The Ministry as Performance Art

Bishop Eddie Long, a well-known mega-church pastor died last month after a long battle with “an aggressive form of cancer” and even more aggressive forms of financial and sexual scandals in recent years.  This story in Huffington Post is a very sad report of a life wasted under the ruse of religion, a wastage which devastated many other lives as well. (http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/03/us/bishop-eddie-long-i-knew/index.html) When “men of the cloth” get caught in compromising positions, i.e. “get caught with their pants down,” I don’t always giggle with delight.  I used to but I’ve grown up now and am more accepting of human foibles even in the arena of Hamlet’s “country matters.” But the story of Reverend Long goes far beyond the pale of “indiscretion” and reflects characterological depravity.

Having set out to be a “man of the cloth” in my youth, I can report first hand I was very much a mortal though I very much pretended not to be.  In my fundamentalist Christian culture, the ministry I took a stab at was usually performance art and, I now see, the Christian experience itself was largely “performance art” though that is not to dismiss it completely.  Life is “performance art” after all. (See poem at end.) But Bishop Long demonstrated the human cost of this duplicity, not just to himself but to those he victimized.  This is not to minimize the heinous nature of what he did but merely to recognize his primary flaw was in being guilty of being “human.”  Suffering from that malady always leaves one living a life of pretense to some degree and the more that the “pretense” is required by one’s social context to remain hidden, the greater the risk to the individual and to those around him.  And often the Christian culture fosters pretense over open human-ness which always involves being frail, flawed, and broken at times.  This is true for the laity but equally so for the clergy though the standards are often beyond the pale for the clergy.

Pretense in the area of faith is often a tragedy.  Spiritual teachers have always tried to tell us that spirituality is not about show but about authenticity and to be an authentic human being is to occasionally wallow in dimensions of human experience that we would rather not let others know about.  And most of the time we don’t have to.  Most of the time this ugliness can be addressed either privately or in the intimacy of close relationship, including therapeutic relationships.  But too often organized religions teach us to ignore this ugliness leading to the tragedy of Bishop Long.  This makes religion appear to some as complete escapism.  And often it is, and we certainly need escape for “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” (T.S. Eliot)  But the “escape” of religion can be salvivic if we deign to address the ego’s grip on the whole of our life, including our religion.

 

(From a W. H. Auden poem)

I wish you first a sense of theater.

Only those who learn illusion

And love it will go far.

Otherwise we spend our life

In confusion about who and what we really are.

 

Hatred of the “Other” in Religion

Dave Chappelle offered a comedy skit years ago which is the best illustration of the lack of “self” awareness.  He portrays a black man who is a white supremacist who has been kept from awareness of this “problem” by a KKK hood for decades.  But when the hood comes off, and he has to admit that he is a “n…..r”, he still cannot lay aside his racism.  (See hilarious clip at end.)

Disregard, hatred, and contempt of “the other” is deep-seated.  It reveals itself in so many dimensions of life, usually without notice unless one has a very astutely discriminating eye.  For example, I have become very aware how that in my spiritual tradition the insistence of drawing the distinction between “Christian” and “unchristian” is often just an effort to maintain the unconscious “us vs them” paradigm.

Sometimes I like to parody this phenomena with the following spiel:  “I just hate people who are intolerant.  I want to line ‘em up and shoot ‘em!  I wanta humiliate them and then kill em!”  This is relevant to present day with people who have an inordinate emphasis of setting boundaries with immigrants, wanting to deport them when at times it goes beyond the pale of basic human decency.  Certainly immigration laws, boundaries, need to be present and need to be enforced.  But it appears to be that the immigration issue has taken on a larger-than-life emphasis, has become a “cause celebre,” allowing people to vent their existential “us vs them” venom to be focused on this one issue.  And, “us vs them” is an essential dimension of identity.  But when one’s core identity is tenuous to begin with, he/she cannot tolerate the ambiguity of reality to recognize that the distinction between “us/them,” or “me/thee” is often not as clear as we would like to think.

This is a spiritual issue.  But Protestant Christianity has emphasized “us vs them”, i.e. “saved vs unsaved” and failed to realize the inclusiveness/forgiveness that Christ brought into the world.  This is best illustrated when Jesus chose not to stone the Samaritan prostitute at Jacob’s well, which the “Republicans” of the day were encouraging, instead telling her to “go and sin no more.”

