Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Picking A Dance Step - Chapter 4 The Longing Way Home

I don't in the least presume that anyone has been waiting for the next chapter of "The Longing Way Home" while I've been mulling and trying to sort our some ideas. They have been rather big, complicated ideas that resist my capacity to make clear even to myself, let along anyone else. In one sense, the ideas have to do with the gallery of gods we all have and which we change periodically almost as easily as we change our socks or underwear. Mostly we don't realize we're doing that until our expectations of whatever god of the day we're counting on doesn't cut the mustard. Even then, we wouldn't usually consider that we've hung our expectations on anything like a god and besides, there's always another one in the gallery we can substitute for the one who didn't make the cut this time. In fact, we can have one or more of those interchangeable, substitute, minor gods in play all the time, shuffling them in and out as needed.

To unravel the snarl of all that and try to reach some helpful insights about how that process doesn't work is too much for a single attempt. So, I'm tying to break the whole ball of wax down into smaller candles to shed some light on the core claim of this book which is that longing is one of God's most primal connections to us. It helps to remember that this is a first draft of the book we're undertaking, not the final addition. That means if and when you read this chapter, or any of the others, your comments, criticisms and suggestions are needed and welcome.

Thanks for your patience and here we go. Think with me and don't forget that thinking is part of praying. Ol' St. Paul may have missed the mark in a few things but he was got it right when he said, "I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also." That's Corinthians 14:15 if you're interested. Ted

P.S. Yes, I know it's a long chapter, but you never know, it may be worth reading anyway. After all, it took me a very long time to write it. So, again, thanks for your patience and comments about what you think


Whenever I hear or read some bromide of supposed wisdom, I sigh, cuss and roll my eyes. Lately, I'm doing that a lot because of a number of fatuous verdicts much in vogue these days. Here's one such banality first peddled by advertisers, then parroted by all types of self-promoters and practicing narcissists: "You deserve the best" which gets transposed to "I deserve the best" to which I mutter, "You do? And what would that be? According to whom?" Then there's this additional head-scratcher: "It is what it is." about which I ask, "Do you mean what it is right now, which is sliding into the past as you speak and as the world whirls to a different place? Or do you mean always and forever, because nothing changes and no effort matters? And, by the way, what is the definition of 'is' anyway?" (Apologies to Bill Clinton but more relevant in this context.)

But to me, "Life isn't fair" wins the most trite utterance award for now. "LIFE isn't fair"? All life? Everyone's? Everywhere? Your whole life? The claim reminds me of a baby's tantrum, throwing toys and tears, fists, arms and legs in all directions because something makes him/her angry; or a teen ager screaming and stomping around because he/she can't do something they want to, or have to do something they don't want to, or "deserve" something they didn't get.

Or, to be honest, it reminds me of me when I run into snags and hitches or something triggers my temper by not conforming to my efforts and intentions and I slam my fists at whatever - the door, the desk, the wall, even a person a couple of times years ago and that doesn't include words spit out in a flurry of fury or cold, cutting comments at those who "don't get" what I get or "don't do" what I think they should. And you? At the very least on occasion, and probably without actually saying so, which of us hasn't felt that life is somehow unfair? The "Stomp, Point, Bow Polka" or SPB Polka surely must be one we all know -- the
stomp of anger, the point at someone else to blame, the bow of devotion to some substitute god

Okay, anger and blame we all get that. But bowing and devotion? What's that about? Try this for an example. My friend Bill Coffin, at the young age of 34 but probably near 60 in experience, was appointed Yale's chaplain, he reports being interviewed at a gathering of alumni. He wrote, "I had barely been introduced before an older alumnus said, 'You look awfully young to be chaplain of Yale, but I guess it's all right as long as you believe in the free-enterprise system.'
Fortunately, another chimed in, 'Jim, I thought you were going to say the Trinity.'"*1

And there it is, the bow toward two substitute, minor gods, one after the other. The first, "free-enterprise" is the most blatantly erroneous minor substitute god but just as dangerous as any. The second,"the Trinity," though a traditional theological and doctrinal Christian affirmation about how to view the nature of God, is still just that, an "affirmation about" God. It is a creed crafted in human terms reflecting human efforts to define God. It can helpful, thought-provocing, even a devotional guide. But for those very reasons, it can go undetected as a minor and false god because no matter how sacred we might hold the concept to be, it should never be substituted for God, any more than a map or road sign is to be taken as the destination itself. Home isn't in a creed.

You see, orthodox doctrine can be its own form of idolatry and impose on people a closed religious position or system that designates which views of God are correct and which aren't? Even Jesus might not make that cut. Any religious view that promotes some form of tyranny in the name of God is essentially idolatrous. Tricky, these substitute, minor gods, this bowing in devotion, isn't it? And soooo easy to fall into and join the SPD Polka.

