universe do not make people as theologically anxious, even though astronomical science could equally threaten a literal reading of the Bible.

Public schools should offer traditional science as proper science but also find ways to introduce some kind of non-sectarian religion courses for students--and then students can get a more full religious instruction in other settings. There are suitable ways in which religion can be brought into public schools without violating church-state separation. My daughter’s schools in Kentucky and Ohio did a good job of striking these tricky balances.

Shameless commerce: I discuss these issues in a study book that I wrote for the United Methodist Publishing House: What about Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. But I’ve also been re-reading Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1992, originally published in 1976), where he comments:

“With science itself there can be no quarrel. Scientism is another matter. Whereas science is positive, contenting itself with reporting what it discovers, scientism is negative. It goes beyond the actual findings of science to deny that other approaches to knowledge are valid and other truths are true. In doing so it deserts science in favor of metaphysics--bad metaphysics, as it happens, for as the contention that there are no truths save those of science is not itself a scientific truth, in affirming it scientism contradicts itself. It also carries marks of a religion--a secular religion, resulting from overextrapolation from science, that has seldom numbered great scientists among its votaries” (p. 16-17).

Smith's words shed light upon some the issues raised by this news story. These folks were concerned about a secular religion being promoted (scientism, or metaphysical materialism). But they confused scientism with science. Science is a wonderful, vitally important thing that should---and must---be taught in public schools and more widely appreciated and understood by the general public.



Big-Hearted

I was reading the lessons in one of my prayer books (a Roman Catholic one) for the sixteenth week in ordinary time. The homily for Sunday was from St. John Chrysostrom on Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. He is commenting on 2 Cor. 6:1-7:1, specifically verse 11, “Our heart is wide open to you" (verse 11, NRSV) and two verses later, Paul admonishes the difficult congregation, “Open wide your hearts also.” Chrysostrom writes: “Our heart is enlarged. For as heart makes things expand, so it is the work of love to expand the heart.... There was nothing more capacious than the heart of Paul... his love not being divided and lessened but remaining whole and entire for each of [the faithful]. And what marvel is it that his love for the faithful was such, since his heart embraced the unbelievers, too, throughout the whole world.”(1)

An enlarged heart is a serious medical condition: a popular syndicated radio host, David “Kidd” Kraddick, recently died because of an enlarged heart and blocked arteries, according to a preliminary autopsy. Perhaps we should stick with the metaphor “big hearted” when we’re talking about people’s love. But I still like the idea of “the work of love” as a heart-expanding thing. Picture love as something that makes your heart bigger and roomier, as a builder would make your home larger and more open.

One of my devotional guides (Living Faith) had a piece this past Sunday about Abraham, specifically his intersections for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. It reminded me of something else I once read: although Noah was chosen by God to build the ark, Abraham was chosen by God to begin God’s people. That’s because Abraham had compassion, as seen in his audacious and persistent intercession for the people of the cities, whereas Noah expresses no such intercession for the people about to be wiped out in the Flood. Noah was faithful to God, but somehow his heart wasn't as big as Abraham's.

Like Paul, Abraham had a very big heart. How many times have I heard Christians make dismissive comments about other people who, they think, are undeserving of care and concern. “Those people aren’t my problem,” “those people are just lazy and get what they deserve,” and so on. I, too, make ugly comments (in private, but still) concerning people who, sometimes for trivial reasons, have gotten on my bad side.

But God wants us to be big-hearted. Love expands our metaphorical hearts, makes them capacious, providing room there for all kinds of people, creating forgiveness and generosity and affection for even very difficult folk. We're not as prone to put down others if they're not as liberal or as conservative as we are. If we’re not big-hearted, we can’t truthfully say we love God, but if our hearts are expanding, we're growing as God desires (1 John 4:7-21).

Note:

1. The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. III, Ordinary Time Weeks 1-17 (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1975), 539.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Picker's "Old and Lost Rivers"

As long as I’m writing about beautiful music about water (see yesterday’s post), here is another piece that I heard on the radio a few years ago and, subsequently, ordered the CD right away. (That was a very fortunate purchase, because not only did I have the piece I wanted but also discovered Alan Hovhaness, now a favorite composer, for his “Mysterious Mountain” symphony preceded this piece on the CD.)

Tobias Picker’s “Old and Lost Rivers” is a lovely, meditative piece, just under seven minutes long: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dg2iPEKzqwo I haven't heard the piano version but this orchestral version is so pretty.

Here are Picker’s notes (and press reviews) about the piece: http://tobiaspicker.com/riverspress.html He writes there: "Driving east from Houston along Interstate 10, you will come to a high bridge which crosses many winding bayous. These bayous were left behind by the great wanderings over time of the Trinity River across the land. When it rains the bayous fill with water and begin to flow. At other times -- when it is dry -- they evaporate and turn green in the sun. The two main bayous are called Old River and Lost River. Where they converge, a sign on the side of the highway reads: Old and Lost Rivers.

Definitely not the I-10 bridge
over the Trinity River, but an older one near
Dallas. This postcard is postmarked 1911
"In 1986 the state of Texas was engaged in a celebration of its sesquicentennary. This event was to be marked by the commissioning of a series of concert openers for the Houston Symphony, of which I had just been appointed Composer in Residence. Thought not a traditional Fanfare, Old and Lost Rivers took its place in what came to be known as the Fanfare Project alongside twenty other compositions from composers from all over the US and the world including Elliott Carter, John Adams, Poul Ruders and Marius Constant.

"I composed Old and Lost Rivers in the spring of 1986 in Houston as a tribute to my new home.....”



Saturday, July 27, 2013

Moeran's "Lonely Waters"

Here is a piece that I listen to at least once a week, sometimes every morning: “Lonely Waters” by Ernest John Moeran (1896-1950). I make a purely personal connection with the piece to the pond on my grandmother's farm, which I last saw over forty years ago, and to the Akron, OH lake called Schocalog Pond (pictured here), along which we used to live. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebP_ehR6oLE

Moeran was an Anglo-Irish composer, a World War I veteran, and a composer associated with Charles Villiers Stanford, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius, John Ireland, Peter Warlock, and others. Sadly, he died at the edge of water when only 55. Standing on a dock at Kenmare in Ireland's County Kerry, Moeran suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.