Dave Chappelle clip:  — http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3a3f0f

Spiritual Discernment vs. Judgment

The Apostle Paul described a “discerning spirit” that could penetrate into the depths our being and there reveal the “thoughts and intents of the heart.”  In recent years I’ve learned to apply this in very human terms as I’ve become more attuned to the whims and fancies that pass through my mind/heart.  For example, about a year ago I was listening to an early campaign rally of Donald Trump and felt an urge to yell out, “Atta boy, Donald!  You tell’em!”  His rhetoric, the cadence of his speech , and evangelical fervor appealed to faint emotional imagery from my early youth and I immediately told my wife, “I know why so many people find him appealing.”  Here I exercised “discernment,” paying attention to a subtle impulse of my heart to which I gave no energy as I recognized it for what it was, opting instead for more mature, rational discretion.  Earlier in my life I would have taken what he was saying, “hook, line, and sinker” and would have been an enthusiastic supporter.

And I find myself exercising this discernment often in my life in areas of race, gender orientation, and even physical appearance.  Part of me still has the very human impulse to respond with great intensity to my first impression but now I have that discernment, related to what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason,” and realize that the distinctions that my ego wishes to carve the world into are not as clear and distinct as they first appear.

My mind brings to my attention one of my favorite anecdotes from the life of Jesus, the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  This woman was a well known local prostitute and a contingent of local Republicans…so to speak…(wink, wink) were demanding that she be stoned to death, according to the law.  Jesus responded, “Let thee who is without guilt cast the first stone” after which he told her to “Go and sin no more.”  Now, Jesus knew well what the law was and that it did indeed call for him to pick up one of the rocks from one of the local rock-vending kiosks nearby and start pelting her himself.  But he exercised internal discretion, i.e. discernment, and knew that often grace and forgiveness was in order rather than strict enforcement of the letter of the law.

 

“Cardboard Cutout” Politics and Jesus

,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/gene-huber-trump-cardboard-cutout_us_58a91337e4b045cd34c2689d?ncid=inblnkushpmg00000009

I don’t think Trump realized what this incident was revealing about himself.  He felt that this hapless young man was making a statement which validated him but his affirmation of Trump only demonstrated his own emptiness and testified to the emptiness that Trump has brought to the table.  Trump is an “empty suit” and so vividly exemplifies the “empty suit” of our capitalistic culture which is always trying to satisfy its inner void with “stuff” in a futile endeavor which can only end with further futility…and possible disaster. Meanwhile, many Christians are aiding and abetting this enterprise and therein demonstrating the meaninglessness of their own “cardboard cut out Jesus.”

This event brought to my mind a prophetic poem of T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Man” and here is the first stanza:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.

I do think that the prophetic function in today’s world is rarely fulfilled by religion. Religion has become enculturated, “canned” or packaged and therefore not capable of bringing the breath of fresh air that is its responsibility.

 

The Incarnation in Modern Terms

The writer of Hebrews (10:31) tells us that it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God.”  My interpretation is, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of, hmm, ahem…Life.”  For when the vicissitudes of life, those “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” have worked their magic, under the ministrations of the Spirit of God, it is very frightening when the ego begins to feel imperiled.  To that point in our life, our fragile little ego has held full sway without any threats, carefully isolated with a prison of sterile conceptual formulations about life, about who “we” were and who “they” were and what “life” itself was, and even more so who “God” was.  But the ego is scared as hell when its tyranny is threatened and we are on the threshold of coming alive, of being “born again”, and occupying our body for the first time.  The ego, described by the Apostle Paul as “the flesh” has been proud of itself and its accomplishment of preventing this “incarnation.”  Now, it is watching its handiwork under grave threat as the “Spirit of God” is threatening its dissolution.  William Wordsworth offered relevant wisdom:

 

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!

 

I go “Zen on Your Ass”!!!

The belief I now have in God does not need intellectual formulation nor is it based on cognitive apprehension. This “belief” is something which lies beyond the pale of mere human understanding and is therefore difficult to even write about. In fact, in attempting to do so, I’m about to get high “up there” in the ether for I am using words to describe that which is beyond words.

For, all of this “stuff” is just nothing at all! It is “nothing” in that it pertains to “no-thing” and the domain of “nothingness” which to speak of immediately poses the risk of giving it “thing-ness” in my imagination. But it has no “thing”-ness” but is the domain from which all “things” emanated and the domain from which these “things” maintain their “thingness” in time and space. This “domain” can best be thought of as an emptiness or a void. This dimension of life is described in the New Testament as “the Spirit” and one verse in particular wrestles with the mystery I am here wrestling with. John 3:8 declares, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Being “born of the Spirit” does not mean that some dove-like entity flutters down from “up there” and occupies your body and soul but that your body/soul has opened up to its own emptiness and paradoxically found its fullness.