Now, in the interest of fuller disclosure, and as another illustration of this point, as you may have guessed, I'm a political progressive, or liberal, because to me that is the closest public stance to my orientation as a Christian who tries to live out what Jesus said and showed as the way of love of neighbor as well as enemy. I see it as an important way for "would be" Good Samaritans to get organized. But I confess I am prone to hang too much laundry on that line of belief. Therefore, in effect it becomes a kind of god for me according to Martin Luther's definition that "whatever you give your loyalty to and get your sense of worth from is properly your god." Given the fact that I'm still in recovery from the recent "shellacking" my party/god got in the November election, I'm learning again how easy it is to slip into a contemporary kind of idolatry and end up in yet another ramble around in the desert of disappointment and despair. Now do you get it? Sure you do.

Where am I going with this? Back to the Golden Calf episode in the Exodus to begin with. That's when, newly freed from Egypt, the Israelites practiced the SPB Polka. Surely, you remember! It's one of the most widely referenced events in the bible and surely is familiar to even those who never read the bible. There the motley band is, camped out in the Sinai peninsula on the way to an unknown destination and they're a little antsy about it all. Moses has gone up on the mountain, supposedly to talk to God though the sweaty, sore-footed Israelites weren't too sure about that since he'd been gone a while. They feared he'd abandoned them in the trackless desert and they'd become food for whatever critters might be lurking out there.

So Aaron, Moses' brother and second in command, offered to placate them by molding a golden calf out of whatever jewelry they could gather up and when it was done, this incredibly credulous bunch proclaimed that this Golden Calf was the god who brought them out of Egypt and would take them to a land of milk and honey. You'd think that knowing how the thing got made, and out of what, they'd know better. But no, they made sacrifices to this Golden Calf, and danced around it in revelry. It was the SPD Polka: the stomp of anger because things weren't going the way they want them to, the pointing at Moses and Yahweh to blame for the situation, the bow of devotion to the idol of the Golden Calf. Ir was the polka of guile, of cunning deceit, primarily self-deceit, which is always the first stage of guile.

I won't go into the details of what happened when Moses came down from the mountain and found the Israelites shimmying and shouting around the Golden Calf. It wasn't pretty. Moses was enraged, and reportedly so was God. The Calf got ground to powder and mixed with water which Moses made the people drink. Whether it was that, or God's wrath, or something else, a significant percent of the Israelites were "blotted out," to use that biblical euphemism. However you interpret the thinning of the herd of Israelis that day, the essential point to file away here is that the SPB Polka always has grim consequences one way or another.

So file that in your mind and let's come back to the present and to the recent election as another example of how the SPB Polka happens, and doesn't work. It's redundant to describe the political climate in this country as polarized, ideologically judgmental and divisive, and the election campaign harshly caustic. The political pundits spoke and wrote incessantly about how angry the voters were and listed the things people were angry about, primarily the economy but other things as well. So did the candidates. Obama and Pelosi were named the culprits behind every problem.

Noted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote this in the September 12, 2010 Sunday edition, beginning with a quote from Robert Samuelson: " 'The unstated assumption of much school reform is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of school and teachers.' Wrong, he said. Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don't like school, don't work hard, and don't do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 28 percent cited 'student apathy.' "

Friedman suggested: "There is a lot to Samuelson's point and it is a microcosm of a larger problem we have not faced honestly as we have dug out of this recession: We had a values breakdown -- a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs … Our big problems are unfolding incrementally -- the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our leaders never dare utter the word 'sacrifice.' All solutions must be painless … So much of today's debate between the two parties, notes David Rothkopf, a Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar, 'is about assigning blame rather than assuming responsibility. It's a contest to see who can give away more at precisely a time they should be asking more of the American people.' "

And who is it demands painless solutions to our problems and challenges? It couldn't be us, could it? Quick now, blame must be assigned, right? Let the SPB Polka begin: Altogether now, Stomp, Point, Bow to the Scape Goat that's replaced the Golden Calf for us. Someone else is surely to blame. We'll never run out of offenders.

Plus, we can ultimately blame God. After all, why does God let bad and painful things happen to me/us/whoever? How many variations on that theme are there, and don't we all play some of them? Well, to answer that probably we should begin by asking why does God let good and beautiful things happen, like composing symphonies or cures for diseases or incredible paintings and dramas? Maybe then we could ask if we really think we're the only free creatures in creation or might not freedom be laced all through creation from photons and atoms and cells to meteors and solar systems as scientists are finding to be the case? Okay, I'll write more about this issue later but in the meantime, think about where blaming God takes you, or us. Here's a hint: nowhere.

Now, one step down and back to the SPB Polka we're free to dance, or not. How many Aarons are at large in your network who continually shape the Scape Goat(s) for you, and the rest of us, by pointing the longest finger and plucking the loudest tune we dance to: Falalalalalala, someone else is always to blame.

