When the Minister Is a Drunk

The minister betrayed his wife. The scripture misled us. The congregation turned against some members. Again and again we yearn for spiritual elders we can trust.

I am a child of God who hungers to come home. The human lapses—corrupt priests, cruel beliefs, poorly translated scriptures—might smash my belief like cartoon villains with big hammers.

How do I sort it out? I’m no expert. The strict voice from my childhood whispers, “Who do you think you are? Others have studied this more than you. How could you question the scriptures? This church or temple or faith has stood the test of time. Who are you to question? You cannot know anything on your own.”

It is this authoritarian voice that we must face down inside our own heads. Because we feel incompetent to experience God on our own, we grasp at any authority figure to make our choices. But the whole point of God’s universal nature—all is the Divine, God is in every heart, every speck of existence is God—is that God is in us and with us as part of our consciousness itself.

Spiritual authority is really big deal. People have been burned at the stake over this. For more than 1000 years, most faiths taught that none of us can know the divine directly. All of us, they say, need some kind of spiritual authority to teach us.

We complain that a spiritual leader is corrupt. The worried voice in our heads answers that the leader knows more than we do. We complain that power-hungry bishops changed the core meaning of scripture. The worried voice answers that they knew what was best for us, even if they made compromises. We complain that a belief cannot be from God because it is so cruel. The voice answers that we are too puny to question traditional belief and that sometimes God’s purification is necessary.

A well-known Christian leader, Rev. Richard Rohr, argues that we must always stand ready to use our own experience of God, our own experience of goodness itself, to question tradition. In his book on scripture [Yes, And…], Rohr says, “If you are meditating on a Bible text, Hebrew or Christian, and if you see God operating at a lesser level than the best person you know, then that text is not an authentic revelation. ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16), and no person you meet could possibly be more loving than the Source of love itself. It is as simple as that.  You now have a foundational hermeneutic (interpretive key) for interpreting all of Scripture wisely.” (page 75)

For thousands of years, two other spiritual traditions—Buddhism and Gnosticism—have taught the same thing.

Here’s what Buddha said: “Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and experience to be true.”

Another important tradition, Gnosticism, is a belief “that direct, personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings, and, moreover, that the attainment of such knowledge must always constitute the supreme achievement of human life.” (Click here for source)  In fact there are some who say that Jesus was a Gnostic. (Click here for source.)

All this means that I give myself permission to be the knower. I do not need approval from a superior. I meditate and listen to whatever direct knowledge comes. I know that my intention is pure. I trust myself and I trust God speaking in my heart.

In many faiths, this idea is dangerous. Many faith organizations control people’s beliefs via spiritual authorities such as ministers, gurus, priests or scriptures. It happens all over the world—in Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for example.

Certainly not all ministers or priests mislead us or are too small for the job. But when they do, how do we respond?

As children, most of us were taught that even a smart, good person needs teaching from someone who knows better.

It’s actually a trick question. When we yield to a spiritual authority—any authority—what’s really happening is we are giving away responsibility for our spiritual truth and learning to someone else. But we do it because it’s traditional and because it seems easy.

The fatal flaw is that no other person and no piece of writing can carry the weight of our individual spiritual knowing.

Here are six steps to trusting our own spiritual authority:

  1. We seek knowing in our own hearts. We take responsibility for who we are at the very deepest level. Being a true child of the universe means taking 100 percent of the responsibility for what we believe.
  2. We can still refer to a faith tradition, if it helps us. Every faith has meditation and prayer practices for self-knowing. That’s why this website exists—to help Christians learn the ancient practice of meditation.
  3. We can learn more about listening inward. We can meditate and pray more. God speaks in that silence.
  4. If we want to study scripture, we can study the earliest, most original versions available. For example, Christians can look at the Nag Hammadi versions of the gospel. We can study what changes were made in early versions.
  5. We can still talk to our spiritual leader, if we trust him or her. But to be fair, we must always remember that he or she is only another person like us, just another ordinary person, not someone to carry the responsibility instead of us. Even if the leader has studied 50 years, we are the final knowers of what feels true in our deepest hearts.
  6. Finally, we also need to be cautious of cynics who say, “If you’re intelligent, you don’t need religion” or “I don’t need to believe in anything. My thoughts are all just biochemical reactions anyway.” Their experience doesn’t matter because we are the only ones who know what our hearts tell us.

The only authority we can completely trust is the pure, quiet voice inside.

So then when the minister hires a prostitute, what does it really matter? If the scripture’s meaning changes, so what? We can learn. We can study a new meaning.

All of us are children of the universe. All of us are love happening.