An old postcard
In the notes of a recent Naxos release of this piece and the Cello Concerto (Catalog Number: 8573034), Paul Conway writes:

“Though published together in 1935 as Two Pieces for small orchestra, Lonely Waters and Whythorneʼs Shadow are very different in character and instrumentation. In their own respective ways, these two short pieces are entirely representative, fine examples of Moeranʼs art...Dedicated to Vaughan Williams, this is one of the first of Moeranʼs works to speak with his distinctive musical voice. It takes the form of a mini-orchestral rhapsody that weaves three measured and nostalgic variations around a folk-song from East Norfolk. The scoreʼs modest forces are supplemented by a suspended cymbal that supplies one precisely timed and very effective crash at the workʼs emotional peak. In the scoreʼs final page, a folk-singer, positioned at the back of the orchestra, describes in melancholy tones, the lonely waters of the workʼs title

An old postcard from Oil City, PA 
So Iʼll go down to some lonely waters,

Go down where no one they shall me find,

Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices, 
And every moment blow blustering wild.

“Moeran wrote an alternative, purely orchestral, ending... in which the singerʼs eloquent melody is voiced by a keening cor anglais.” Although I haven't written here about Whythorneʼs Shadow, the two pieces do make a complementary pair, with this piece  less melancholy and also nostalgic.


Interfaith Prayers

This week's prayer reminders for persons of different faiths around the world.

Continued prayers for the Muslim-Buddhist hostilities in Myanmar
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/26/monk-blames-muslims-myanmar_n_3658404.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

Tunisia was the country where the first of the Arab Spring uprisings occurred in January 2011, when the former dictator was driven out. But the country has continued to struggle with democracy. This past week, an opposition leader was assassinated in Tunis. The second political assassination in that country in 2013. Prayers for Tunisia, as well as the ongoing transition in Egypt. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/07/25/tunisias-opposition-leader-assassinated-as-political-turmoil-returns-to-birthplace-of-arab-spring/
http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/world/120-killed-in-clashes-near-promorsy-rally/article4959442.ece?homepage=true

This coming Saturday is the Muslim holiday of Lailat al-Qadar, the holiest night of Ramadan. On this day, Allah began to send the words of the Holy Qur’an to humankind through the Prophet Muhummad.  http://www.islam.abouttravelingtheworld.com/islamic-holidays/laylat-al-qadr/

There have been many cases of viral fever in India because of recent heavy rains. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/cases-of-viral-fever-on-rise-in-krishna-district/article4960052.ece

And in other world news, an Israeli cabinet minister announced that U.S.-sponsored negotations for peace with the Palestinians might begin this coming week. http://news.yahoo.com/israeli-minister-sees-possible-palestine-talks-july-30-095138041.html;_ylt=A2KJ2UgIL_NRtygAVqvQtDMD%20%20target=

One of my Facebook friends pointed out that today is the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Prayers for the divisions and hostility that continue there, and for veterans of that conflict.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/26/korea-war-armistice-anniversary_n_3658241.html Religiosity in South Korea is primarily Buddhist and Christian, while in the officially atheist North, religion is Muism and Cheondoism and small percentages of Buddhism and Christianity.



Friday, July 26, 2013

Full and Empty

caranddriver.com
One of our former pastors (I call him that; he was our neighbor rather than our church pastor) has daily messages at earlyword.org, although the site seems to be down at the moment. You can receive his thoughts if you send him your name and address at prw610@att.net. They are wonderful, short daily devotions!

This morning he wrote, “So far this morning I have filled my tummy and emptied a waste basket.  Fill and empty, fill and empty – that’s life.

“Jesus gave this basic process new meaning.  He emptied himself in service to others and he filled himself in quiet times with his Father.” He goes on to say that our capitalist society focuses upon “filling,” but that’s often a destructive, accumulative urge.

Thinking about Dick’s message, I recalled the “Covenant Prayer” from John Wesley’s 1780 Covenant Service:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, 
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things 
to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

I’ve known some Christians, including pastors, who love that prayer and yet cling haughtily to the very Puritan idea that if you’re not successful you’re doing something wrong---not in God’s will. That Puritan idea, of course, is found in many areas of society.

And yet our lives do have “seasons” of success and failure, happiness and discouragement, productivity and idleness, missed opportunities and surprising blessings. Wesley’s prayer helps us place ourselves in God’s presence so that---as I noted in yesterday’s thoughts---our prayers are not only specific requests but ways to help us discern what God is already doing.

Is that all of what Wesley means by “full” and “empty”, “exalted” and “brought low”, “employed” and “laid aside”? What other things might he be referring to in this classic prayer? What have been your experiences?


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jesus' Sense of Humor

Maybe you don’t think of Jesus as much of a comedian, but we get some glimpses of his humor in the Luke lesson (11:1-13) for this coming Sunday. Here is a portion:

And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (NRSV)

In the first paragraph, Jesus alludes to the customs of hospitality during his time. A person would of course give a guest food---and the grouchy neighbor would have known that! Jesus’ hearers would have thought: that's so silly, the friend is more horrible than anyone could imagine! It's as if Jesus had said, "If your grandma was struggling to cross the street with her walker, would you just sit there with your beer and yell, 'Don't get hit by a car, Grandma!' No, you'd go help her!"

Thus, Jesus teaches us: if the horrible friend in Jesus' story would answer a persistent request, just to get rid of the guy, how much more would God, who loves us dearly, respond to our prayers.(1)

Similarly, the second paragraph. If your child asks for breakfast cereal, would you give her kitty litter? If your child asked for ice cream, would you give him a steak knife? No, no, no! Therefore, if any of us have sense enough to take care of our kids better than that, then how much more will God give us his Spirit (his presence, his comfort and grace). Interestingly, the version of this story in Matthew’s gospel has “good things” instead of “the Holy Spirit.”

When we discussed this passage in our weekly lectionary group, one member called attention to the active nature of the hospitable friend: he had a request, and he was active and persistent in seeking it. Our prayers can be like that, too: we can be persistent with God, and also doing things as we wait for God. Another member commented that prayer helps us be better able to see what God is already doing.

As an aside: I worry about people who might be disappointed in God if prayers are not answered right away, if at all. Sometimes our prayers seem unanswered; specific events are difficult, things do or don’t work out; tragedies and crises happen, some of which are life-changing. Many times we have no idea is God is present or (we feel) even cares. That’s very much the outlook of some of the psalms, too!