But are they always to blame? No, at least not exclusively! And Yes, to hold others accountable is an honest, ethical, even prophetic way to live. It's how Jesus lived and, to some extent, why he was put to death. Well, death is not a likely outcome for those among us who do that, but the odds are that some form of retribution might be. That threat gives most of us pause.

And yet, to hold others accountable is part of loving them as ourselves. And that's the kink of honesty in the pointing finger, isn't it? " … as ourselves" as in "love your neighbor as yourself." To hold others accountable requires we be held accountable ourselves, and first of all by ourselves, even if we need a kick-start in starting the self-examination. Of course, there's alway enough blame to go around, at least a couple of times, and a significant portion belongs to us. The wonder is that, at its core, the process of holding ourselves and others accountable is a crucial piece of loving your neighbor as your self. Otherwise, any show of love is counterfeit.

Here then, is a little help in starting to walk the maze of our own selves. If you step back from the SPB Polka for a moment and cock an inner ear, you'll realize that the Polka is always seriously off-key. Why? Because under most anger is anxiety. Take another step and keep listening: What are you and I really afraid of? That's a big question. I wrote something about it in the last chapter and I'll probably write more about it later,

In any case, each of us would likely give a different answer to the question of what it is we fear. But from my own ongoing self-examination, and years if listening to others I counseled, I think there might well be a somewhat common undercurrent in them. The eminent psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan wrote of three basic mental images that help us understand ourselves and the world. In recent years they've opened a crucial long locked door in my my understanding my own life and self. I offer them here, in summary:
  • The first image is the "good-me" which is what we like about ourselves, focus on and openly share with others.
  • The second image is the "bad-me" which is about things about ourselves that are considered negative and repulsive. We tend to try to hide those things from others, even from ourselves, but under certain circumstances, the "bad-me" crashes our party, leaks anxiety that turns to some form of "life isn't fair" defensiveness and anger.
  • The third image is the "not-me" which refers to all those things that imply such crushing anxiety we can't accept them as part of us and try all our lives, in every way, to avoid, and deny entry to our conscious self. But unconsciously, that anxiety sneaks around the psyche undercover, twisting us into various forms of destructive feelings and thoughts, even that of not being at all, blotted out somehow..
I think the answer to what it is that we fear is some combination of the "bad-me" and the "not-me." The consequences are a crippling lack of self-awareness and self-acceptance that distorts and impoverishes our own lives and relationships. We become as those who the poet T. S. Eliot memorably described this way entitled a poem The Hollow Men: "We are the hollow men/ We are the hollow men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!/ Our dried voices, when/We whisper together/Are quiet and meaningless/As wind and dry grass/Or rats' feet over broken glass/In our dry cellar."*2

Granted Eliot's imagery exceeds gloominess and seems a bit over-stated and outdate in our present technological modes of communication. But don't scoff and miss the point. When we deny parts of who we are, we do become hollow, empty, heads filled with the straw of anger, whispering together in dried voices our familiar self-justifying half-truths, trying to stem the leak of anxiety of our 'bad-me" or worse, our "not-me" but not being totally able to stop the trickle of it, even as we do the SPB Polka.

Depressed yet? Don't be!! There's another dance we can learn if we choose to. The first step is courage, the second is honesty, the third is trust. It's called the CHT Jig and the three steps are interdependent.

But start with the step of courage. It takes courage to really examine your self, all the bits and pieces, especially the bad- and no-me parts we don't want to face because to do that seems too threatening. And in some ways, it is. It threatens the distortions that trick us into feeling safe.
And it exposes our illusions about the world. In his story The Cardinal's First Tale, Isak Dinesen has a scene that powerfully makes the point:
God asks of a candidate for some spiritual position, "Do you take it that I have meant to create a peaceful world?"
"No, my Lord, the candidate answers.
"Or that I have meant to create a pretty and neat world, or a world easy to live in God asks.
"O good Lord, No!" the candidate says.
"Or do you hold and believe that I have resolved to create a sublime world, with all things necessary to that purpose in it, and no one left out"
"I do," the candidate replies.
"Then …" says God, "take the oath."

Do you understand how that "oath" is close to the core of living a true, honest human life? Can you imagine how such an oath begins to deliver us from the illusions of privilege, entitlement and exceptionalism, the toxicity of self-righteousness, the corrosion of hypocrisy? Can you grasp that taking such an oath, as surely Jesus' disciples must have, would enable us to live as a finite human being unburdened from the grinding load of self-importance and pretending you have to be perfect, or can even come close? Can you see how courage is essential taking that oath and that it requires a lifetime to begin to embody it? Carlos Castaneda helps to clarify it; "Self-importance is our greatest enemy. Think about it -- what weakens us it feeling offended by the deeds and misdeeds of others, Our self-importance requires that we spend most of our lives offended by someone." I would add, what a waste that is. I takes courage to take the oath and keep trying to apply it to your self and your life, no matter what anyone else try to sell you.