I stand firm in my own knowledge of the divine. I hear the whispers in my heart, and I trust the universe to teach me perfectly. There is nothing better than that and there is nothing more than that.

This is where I rest in God. This is where I am whole.

 

[an earlier version of this post was published on http://www.Elephant Journal.com]

 

Burrowing into Darkness

Things seem a shambles. Outside, I question if democracy is worth it. Fire deaths, atrocities, shootings and massive hardship blare from every screen and hit me like gut punches. Inside, in my close life, the confusions, the missteps pile up and tear at me—Friends with harsh diagnoses, addicted family members, uncertainty, confusion. It feels like my heart, and the world’s, is just broken. A shambles.

Things are turning dark. Yet that’s as it should be. I know this about Fall. All the leaves let go. Hollyhock stalks bend and collapse. Pods open, seeds fall. Mist rises as the lake cools. The wind smells of a neighbor’s morning fire. With the leaves down, I can see the lake. The light is both brighter and darker.

Everything has given up. The broken stalks and bright skies have surrendered to change. Leaves jump in the wind and pile up in corners by stones and under bushes. When I meditate, mornings are black.

There is magic ahead. Rebirth doesn’t happen in April, just as conception doesn’t happen in the delivery room. Rebirth requires conception, and that miracle—and I use the word “miracle” on purpose—needs darkness.  In the womb, in the earth, in life, undreamed-of things burst out like those first tiny cells of an embryo—in darkness, in power, in hope.  

I trust the bare trees, the pumpkins, the chill and the darkness. The hummingbirds and robins left weeks ago. Nuthatches and chickadees peer in at me, wondering about suet. The longest night is coming. I think of bonfires, feasts, tombstones and candles. I think of shattered dreams, despair, tears and death.

I trust winter’s silence. It feels right. Seeds burrow into the earth mother. Conception needs utter darkness. I trust what is hidden, the things I cannot comprehend. There are Holy Secrets that come out of the Divine, and I can’t pretend to understand them. Grace is real.

My thoughts don’t work. I think I know what should or should not happen, but I am wrong. The bare trees and dancing leaves have surrendered to the coming darkness. I follow them and trust.

Every year, every century, dark magic happens again—A light in the darkness. Under the bitterness, seeds lie in the earth. One day their cells change. I’m too small and foolish to know exactly when or how, and that’s okay.

What I trust is the darkness itself—the presence, the awareness, the magic, the love. I am a bare tree branch, a fallow field. Emptiness and silence is what I need. I am a seed. I am potential. I burrow in and trust the holy life force. What’s needed is exactly the darkness. I have to be a seed, not knowing, not planning. I have to be the magic of what might come, the possibility of something I do not understand.

Hope happens. New life pops. The wind turns soft. There’s something new that only the universe could have dreamt up.  An exquisite crocus. Fresh grass. An easy breath. New life. Healing.

So I rest in the darkness and trust God. I am a seed and so are you. The light will come, but not in the ways we expect. All we need to know is that Love holds us close. The darkness is safe and right.

 

Walk With Me

Three turning points on the path to inner peace

Am I the prisoner or the jailer? Or am I both? I gaze out of my prison. It’s dark, and I’m desperate and afraid. I don’t know who I am.

Come with me to a new place. If you want, we can sing as we walk. There’s a long road ahead still, but I know this path is mine, and it is right for me.

There is a place of great safety, where “Today I might die” doesn’t matter. In that place, the executioner is loved as much as the hanged man. Tumors that break bones don’t matter and neither do needle tracks, promiscuity, despair, regret or betrayal.

A Christian hymn says, “We are pilgrims on a journey.”

The Sufi poet Rumi says, “O you who’ve gone on pilgrimage—where are you, where, oh where?”

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says, “I’m a traveler, a pilgrim. No one can hold or stop me, not the bonds of joys and sorrows, not the room I live in.”

Maybe you don’t believe in God. That’s all right. Maybe religion leaves you empty. That’s fine too.

Our destination is kindness and caring for all beings. We’re going to walk beyond pain and shame and hatred. The word that you attach to the destination, how you name it, doesn’t matter.

I have wandered a lot. What I know is that there are three major turning points, three forks on this road. All of them help answer the question “Who am I?”

1. I am not my body.

This body is a wonderful temporary organism. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it wants food or sex and sometimes it laughs out loud at smelling and feeling and sensing life.

When infection touches it, the body gets sick but it can fight almost any germ. After all, it’s been practicing staying healthy since cavemen fought saber-toothed tigers. The body knows how to grow, how to heal and how to stop when it’s time.