God may answer our prayers right away, or answer them in a different way, or answer them over a period of time (perhaps even a long period). I do like to tell folks that God has never failed me over the long haul; the Christian life is a way to have a framework, so to speak, for one’s whole life, a framework of belonging to God and being cared for and led---along with our family and friends. We can look back and see the amazing ways that God cared for us and answered our prayers and given us his Spirit, better than we could have thought or asked (Eph. 3:20-21).

Notes:

1. Off and on for the past few months I've been studying Jesus' parables again, via the books Exploring the Parables by Eugene S. Wehrli (United Church Press, 1963), and The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Unintended Benefits of God's Presence"

This was to me a fascinating article, showing how the rabbis of the Talmud read the Bible, in this case applying dietary regulations to the challenge of how to do maintenance on the Temple's holiest rooms. 

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/138527/adam-kirsch-daf-yomi-43#undefined

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Bible on Vinyl, and Apps

A few weeks ago I caught a moving episode of “The Twilight Zone” from its first season: “The Last Flight,” written by Richard Matheson, who recently passed away.

A Nieuport biplane emerges from a cloud and lands on a modern American Air Force base in France. The biplane looks pitifully fragile next to the modern aircraft. Major Wilson orders the pilot from the plane and takes him to see Maj. Gen. Harper. The pilot is a British man who identifies himself as Lt. William Terrance Decker and seems genuinely confused when the American officers interrogate him as to why he is wearing a World War I uniform and flew his plane into military air space. Decker thought he was landing on an Royal Flying Corps base in France, which the Americans knew was an early precursor to their own base.

Wilson asks him today’s date, and when Decker tells him March 5, 1917, Wilson informs him that it’s March 5, 1959. Realizing the officers aren’t joking, Decker states that he had become lost in a cloud in which he could no longer hear his plane engine, while flying patrol with his comrade, Captain Mackaye, and once he emerged from the mysterious cloud, he found this base.

General Harper becomes more suspicious as to Decker’s intentions. Mackaye---now Air Vice Marshal Mackaye, a great British military hero in World War II---was coming to the base that day, and surely Decker’s unauthorized appearance was no coincidence. Decker protests that he did not know that, and furthermore, before he became lost in the cloud, Mackaye was under attack from seven German planes. Thus Mackay couldn’t be coming to the base that day, for he had died in 1917.  

Harper orders that Decker be taken into custody until Mackaye arrives, at which point they can get to the bottom of Decker’s story. Major Wilson feels that Decker seems sincere, though his supposed time travel makes no sense, so he and Decker talk. How did Mackaye survive that hopeless fight in 1917? Why is Decker so distressed and ashamed when he learns of Mackaye’s heroism? And why is so reluctant to see him? Would Mackaye even show up at the base that day, given Decker’s certainty that he had been killed forty-two years before?

Matheson’s script is a wonderful exploration of facing one’s fears, dealing with regret, and the seizing of second chances. At the end, the time travel theme is well done, fitting seamlessly into the story. The Twilight Zone's unsettling karma provides us yet another set of life lessons.  

Alexander Scourby and Kenneth Haigh
My daughter is a theatre person, and so I like to look up the careers of actors to see what else they had done. Kenneth Haigh (Decker), who turned 82 this year, was known in English theatre and film, and appeared in Cleopatra and A Hard Day's Night, while Simon Scott (Wilson) was a busy character actor whose many credits included "Trapper John, M.D." General Harper was played by Alexander Scourby, who also had a long acting career. I learned that Scourby (whose attractive and resonant voice I’d noticed in this episode) was noted for his narration and audio recordings and, in fact, he had recorded the entire Bible for LPs, in addition to about 500 other books.

These Bible recordings later became available on cassettes and then CDs, and when I checked ebay I saw several sets available, both new sets and vintage LPs. Looking around online at some articles, I learned Scourby’s recordings were sold by a variety of companies before court cases finally straightened out copyright issues.

I listened to some of Scourby’s Bible recordings on YouTube and they are, indeed, wonderful to listen to! Although I hate to have a 62-CD set of anything around the house (I’ve downsized my CD collection considerably), I think I’ll listen to more of them on YouTube. (Plus, his readings are available at a phone app!) How would Scourby and his rich voice tackle some of the Torah law codes or the 1 Chronicles genealogies or the depressing prophetic oracles of doom?


But I’ve also a nostalgic motivation, because I still have my first KJV Bible, which I’ve written about here, and I’ve warm memories of some of my parents spoken-word records in the 1960s----not this Scourby set, but others. Our little turntable seemed to go so slowly at 16 rpm, compared to the high speed of our already-antique 78s. Nostalgia is perhaps not the best motivation for loving the Bible’s text, but memory certainly is---memory of blessings past, memory of previous instruction (cf. 2 Tim. 1:5), aspects of earlier faith with which one can connect now---and memory was a motivating factor when I felt led to deepen my faith and discipleship during my college years.

Here is Scourby, reading the Letter to the Hebrews: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQB1UZWsxEY


Monday, July 22, 2013

Feast Day of "The Apostle to the Apostles"

A
A Pre-Raphaelite apostle!
"Mary Magdalene" by Frederick Sandys.
from http://onokart.wordpress.com/
2010/11/13/mary-magdalene-ii/
Today (July 22) is the feast day of Mary Magdalene. When I visited Israel thirty years ago, our tour guide pointed out the traditional site of her tomb.

I found a website (1) that gives quite a lot of interesting information about her, including some of the sexism directed at her. For instance, since she is introduced in Luke 8 right after the story of the sinful woman in Luke 7, she has tended to become conflated with that woman as “sinful,” and thus (noted by this website) she tends to be a contrast to the pure Virgin Mary. But as important as is the Blessed Mother, we can honor Mary as a very key figure in her own right.

Her story is found in several places, as this site notes: she was a disciple of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3); she was present at the crucifixion (Mark 15:40-41, Luke 23:49, Matthew 27:55-56, John 19:25); she prepared Jesus’ body for burial (Luke 23:55-56, Matthew 27:61); and she witnessed the resurrection (Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-11, Matthew 28:1-10, John 20:1-18). “She is called 'Apostle to the Apostles', since the risen Jesus told her to ‘go and tell’, apostellein in Greek.”

Note:

1. http://www.womeninthebible.net/2.2.Mary_Magdalene.htm

Faith, and Dealing with Your "Stuff"

A post from a few years ago (August 2009). Please excuse the bad word that appears throughout .... Once in a while I like to buy the magazine “Shambhala Sun.” The Buddhist idea of attachment is of great interest to me, and some of that magazine’s articles explain that idea in ways that are often helpful for my own Christian faith.