Then take the step of honesty and examine yourself without filters or excuses. No one of us is without flaws, limitations, faults, failures. No one is perfect no matter how hard we might try. as I did for far too long, persuaded that nothing less would be acceptable, and breaking down in that process. The question is, "acceptable to whom?" Perfection is a fantasy, a pretense, and curiously enough, Christians can be particularly susceptible to buying into it, practicing it, suffering from it and causing others to suffer because of it. Honesty is one way to argue that sin is the most "provable" Christian affirmation and honesty counts us all "in" or it's all in us. Thats why I always hang on to Luther's advice, "Sin on boldly but believe more boldly still." That isn't to advocate for sin, just to acknowledge its pervasiveness and what to do about it.

Honesty is about wrestling through the demons of pretension and self-righteousness to reach find our souls. It is to dismantle the emotional and mental armor of defensiveness and duplicity and gratefully accept who we are. It is to tune our hearts' music to the pitch note of longing whence we muffle with our illusions and realize that the longing that abides beyond all our successes and failures, lies and idolatries is the truth about who we are and are not, and whose we are, and are not. Psychologist James Hillman helps here. He says, "The dimension of the soul is depth (not breadth or height) and the dimension of our soul travel is downward." I assume "downward" means down into the depths of your self. That is the first direction of the step of honesty. And I would differ with Hillman's statement that the dimension of the soul is only depth. From depth comes the breadth and height of the soul. Look at Jesus' life.

Here's a song that sums up what I'm trying to say here. It's entitled Anthem and Leonard Cohen wrote the lyrics. In paRt, they go like this:
"The birds they sang at break of day,
Start again I heard them say.
Don't dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be …

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in …

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum.
You can strike up the march
there is no drum.
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."

There is a crack in everything. Mortality, finitude is a crack of sorts. Limitations, failures, flaws, mistakes, heart breaks and aches, disappointments, loneliness, are cracks. Losses, crises, wounds, anxieties, rejections are cracks. The list could go on. But it is not a list of woes and laments, or of anger and accusations. Cracks are how the light gets in. It's the light of that glimmer of longing that won't fade even if you don't attend to it. It's the light of hope that doesn't depend on hopeful circumstances as my old friend Bill Coffin used to say. It's the light of the grace of God, the love that doesn't seek worth but gives it to each and all of us. It's the crack in us and around us that's how the light gets in. We need to keep learning that.

And the final step of the CHT Jig is trust. Trust is not so much something we have, like faith or belief which, of course, are spiritually essential. And I am always encouraged and repeat the words the father said when Jesus healed his epileptic son; "I believe, help my unbelief." I repeat those word so often because I think faith or belief is a process and it involves facing into our unbelief as well as our belief.

But trust is something we do, how we live, what we earn from others who our lives touch. In that sense, it is fused with love. I'm always glad we don't have to like those we are called to love, anymore than we like ourselves all the time, or what we sometimes do that is unlikeable.
But love goes past liking. It's about being fair and honest about ourselves with others, meaning what we say and saying what we mean, being just, generous, compassionate, empathetic, peace making, actions we can live by and with no matter how we feel.

Of course, it is trusting as much of God as we know, as we can, as we will take risks for and get our sense of worth from, again, no matter how we feel. Trust is about how we live and what love is about when the chips go down and we make our choices. Trust is about ringing the bells that still can ring and there are an abundance of them once we forgo the illusions of our "perfect offerings."

When Joan Hemenway, a beloved colleague and friend, a marvelous leader in the Clinical Pastoral Education field, died, this benediction she used with her CPE groups was printed on the cover of her Memorial Service bulletin: "When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and step into the unknown, one of two things will happen: either there will be something solid for us to stand or we will be taught to fly." That's about trust and it touches on the freedom we can live in when we do.

Another benediction in stammer out as often as I can is like it. We often used it as an Affirmation of Faith in the church I served. It's Saint Paul's affirmation: "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord," or the love of God revealed in anything or anyone else ever.

My own personal version of trust, which I try to hang onto, better onsome days than others, but is always my close to my soul. I've never verified its source though it's attributed to Charles Spurgeon but I read it first in a book by the Scottish theologian, Donald M. Ballie. I share it now as a sort of benediction for this chapter and a summation of trust, indeed of the CHT Jig:
"Let me no more my comfort draw
from my frail hold of Thee.
In this alone, rejoice with awe,
Thy mighty grasp of me." Amen.
*1 - William Sloane Coffin, Jr. - Once To Every Man - Atheneum - New York - 1977 - pg.134
*2- T.S. Eliot - A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry - Charles Scriber's Sons -1946 pg. 292

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