Who am I? Am I the joy and health of my body? What if living in the body is torture?

If I have AIDs or cancer, is that who I am? Am I my tumors? No, absolutely not. If I am 95 and slowly fading, is that who I am? Christopher Reeves was more than his body when he looked like superman, and he also was more than his body when he lay paralyzed.

We are part of the whole. Divine intelligence dwells in our bodies, making them sacred tools. We hate to admit it, but our bodies really are temples of holiness. We heal from sickness because our bodies are more brilliant that we can imagine. And yet a body is temporary.

On our pilgrimage, it doesn’t matter if this body gets broken today. When we are quiet enough, when we meditate or pray, eventually we discover silence. The silence is the truth beyond our bodies, the wholeness that needs no body.

Even with cancer, even on a ventilator, even in addiction, even in death, our perfect essence belongs to the wholeness that is eternal.

Imagine your body as an ice cube floating in a sea of all that is, floating on the living water of kindness—and then melt. We are the water, not the ice cube. We are the ocean, not the wave.

2. I am not my story.

The cruelest thing our family and friends tell us is, “I know who you are. I remember everything you have done.” They say, “I love you, but let’s admit it. You’ve never been able to do math.” “You’ve made mistakes.” “No man will ever want you.” “You’re not really star quality.”

It’s so common that we don’t even notice it. People pretend they are being honest. But those pronouncements lock us into prison because we accept the lies as truth.

Kindness could be just as honest. “Wow. That was such a great thing to do.” “Why don’t you try again? I bet you’ll get the hang of it.” “I know you’ve got it in you to succeed.” “Forget the past. It’s over. Look to the future.”

Much worse than the judgments of others is how brutally we judge ourselves. We savage ourselves again and again, and we think it’s good.

After all, we think the story of our life is who we are. We think our past is our identity. If we “succeed,” then we have permission to be proud. If we “fail,” then we must be ashamed.

Think instead of the story of your life as instants of perception that have passed. They were lessons that you have finished.

You can let them go. Your story is like heavy chains that drag you down. Your story keeps your hands busy so you never reach for joy.

Here’s the trick—You’re clutching those chains. Nobody wrapped them around you. If they are there, it’s because you agreed to accept them. You said, “Yes, it’s too bad, but that is who I am.” Your own hands are pulling them tight.

You can let go. You can open your fingers and let it all slip away.

You are not your past. You are not your story. And the ones who really love you will help you let go.

But if I am not my story, then who am I? Sometimes people think their story was ugly, their pain was bad, but at least it gave them a special identity.

You can find a better identity.

You are more than just your body and more than just your story.

3. I am not my thoughts.

Ever since I was a baby, my mind has been creating thoughts. For many years, I assumed that my thoughts were my truest identity.

Some were good, and some were nasty. I could tell close friends my deepest thoughts, and I thought that was telling them who I really was.

Many of us use thoughts to whip ourselves. If I feel guilt or shame, I can punish myself again and again. “I shouldn’t have done that.” “He did that to me! How terrible!”

If we have an obsessive edge, we replay the bad scenes thousands of times. We would not do that to someone else, but we do it to ourselves.

Even our good thoughts are tricky because we are such brutal judges. We think, “I forgive her, so now I am good.” But that gives immense power to a flimsy thought.

Unconditional love means not judging—and that includes not judging ourselves.

One of the first things meditation teaches is that thoughts are neither good nor bad. They just are. I can let them go.

When I think, “I am good,” I can let that float away as a wisp. When I think, “He’s a bad person,” that can also just float away as a wisp.

When I think, “My body is ugly,” it’s just a wisp, neither good nor bad. When I think, “I should never have taken that last drink,” it can melt away. When I think, “There is no hope,” it’s just another strand of nothing.

Practicing meditation gives me the skill to let my thoughts float away without identifying with them. Without meditation, I don’t know how I would accomplish this.

That’s why meditation is one of the ways we heal into wholeness. That’s how meditation brings us closer to God—It helps us love ourselves in a completely new way.

Even after 30 years, practicing meditation is still hard for me sometimes. And it’s hard for everyone—even for the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Our thoughts are so intrusive and so compelling that we think they define us.

But we are much more than our thoughts.

We are pilgrims on our way to a new place.

Even if our bodies are failing, we are whole. Like ice cubes, we are melting into the whole.

We are both temporary and eternal.

Just as an ice cube freezes and melts, we take shape and then melt. Are we just the temporary shape? No, we are the essence out of which the ice cube forms. We are the living water.

So even when we are dying, we are whole. The ice cube melts to water as a form of release.