A while back, I leafed through the September 2009 issue at the local Barnes and Noble. I noticed the article, "The Shitty Monk," by an author whose pen name is Shozan Jack Haubner. Appreciating the irreverent humor, I thought to myself, I gotta read this.

Haubner reflects on the time he prepared for the role of jikijitsu, the teacher who supervises Rinzai Zen meditation. Thinking he’d prepared well for this authoritative role, his mentor told him, “You’re a train wreck of overzealousness… The primary ass you should be whipping in the zendo is … [y]our own. Don’t bring your personal shit into it” (p. 64). As it happened, Haubner became sick with diarrhea and soiled himself immediately prior to performing his jikijitsu duties, prompting his amused self-examination.

He commented that, earlier in his Zen training, he resisted the authoritarian aspects of meditation. “What I failed to realize was that my resistance was in itself a pose, a stance--a result of my conditioning as a free-spirited, individualistic American prone to respecting all paths and choosing none. I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to ‘be true to.’ Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes--in my own bullshit--and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going” (p. 70).

This article prompted several ruminations on my part. To start with, I thought of the difficulties of the pastoral call in Christian ministry. We pastors do become “outfitted in attitudes” which can become a substitute for the “deepest self.” Egotism, overzealousness, inflexibility, a hypercritical spirit, the need to be loved, a hunger for success, a neglect of family, an inability to say “no,” a fear of revealing certain sides to our personalities: all these (and others) can become dressed in a “cleverly embroidered outfit” of corresponding scriptures and slogans related to our identity as pastors. “God called me to preach,” we affirm with gratitude, but we too easily think, thereby, that God validates every aspect of our personalities, and so our admirable, ignoble, mature, immature and sinful qualities become all mixed up with our theological identity. We may not be “posers” exactly, but we may very well be “posing,” and thus stalled in our personal growth.

Pastors aren’t the only Christians who become trapped in “personal stuff,” of course. Laity also combine mature, immature, caring, hateful, self-concealing, and sinful qualities within ourselves, and also become stalled in personal insight and growth. Unfortunately, in an analogous way as pastors, Christian faith and churchgoing can form a veneer of respectability that we place over our lives, rather than primarily a way by which we draw closer to God and open ourselves to God’s sometimes-painful work of sanctification.

It’s important to remember that Christian sanctification, unlike zazen (meditation toward enlightenment), is not supposed to be primarily a matter of personal effort. Although activities like spiritual disciplines and Bible reading are very helpful, the Apostle Paul understands the work of sanctification as that of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in us because we have accepted the saving work of Christ which is already accomplished on our behalf.

That being said, how do we deal with our “s***”---our "stuff"?

******

I'm reflecting on a Buddhist article, “The Shitty Monk,” by Shozan Jack Haubner. He commented that, in his path toward enlightenment, “I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to ‘be true to.’ Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes--in my own bullshit--and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going” (Shambhala Sun, Sept. 2009, p. 70).

The image of the “cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes” made me think of this verse: As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27). What does it mean to be “clothed with Christ”?

Taking a cue from Genesis 3, you could say that “Christ clothing” covers the nakedness of sin. Just as God helped the fallen Adam and Eve make clothing for themselves, once they had sinned and experienced shame, so now God clothes us with the Christ who saves us from sin. Recall the Reformation doctrine of “imputed righteousness” where the righteousness of Christ becomes ours, since we’ve no righteousness or worthiness of our own. In other words, God gives something that we did not have before--righteousness, or the absence of guilt from sin--and now God perceives us favorably because God’s gift of righteousness “covers” our sin like clothing, and God forgets our sin.

Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be?” ends:

No condemnation now I dread; 
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine !
Alive in Him, my living Head, 
And clothed in righteousness divine, 
Bold I approach the eternal throne, 
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

That’s a precious gift! In fact, that gift pretty much affirms crucial things about your identity and destiny. We do not experience a “negation of self” but rather an amazing acceptance, sins and all, which in turn gives us mercy from and access to God, in this life and the next.

So the answer to the question, “How do we deal with our 'stuff'?” is: God has already dealt with it, in the death and resurrection of Jesus!

But--to think again of Haubner’s dilemma that I discussed above--what about our false, immature, and sinful attitudes in which we get stuck because we do not perceive them clearly?

Ideally, the gift of a new identity in Christ leads to a process of honest self-assessment, like the people who were “cut to the heart” when they heard Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:37). But (as Hauber would put it), our inner BS runs very deep.

That’s where the Wesleyan doctrine of imparted righteousness comes in. The Holy Spirit begins working in our lives in order to deal with our falsehood, sin, improper attitudes, and other things (our “personal stuff,” to use the image from my previous reflections). Wesley considers the Spirit’s work in sermons like “Scriptural Christianity,” The Circumcision of the Heart,” “The Lord Our Righteousness,” “The New Birth,” and others. For Wesley, to be “clothed in Christ” is not simply to enjoy the beauty and blessing of the garment but also to become beautiful ourselves, through a process of growth.

The Spirit’s work can be difficult and painful, though. As a person pushing 60, I look back and see numerous times when, I believe, God was bringing clarity and assistance in my life, and God continues this process in all of us as we open ourselves to the Spirit’s power.

We should not imply that this process is quick and neat; it is potentially very slow and by no means linear. Sometimes, as with Haubner if not so graphically, we might have to smell pretty bad to ourselves and others as we proceed. We can take comfort, though, that God's own benevolent Spirit is doing the work.

*****

From Haubner’s article, I made one more "poopy" connection. In Philippians, Paul recites his heritage: a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, a blameless observer of the Torah. But the gain that he had before, and indeed everything, is counted as loss

because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death ,if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead(Phil. 3:8-11).

The Greek word translated “rubbish” carries the connotation of “refuse“ or “excrement.” “Sh***y,” indeed!

To those of us who appreciate Jewish-Christian dialogue, Paul’s image is very lamentable. In his historical context, Paul considers himself a Jew and upholds Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all God’s promises to the Jews. He is not "dissing" his Jewish heritage but conveying how wonderful is God's continuation of that heritage in Christ. The broader meaning of Paul’s image is: whatever we hold most dear to us (including our "personal stuff"), nothing is valuable compared to having Christ and his power in our lives.

But what about Christ’s power makes it so valuable, that nothing else matters as much? Several things.