This insight has been so slow in coming to me. I’ve spent six plus decades of my life trying to “get it” and finally realized that there is nothing “to get,” that “the Center that I cannot find is known to my unconscious mind. There is no need to despair for I am already there.” (W H. Auden} I have been “riding an oxen, looking for an oxen.” This has freed me from the pressure to “be Christian” as I realize the teachings of Jesus was that “the Kingdom has come” and resides within and always has and always will. Becoming a Christian is more than saying the magic words or believing the “right” thing but humbly accepting a gift that has been available since before I was even a gleam in my daddy’s eye! This is also “self” acceptance, realizing that I am “ok” without any qualification, warts and all! T. S. Eliot described it as a “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.”

But this passionate spiel can be misleading. I have not “gotten saved” or “been enlightened” or experienced any ecstatic mystical experience. I am way too white-bread dull for anything like that to happen. The only thing I have to show for all of “this” is the disillusionment, which is occasionally gut-wrenching, But I have the satisfaction that at last I am “real” in some sense and am not living in the denial which has drenched my life until recently. I am just stuck with my “am-ness” or “is-ness” and though that is not a piece of cake, I’m pleased to embrace my experience with more honesty that I have thought possible. And a curious development is underway. I find that great joy is found in the mundane beauty of this world, simple delights like my two lovely dachshunds, the budding of an aspen tree which I thought had not survived, tulips breaking the surface of the soil and getting ready to “strut and fret” their two weeks upon this New Mexican stage. I take delight in the beautiful birds that are so grateful for my feeders and fantasize that I’m Fr. St. Francis and have them lighting on my outstretched fingers. Oh, ok. So I’m a bit vain! But most of all I am taking delight in my lovely wife who is flourishing as an artist/musician and am pleased to have a supporting-cast role in the beauty she is bringing into this beautiful community.

To sum it up, all of the sophistry offered above is bringing me to feel more at home in this world and to appreciate all that it has to offer. Oh yes, I still see the abysmal ugliness but I do not let that overcloud the beauty that is present everyday of my life. Yes, the “ugliness” of intense anxiety is difficult but I know that “this too shall pass” just as I will myself at some point in the too near future.

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,
By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use;
The use of clay in moulding pitchers
Comes from the hollow of its absence;
Doors, windows, in a house,
Are used for their emptiness:
Thus we are helped by what is not
To use what is.

(Lao Tzu, trans. By Witter Bynner)

My “Atheism” Makes Faith Possible for Me!

Yes, I firmly believe there is a God.  But then, I have to immediately go “Bill Clinton” on you and make the observation, “But that depends on what ‘is’ is.” Though my favorite ex-President was “finessing” his way out of a tight spot…so to speak…he had a point.  “Is”, like all words, are ephemeral and warrant exploration from time to time.  Most people who fervently declare “there is a God” have in mind a God who is a “being among other beings” which means that he has an “is-ness” just as we do.  In other words, they see God in concrete terms and see him as an “object among other objects.”  Oh yes, he is a “really big and powerful object” and lives in glory “far, far away” but he still “exists” just as we do.  They believe in a “literal” God just as they believe in Biblical literalism.  Their God actually exists, revealing their disbelief in a Wholly Other dimension of reality in which God is, yes, “transcendent” but simultaneously “immanent.”  They fail to see that there is a “gulf fixed” between God and humankind, a discontinuity between Him and humankind which can never be breached by human ingenuity including “consciousness.” God is the “Ground of Being” as he is that which makes the whole of life even possible.  Without him I would not be able to discourse in a rational fashion nor would any “coherence” be found in this entire universe.  For, “By Him all things cohere.”

I used to be very much a concrete thinker myself and very literal.  Some part of me sees this present palaver as pure “non-sense” and, “straight from the pits of hell.”  And it is definitely “none” sense as it addresses the futility of reason as having final purchase on anything of ultimate value.  For reason, though infinitely important, is always a slave to our preconceptions and a need to formulate a picture of the Divine in such a way that our justifies our worldview.  Reason has true value when we can humbly allow reason to be applied to our reason, i.e. as in meta-cognition, and see that ultimately reason fails and requires faith.  Faith brings us to the limits of our “self” and allows us to brazenly hope and pray that there is something “out there” beyond this “small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.” (Conrad Aiken) And that is the point at which persons such as Jesus Christ and other spiritual teachers become relevant as they have assured us that they feel and know that there is an “Ultimate” who is “out there” and their behavior has backed-up their convictions.

But this “atheistic” spiel here appears to have damned the millions and even billions who cannot even begin to understand this metaphysical “palaver.”  But, according to Christian hymnology, “Jesus paid it all,” and all are forgiven and therefore “ok.”  Those “concrete thinkers” don’t have it right; but then, guess what, neither do I!  None of us have it “right” but the story of Jesus tells us that we don’t have to be “right” but that He was an embodiment of an ultimate “Right” and that he came to tell us, “Chill out!  Don’t sweat it.  I gotcha covered.”  It has required me, however, to take myself less seriously.

 

 

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