Even if we have failed terribly in the past, we are whole. Nobody dodges life’s lessons, but once the learning is done, we can open our hands and let the chains go. We are not our story.

Who we are today is the only thing that matters.

Even if our thoughts are clever, brilliant, terrible or sacred, they do not define who we are. They are like smoke on the wind. They melt away because they are nothing.

We are holy pilgrims, even when we cannot define God. We arrive at the sacred place beyond words, beyond time and beyond individuality. We rest in the immensity of all that is. “I will die” and “I was born” don’t matter.

In this place, it’s easy to touch one another. Our edges have melted. Who are we?

We are the connection itself. We are pilgrims on a journey to the truth of utter kindness.

Here, take my hand. Look into my eyes. We melt into each other and become one. We are whole.

 

[An earlier version was originally published on http://www.elephantjournal.com]

 

 

 

 

 

Opening to God in a New Way

At first, Christian meditation sounds weird, especially if you’re used to church and scripture and sermons. But here are three teaching videos by two well-known, devout Christian teachers.

The first two videos are by James Finley, a meditation teacher and psychotherapist who studied under the great Christian mystic Thomas Merton.

In the first video, Finley talks about how we think we know what’s going on in our lives, but we really don’t. We have the plans our egos have made, what we think SHOULD be happening, but the Divine has other plans. Finley’s teaching about “don’t-know mind” is profound. He says that it is when we finally give up our ego’s plans that God can really reach out and heal us—even when life is very tough, as in serious illness or addiction.

Finley video on “Don’t-know mind”

In the second video, Finley explains what Christian Meditation is and how to do it. He discusses it all– how to sit, what to think, how to relax, and how it helps the individual open to God’s presence and healing. There’s a link to Finley’s book, Christian Meditation, in the Bookstore.

Finley teaching Christian Meditation

In the third video, Cynthia Bourgeault teaches the well-known Christian meditation technique Centering Prayer. Dr. Bourgeault’s teaching is easy and makes sense within the context of Christian faith. Links to her books are available in the Bookstore.

Bourgeault teaching Christian Meditation

 

My First Language Is Christian

Our secretary stormed into the office and slammed her textbook on the desk.

“This is so stupid! It doesn’t make sense!” She was just back from French class. At fifty years old, she was learning her first foreign language.

“It’s just a window! A stupid, stupid window!” Her voice shook. 

She said it again, louder.  “Window!”  She pointed at the glass. “Why would anyone say something different? Fenêtre!  What the hell is that about? Why can’t they see that it’s a window?  It’s so easy—Anyone can see that! Why use some stupid other word?”

I look at the window. In my head I remember a dark room’s lovely arched window looking out onto a courtyard throbbing with sun and magenta flowering vines. Khidki in the Hindi language. I think of a small opening in a dark thatched cottage. Fuinneog in the Gaelic language.  A huge plate glass window in a grey cement building. Okno in the Russian language.  

The light itself always shines—in every hut and prison cell. Without end or beginning, outside of time itself, the light is the very fabric of all existence

I know the light and so do you. It runs deeper than breath. Every time it touches me, I recognize it. I remember it. This is the instant of utter awe and joy. It might be the sound of the wind at night or one wildflower growing by a freeway or the smell of your child’s skin.

The opening into the light has thousands of names. Window. Fenêtre. Khidki. Okno. But the eternal light itself—the Divine, the awareness, God—is One. Oneness. The Mystery. The Source. Everything. All.

I say “God” because I speak Christian. As a tiny child sensing beauty and joy, the words of my family and culture were “pray” and “God” and “Christ.” Even though I know other words for the light, such as the Tibetan Dzogchen word Rigpa or the Hindu word Brahman, those words don’t give me goose bumps. 

What my heart knows is something deeper than any one language. My heart sings of the light itself.  The “zing” of existence. Utter joy. Sunrise. Hope.

But when I have to force that vast knowledge into a single word, I choose the words of my childhood because for me they brush my skin like the chords of an old hymn. Those words smell of the lilac bushes where I played with my dolls and my grandmother’s homemade rosewater and glycerin hand lotion. I hear the melody of a hymn on Sunday. Morning has broken like the first morning. 

My sisters sleep around me in our bedroom. At the foot of my bed is a big dormer window facing east. As the sun rises, birds start murmuring and light streams onto my bed.

Other children are waking up at this moment, in other places, in other families. A child waking in a yurt in the Altai mountains of Mongolia says Allah, and a child ringing a bell in a Hindu temple says Vishnu.

I speak Christian. I look at the light and call it God.

–by Jean Gendreau