The powers of evil and death have no ultimate control of us (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
We receive mercy and grace from God (Rom. 6: 23, Heb. 4:16).
We’ve confidence in approaching God (Heb. 4:15-16).
God is gentle with us (Heb. 5:2)
We know that God will never forsake us (Rom. 8:31-39)
We’ve freedom from being “good enough to please God” (Rom. 3:21-26).
We need not erect barriers between us and other people, because God has already removed them
(Eph. 2:11-22)
God does not expect us to grow on our own, by our own effects, but gives us plenty of help (Gal. 5:22-23)

... and the Gospel has other aspects, too.

What will we have to abandon in order to gain these things? This is a difficult subject, and different for each Christian. Repentance is an important part of spiritual beginnings and journeys. We may have to abandon cherished attitudes, ideals, and ways of perceiving the world.

We may have to dig more deeply into some of our religious ideas! As I understand Buddhism, doctrines and dogmas may be a source of unhealthy attachment in so far as we try to possess them in order to find security and validate ourselves. I’m not a Buddhist, but I can certainly see how this would happen. Circumstances can test your religious assumptions:

*You try to forgive someone and reconcile with them (Matt. 5:23-24), and the person treats you worse than before.
*You believe that God cares for you---and God does, indeed, cares and loves you very much---but then something terrible happens to you that makes you wonder about God.
*You look up to a certain Christian, and then he or she does something bad or hurtful, and consequently your faith in God is damaged.
* You turn your troubles over to God, and sometimes God provides, but other times nothing happens, so you're not sure how to proceed. You feel frustrated with God.
* You turn to a congregation for help, and you feel like all they really want is your money and your volunteer time.
* You’re a pastor who has served faithfully, but a congregation does not respond to your leadership, or the denominational system rewards someone else seemingly less deserving than you.
* You’ve affirmed God’s power to change lives, and have done so all your life, and now after years of witnessing to God’s power, you’ve “stumbled” in your life in a manner which surprises even you.

You could qualify any of these with good theology about God's love and providential care, etc. Nevertheless, we do feel these things sometimes. Although one hates to think of religious faith as “personal stuff” (that is, inner struggles, personality traits, and falseness), we do carry attitudes and expectations that are mixed with and connected to our religious beliefs. The process of personal growth and sanctification may entail disappointments and betrayals that will prompt a reassessment of beliefs (and hopefully not a discouraged faith or a discouraged agnosticism).

You sometimes hear the saying, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” That’s a little simplistic but still true: Christianity contains plenty of things to do, doctrines in which to believe, and rules to follow, but it is not primarily a set of rules. (Many people go around, perhaps for years, thinking that being a Christian is a matter of being a respectable, Ten-Commandments-following person.) Christianity points us to the accomplished work of Christ for our salvation, the power that he gives us for living, and a guaranteed companionship with Christ, the living person, who never ever gives up on any of us.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Wisdom from Parish Consultant Lyle Schaller

from abingdonpress.com
Browsing the texts in my seminary bookstore this past spring, I noticed a new book written and edited by Warren Bird: Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller, the Elder Statesman of Church Leadership (Abingdon, 2012). Over the years I’ve studied several of Schaller’s books and found Bird's text a very helpful compendium of the well-known parish consultant's ideas and instruction.

Lyle Schaller’s numerous books on church ministry and leadership cover a very wide range of issues in the parish. In books like Parish Planning, The Change Agent, Creative Church Administration, Survival Tactics iin the Prish, Effective Church Planning, The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church, Getting Things Done, 44 Ways to Increase Church Attendance, The Seven-Day-A-Week Church, The Come Back Congregation, The Interventionist, and many others, Schaller has addressed numerous challenges and offered solutions based on his long-time work as a church consultant.


Schaller was born in 1923 in Wisconsin. He worked in several roles, including a city fiscal officer and author of articles about urban affairs, history teacher, and parish pastor. He didn’t publish his first book until he was 42, and then he wrote 55 books and edited over 40 more, for Abingdon Press. He wrote his last book in 2006 and has retired.

Warren Bird interviews several church leaders and authors in order to provide a sketch of Schaller, his personality, and his influence. He also provides an outline of Schaller’s life and a bibliography of his works.

The longest section brings together Schaller’s ideas among his books concerning pressing issues faced by many pastors. The chapters are:

How should I approach my first year in the pastorate?
How do I follow a long term pastor?
What are the most important staffing mistakes to avoid?
What’s the best way to introduce change at my church?
What’s the most important thing a church planter can do?
How do I build on the strengths of a small-attendance church?
How do I build on the strengths of a medium-sized church?
How do I build on the strengths of a large church?
How do I build on the strengths of a very large church?
How do I best expand the teaching ministry of my church?
How do I develop new funding sources for mission?
What are the land mines to avoid in a merger?
How can a church learn to see itself more accurately?

Why is innovation important at church?
What are the most important strategies for change?

Why is it so hard to turn a church that’s plateaued in attendance?

How can leaders create dissatisfaction with the status quo?

Why is it so important to develop allies and how?

How can a church’s leaders improve their decision-making process?
What’s the biggest issue when a church thinks about relocating?
Should our church become multisite?
What leadership style is best for this congregation?

Why are small groups so vital for church health?
What needs to change for more people to volunteer?
When do I know it’s time to resign?

This book would be helpful to someone who has studied some of Schaller’s books but by no means all, and who doesn’t necessarily have the time to search among his writings to find solutions to particular challenges. This book would also be helpful to a newbie in ministry who’d like to avoid the kinds of well-intentioned but naive efforts in the parish that lead to mistakes and even failure and melt-down!


First-, Second-, and Third-Hand Perceptions

If you’re in Dublin anytime between now and September 29, consider visiting the National Gallery of Ireland and see the lovely exhibition, “From Galway to Leenane: Perceptions of Landscape.”
http://www.nationalgallery.ie/Home/Exhibitions/From_Galway_to_Leenane.aspx

William Evans, "Old Killary Road, West of Leenane, County Galway, "1838
The display features watercolors by William Evans of Eton (1798-1877). In 1835 and 1838 he traveled to the area of Connemara and painted images of the landscape and the people. His watercolors provide a valuable view of pre-Famine Ireland.

Evans’ work is joined by two new works by the contemporary Irish artist Wendy Judge, who examines the idea of virtual travel and the authentic experience. Her works here are two sculptural landscapes and accompanying drawings. As the exhibition description indicates, “While loosely related to Evans’s watercolours, these [Judge’s] works, specially created for the show, will prompt visitors to think about the connections between Victorian and contemporary travel and tourism.”

In an article in The Sunday Times Ireland (Culture section, 23 June 2013), art critic Cristín Leach Hughes writes that “Evans worked like a photographer. His series of three paintings of Keem Beach show the same view, shifted slightly to the left or right, like a cameraman.” Views of pre-Famine Ireland are rare, and Evans got the scene and colors  exactly right, according to the gallery curator. “Evans presents traditional fare: cottages and fishing boats, shawl-covered women, clouds and cliffs, but there is a richness to his use of colour, and his palpable enthusiasm for his subject still jumps off the page” (p. 7).

Hughes describes one of Judge’s installations, Mind There Now, “plays on the idea of falling rocks in picturesque places while offering a tongue-in-cheek take on the Victorian fashion for travel without ever leaving your living room, or in this case the gallery.” Reverse binoculars give you the sense of looking at these falling rocks from afar, as do the binoculars for the other installation, A Grand Precipice, a rendering of the Achill Head landscape. Hughes writes: “Her work reminds us that what remains of travel is the records kept. Evans’s record was sketched and painted. Today, ours is digitally snapped, frequently viewed at a distance, through a lens.” (pp. 6-7).

On her blog (the single 2010 post), Judge provokes philosophical and artistic reflection about ways we know, perceive, and remember. "At present my work is committed to armchair travel - derived from secondary sources sometimes even third and forth [sic] hand. These images are stand ins for a journey never taken; they are factually unreliable, and from unknown territories; these shadowy likeness are based on hear say, someone else’s tales someone else’s research. They are a questioning of what is meant or understood as real.... Present work takes this a further step where I use only second hand material and unsubstantiated evidence of a place....” http://wendyjudgeart.blogspot.com        

     

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Interfaith Prayers

This week, the news has been dominated by the Trayvon Martin trial and the resulting nationwide conversation and soul-searching about race relations in the U.S. One of the powerful things I found online was this poem: http://www.wpcjournal.com/article/view/11842/8081

I noticed on the "Religious News Service" site this story about religious groups working for immigration reform----a difficult challenge in our current political climate. http://www.religionnews.com/2013/07/19/religious-groups-face-uphill-fight-in-house-on-immigration-reform/


Another news item: several congresspersons of different faiths as President Obama "to convene a 'Religious Diversity Summit' and do more to fight discrimination against religious minorities." “The targeting of religious minorities in America is reaching a crisis point and we believe your leadership is crucial to stemming this rising tide of violence,” the letter writers said.

http://www.religionnews.com/2013/07/17/lawmakers-ask-obama-for-religious-diversity-summit/

All topics to remember in our prayers this week. And let's not forget the horrible situation in Syria, which has been going on for over two years now. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/20/syria-saraqeb_n_3629191.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003#slide=2669125


Friday, July 19, 2013

Tisha B'Av and Ramadan Iftar

A nice article in the Huffington Post, reporting the iftar (fast-breaking) dinner hosted by Michael Oren, Ambassador Of Israel, at his Washington D.C. home. While Muslims broke their fast because of Ramadan, Jews were also breaking fast in oservance of Tisha B'Av, the solemn holiday commemorating the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/18/israel-ambassador-iftar-embassy_n_3610861.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Martha's Mad and Mary's Chillin'

Twenty-five years ago, I taught a Sunday school class of retired adults.  We read together the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), which is the lectionary Gospel lesson this coming Sunday. 
From http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/06/
hymn-on-hospitality-of-martha-and-mary.html

As often happens, there was an immediate identification with Martha. Even for those retired adults whose employment years were past, life was busy and productive. They volunteered for things, they traveled, they were active in church, one of them cared for a husband in declining health, they had responsibilities with grandchildren, and so on. Jesus’ seeming preference of the inactivity of Mary over the conscientiousness of Martha seemed insulting to my class members! 

It’s true that this passage is challenging. In the story, Jesus stays at the home of close friends. (Notice that Martha feels sufficiently comfortable with Jesus to scold him!) Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him, but Martha is concerned about preparing a meal for their guest and resents that Mary has left all the work to her.

We’re liable to stop at our identification with Martha and leave the matter there, the same way we often do with other difficult passages like turning the other cheek, and so on. But there is a lot to learn from these sisters.

One thing we should notice is Martha’s feelings. In modern psychology we might say Martha was “projecting” her anxiety on Jesus. She felt pressured and impatient by the meal and assumed Jesus was also impatient, which he wasn’t.

I do this all the time, and other folks do, too. People in position of authority who are insecure this way can make you miserable. Whatever the situation, when any of us feel this way, we imagine that a situation is more dire and urgent than it is, because we feel so pressured and insecure in our hearts. Unfortunately, we spread our unhappiness by inflicting it on others. 

In those days, students often sat at the feet of the teacher. But as in many cultures, students weren’t usually women. So Mary may have seemed lazy to Martha, but she might have also seemed to be audacious and inconsiderate. Thus Jesus assured that Mary’s choice of being a student “will not be taken away from her.” 

Martha also had a heart full of worry. In another passage, Matthew 13:22, Jesus points out that many people hear his teachings but “the cares of the world” “choke” those teachings like seeds which cannot grow, and so those people don’t experience the deeper understanding of his teachings, nor the help of his living presence. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus calls his teachings “the better part,” which Mary has chosen. In other words, she has set aside her cares (and, we might say, she didn't allow her cares to define her and rule her life) in order to learn from Jesus’ presence and teaching. 

This is a good lesson for us, too. Sometimes we’re indeed very busy, and sometimes things in our lives are out of control. Sometimes we’re so worried we think everything is falling apart and no one cares. We may start to think Jesus himself doesn’t care very much! 

Seeking Jesus’s teachings but also his very presence can help us examine our responsibilities, feelings, and priorities. A couple years ago, our former pastor preached a sermon on a different text (John 21:1-14) but his point was applicable for this passage, too: Jesus doesn’t call us to stop working altogether, but Jesus does call us to be able to recognize him in the different aspects of our lives, and to listen for his guidance as we go about our work and business.   


Heathrow's Multi-faith Prayer Rooms

Not long ago, my adult daughter and I were waiting for a flight in Terminal 4 of the London Heathrow Airport, when I noticed a sign for an multi-faith chapel down the hallway. While she saved our seats at the gate, I walked down and looked at the rooms. One room had an altar for Christian prayer, and the adjacent room had Muslim prayer rugs, with an arrow indicating Qibla, the direction toward which a Muslim prays. In another room, Bibles in different languages, a Jewish prayer book, and a Qur’an lay upon a table, along with additional prayer rugs.

Muslims perform wudu (ablution) before prayer and must pray in a clean place. Thus, the chapel also  contained a wudu stone for the ablution (see below).
The chapel included “a prayer for people of all faiths":

Lord of all creation, we stand in awe before you, impelled by visions of the harmony of man. We are children of many traditions, inheritors of shared wisdom and tragic misunderstandings, of proud hopes and humble successes. Now it is time for us to meet, in memory and truth, in courage and trust, in love and promise. 

In that which we share...
...let us see the common prayer of humanity;
In that in which we differ...
...let us wonder at the freedom of man;
In our unity and our differences...
...let us know the uniqueness that is God. 

May our courage match our convictions, and our integrity match our hope.
May our faith in you bring us closer to each other.
May our meeting with past and present bring blessing for the future. 
Amen. 

There was also a "traveller's prayer" on display:

I am just pausing, O God, to clear my mind before my journey beings. 
You know that at this time, I have a mixture of feelings, including a certain amount of stress---the luggage, the paper-work, the point of departure, the flight itself. 
Please speak to my heart with your still, small voice of calm.
Grant me an inward oasis of tranquility.
Help me to remember that the earth, the sea and the sky are yours, and that wherever my journeying takes me, You will be there.
I pray for a sense of your nearness and strength, hour by hour and mile by mile. 
In turn, I ask that I might be a resource of comfort, friendship and dependability to others I meet along the way.
Thank you, ever-present God. 
Let us travel together. 
Amen. 

What a wonderful place! Chapels such as this can provide a wonderful sense of peace as one experiences the inconveniences of travel---as well as a sense of our common humanity, for I saw many Muslims, a few Hindus, and a few Orthodox Jewish men queuing in places like the various gates, and also the international terminal's passport control center for non-EU visitors. We're all the same and interconnected, I thought, in that none of us are at our own homes, and surely most of us feel at least a little anxiety.


After I originally posted this piece, the director of airport services at Heathrow contacted me and asked if I could also post this link to the airport's worship services. 
Also, the purpose and values of the airport's religious facilities are explained at this site: http://www.heathrowairport.com/heathrow-airport-guide/services-and-facilities/worship#Multifaithprayerrooms I loved the "core values" explained there:

Each faith community and each chaplain will have their own core values but there are some values that are shared by the whole chaplaincy.
We hold to:
A high respect for all people, their beliefs and culture
Kindness in all things
Honesty in all things
Continual spiritual growth among ourselves and others
A desire to serve this airport community.

(When I first posted this piece, we were in Ramadan, and if you're interested in Muslim prayer, here are two sites:





Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Yoga and Christian Faith

Many Christians employ meditation and yoga practices in their lives. The congregation where I worship has a well-attended "Holy Yoga" program. I don't do yoga or meditate but these have always interested me, so I took some time to read more about the subject.

In an article called “Is Yoga Hindu?” (myhindupage.org/index.php/is-yoga-hindu), Guhanatha Swami hopes to clear up a misconception that yoga is an exercise with nothing to do with spirituality. “Yoga is part of Hindu religious tradition and teachings, however yoga itself is a universal practice that is not the monopoly of Hinduism or any other religion.” Thus, he writes, gurus have never restricted its use.

He provides a helpful distinction: the path of enlightenment via yoga is called Ashtanga Yoga, which involves eight steps. But the yoga exercises themselves are not Ashtanga Yoga, but rather the third of those eight steps---called Hatha Yoga. Thus, Hatha Yoga is indeed a spiritual program (not just a way to exercise) but Hatha Yoga is not the whole of the Hindu path to enlightenment.

As a Hindu, he does believe in the Hindu philosophies within yoga: “For those who are doing hatha yoga ‘just as an exercise,’ they too will get the benefits of stimulation of spiritual awareness and relief from negative karmic burdens though they may not recognize these as such and instead call it ‘wellness’ or ‘being at peace with oneself’ or just feeling stress free. One does not have to believe in the theories behind yoga for it to be effective.”

But “there’s the rub”: what about the philosophies connected with Ashtanga Yoga?

In an article, “The Trouble with Yoga,” Michelle Arnold argues a Roman Catholic perspective. Roman Catholics may practice yoga postures “but with caveats.” (catholic.com/magazine/articles/the-trouble-with-yoga) She worries that Christians who are unclear about Christian spirituality may be attracted to Hindu teachings which are indeed different from Christian doctrine.

For instance, she notes, some Hindu philosophies are monistic, the philosophy “that holds that all that exists is one. Rather than the communion that exists between God and his creation that Christians hold to be true, the monist believes that any distinction between God and the universe is illusory and that the enlightened person will become ‘one’ with the divine without any distinctions between persons.” She quotes a document by Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), where he writes that the physiological benefits of yoga could possibly be mistaken for the mystical ecstasies of Christian mystics. But Catholic Christians should not thereby jump to the conclusion that the peace they’re achieving in yoga is related to the spiritual experiences of someone like St. Teresa of Avila.

Altogether, Arnold writes, “While Christianity stresses the importance of detachment from all that separates the believer from union with God... the purpose of detachment is relational. It brings us into communion with the Triune God and with the saints in glory. The union is forged by love, which gives and receives---not drowned into an impersonal divine but freely shared between the Persons of God and the persons of his saints.”

Hinduism is by no means a unified and simple religion; it contains and accepts many philosophies, not just the monism of the philosophy called Advaita Vedanta. But apart from her discussion of the saints, which of course is her own Roman Catholic perspective, she does describe a basic difference between Christian trinitarianism and the monism of Vedanta. While Christianity is not a radically dualistic religion, Christianity does posit a distinction between God and creation, as well as a relational aspect in the affirmation of God’s grace that comes to us from God, rather than an identity with God within (Brahman-atman), which we can discover via the removal of illusion (maya) via meditation and other practices. In most Christian theologies, God’s substantial indwelling with our souls is understood as a gracious gift rather than a panentheistic ontological identity.

Some Christian theologians have been monistic---Paul Tillich is a notable example---but anyone writing from an evangelical perspective is likely to dismiss yoga as something unbiblical.

For instance, R. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is more adamant than Arnold: “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contractions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga.... The embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church.” (albertmohler.com/2010/09/20the-subtle-body-should-christians-practice-yoga) More strongly yet, Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill Church writes in an article---"Christian Yoga? It’s a Stretch”----that he considers yoga "demonic" and inappropriate for Christians to practice  (http://pastormark.tv/2011/11/02/christian-yoga-its-a-stretch) He believes that yoga (he goes on to discuss several kinds) introduces non-Christian values and theologies into Christian practice.

In my opinion, Jill Fisk answers very well concerns about Christians practicing yoga, on her website about “Holy Yoga”:

“Holy Yoga is a ministry dedicated to facilitating the intentional practice of connecting our entire being:  body, mind and spirit with God — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In complete reliance on God’s Word and prayer, the Holy Yoga experience is a time of worship, praise, and connection to Christ practiced to music that will shift our awareness to our Creator. Breathing and moving and having our being in Christ, we find ourselves lost in the flow of the fullness of joy that has been promised to us...The ‘holy’ comes from inviting the Triune God into the physical practice of prayer that called yoga. ‘Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.’ (1 Tim 4:4-5) ....

“In Holy Yoga we practice with our minds set on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8) and not with our minds emptied. We meditate on the wisdom of God’s Word (Psalm 119:9-16, 26-27) and not on the wisdom of man. We seek the transcendence and glory of God and not of ourselves.” (http://jillfisk.com/holyyoga/holy-yoga-faq/)

The point is still valid that Hindu monism is different from Christian trinitarianism----and it’s very much worth contemplating that difference in a positive way that leads to respectful interfaith understanding, as well as clarifying one’s goals in prayer, meditation, and religious practice.

But although I don’t personally attend Holy Yoga classes, I appreciate Jill Fisk’s explanation of the goals of this kind of yoga. A conservative like Mohler would probably say, This is no longer yoga. (He did indeed say that: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/07/albert-mohler-southern-ba_n_753797.html ) But if you keep the Swami’s distinction of Hatha Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga in mind---the former being a spiritual exercise practicable by anyone, and the latter being a whole journey toward enlightenment within Hinduism----you’ve come a long way toward accepting yoga as potentially a positive thing to introduce into Christian practice.

My pastor also raises an excellent point. In an email to me after I sought her wisdom on this subject, she pointed out that “as Christians, we are incarnational, meaning that the body cannot/should not be ignored. To do so, is to practice the heresy of Gnosticism... My understanding is that yoga was created to allow people to meditate longer....to surrender to the body's need for stretching so that one might sit and contemplate longer." To paraphrase Fisk, in yoga you're stretching and thus calming your physical body and your mind, as you pray to the Triune God and seek God's free and loving grace into your life and your prayer.

I hate to see anyone limit the power and serendipities of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen the Spirit work in my life and other people’s lives in so many, surprising ways, that I gave up long ago thinking I could predict how the Spirit can draw us closer to God. And our personalities and experiences as Christian human beings are so diverse, that I never think we should disdain something that’s different from what we’d prefer. Churches try to do that with music---the choir director or pastor prefers one style of music, and so that’s the style of music everyone should enjoy. It’s the same with prayer and other spiritual practices.

Christianity has adopted non-Christian things within Christian life over the centuries. Our two major Christian holidays are an example. You might argue, “Eostre is an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, dawn and fertility, and if we name the holiday of Jesus’ resurrection after her, we are confusing non-Christian fertility practices and pagan spirits with the new life of Christ. We don’t want to confuse people who’d mistake Jesus as a fertility god, or who would worship fertility deities alongside Jesus.” But the church did indeed adopt “Easter” as a Christian holiday, as well as the sun-related festival of December 25th observed in ancient Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse religions. So the concern that people will become confused in their spiritual goals is a valid one, but nevertheless we see in Christian history that the church has adapted aspects of non-Christian cultures to good effect.  

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Two related points. Years ago, when I taught at Northern Arizona University, a student in my world religions class told me he was very interested in Hindu Tantra and the chakras---the locations of energy and power within our bodies, from the end of the spine to the top of the head---and he wanted to demonstrate. He was a small man, and we found a volunteer in the class who was a tall student with muscular arms. The small student asked the tall student to hold his arm outstretched as strongly as he could, and of course the small student could not budge the arm. Then the small student touched the tall student’s chakra near his neck---he said he was interrupting the energy flow---and the small student easily lowered the tall student’s clenched, outstretched arm. The tall student was quite shocked!

Although I’ve not studied the chakras very much in the intervening years, the demonstration was convincing that there is something to the teaching about these loci of energy. Because the chakras are not taught in the Bible, I can’t imagine that this aspect of eastern philosophy will ever be incorporated very wide-spread within traditional Christianity. But as I read the Swami’s point above---that yoga can inculcate benefits even when one disagrees with or does not understand the original philosophy---I thought of this student’s convincing demonstration of this aspect of the body, interpreted by tantic and yogic Hinduism as well as Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism).

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The last point: This past week, as I was beginning to think about this post, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “The Morality of Meditation” by David DeSteno. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/the-morality-of-meditation.html?_r=0

David DeSteno criticizes the “mindfulness” training programs that use meditation “to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity,” noting that “[g]aining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers.” He quotes to Buddha whose express purpose was simply to address and end suffering. “The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”

DeSteno continues that an experiment was conducted at his lab, to see if persons who attended a course on meditation (newbies to meditation) indeed showed compassion after meditation---and, indeed, there was significant increase in the compassionate response of the participants. He writes, “Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected... The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.”

While Arnold (above) noted that Christian trinitarian theology is relational, DeSteno argues here that meditation is, too---not from specifically trinitarian reasons, but in terms of psychological growth. But I can see how the resulting psychological growth toward empathy and compassion would certainly be commensurate with the Christian affirmation that the Spirit inculcates "fruit" within us: love, kindness, gentleness, self-control.

Needless to say, Christian faith does not always increase the compassion of many churchgoers. I hate to sound so jaded, but if you’re like me, you've probably met a certain number of unloving, gossipy and otherwise negative Christians who seem to have little sense of interconnectedness with others. Perhaps, like me, you've struggled to deepen your own loving attitudes and your compassion, when you catch yourself feeling unkind in your judgments of others.

Thus, I wonder if yoga and meditation might not be extremely Christian things to incorporate into our religious lives (at least as an option, within a variety of other spiritual practices, the regular participation in corporate worship, and so on). Perhaps these practices could help some of us become more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s fruit of love, kindness, gentleness, and the others.