“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.
Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render.
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.
This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life”.
– Deitrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together
“We need Goddess consciousness to reveal earth’s holiness. Divine feminine imagery opens up the notion that the earth is the body of the Divine, and when that happens, the Divine cannot be contained solely in a book, church, dogma, liturgy, theological system, or transcendent spirituality. The earth is no longer a mere backdrop until we get to heaven, something secondary and expendable. Mat[t]er becomes inspirited; it breathes divinity.” — Sue Monk Kidd
I admit it. The word “Goddess” is a leap for me sometimes.
It’s so hard to redefine the concept of God we inherited in our youth. In fact, I think it’s often easier to simply reject God outright, rather than allow God to become truly expanded in our hearts and minds.
Nevertheless, this is what I am trying to do.
I am trying to discover all of the things that got left on the “cutting room floor” when my own religious tradition became canonized and organized. So, I pay attention to words like these because they confront me.
Reading this, I hear myself thinking “Ah, yes, that must be true. But, oh my, how uncomfortable too. I don’t know how to get there genuinely yet”.
“I use metaphors.
… One way is just to think, for instance, of biodiversity. The extraordinary thing we now know thanks to [the] discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human and other genomes, is that all life… you know, all the 3 million species of life and plant life – all have the same source.
We all come from a single source.
Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet.
Unity creates diversity.
So don’t think of One God, One Truth, One Way. Think of One God creating this extraordinary number of ways. The 6,800 languages that are actually spoken – don’t think there’s one language within which we can speak to God.
The Bible is saying to us – the whole time – ‘Don’t think that God is as simple as you are’.
… God is bigger than religion”.
I began writing this entry on Mother’s Day eve, but it’s took me a couple of days to edit the many theological tangents I found myself coughing up along the way. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m slowly (painfully so) writing a book, and sometimes I struggle to tease out all the information swirling around in my mind into these short, digestible bits.
But, here goes…
In honor of Mother’s Day, I want to talk about Jesus’ mom. Mary, The “Virgin”.
According to Marilyn Frye,
“The word ‘virgin’ did not originally mean a woman whose vagina was untouched by any penis, but a free woman, one not betrothed, not bound to, not possessed by any man. It meant a female who is sexually and hence socially her own person. In any version of patriarchy, there are no Virgins in this sense.”
The story about Jesus’ conception, which we find in the canonical gospels, seems to suggest that Mary was a sexual virgin, and I am not interested in disputing that necessarily. However, I do want to encourage a serious consideration of how the alternative definition of the word might enliven this story in a way that opens it up to a more modern spiritual audience.
According to the gospel of Luke, this is how things went down:
26 God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee. 27 The angel went to a virgin promised in marriage to a descendant of David named Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary.28 When the angel entered her home, he greeted her and said, “You are favored by the Lord! The Lord is with you.”29 She was startled by what the angel said and tried to figure out what this greeting meant.
30 The angel told her,
“Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.
31 You will become pregnant, give birth to a son,
and name him Jesus.
32 He will be a great man
and will be called the Son of the Most High.
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his ancestor David.
33 Your son will be king of Jacob’s people forever,
and his kingdom will never end.”
34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this be? I’m a virgin.”
35 The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy child developing inside you will be called the Son of God….
38 Mary answered, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let everything you’ve said happen to me.”
Again, I’m not here to dispute nor dissect Mary’s sexual virginity, and to my modern eye it seems like the story is pretty clear about it. I have my own opinions about whether to read ancient sacred texts as symbolic or literal accounts, which can be boiled down to “both, and”, but that’s a personal choice I won’t attempt to make for anyone else. What I will try to persuade you to consider, however, is how Mary also fits Marilyn Frye’s description of a virgin as a “free woman… not possessed by any man”.
If you understand the deeply patriarchal religious and social systems Mary lived within, this story is already remarkable simply because an angel of God visits a woman with no man present to mediate this interaction. Furthermore, Mary conducts herself during this encounter in a way that would suggest she is an impressively self-possessed woman, as she responds to this incredible encounter with her own spiritual convictions.
This is no small act of courage either. Because of Mary’s historical and cultural circumstances, it was entirely possible – even likely – that the men (& women) in her life would have rejected and criminalized her as soon as it became clear that she was pregnant. By saying “yes” to this divine responsibility of mothering the Son of God, she was willing to risk becoming a social pariah, endure estrangement from her family and community, and potentially incur criminal charges.
The woman that can look a messenger of God in the face and say “let it be” to this kind of fate is a woman possessed by nothing other than the Spirit that allows her to see and hear God in the first place. She’s a virgin – as Marilyn Frye defines it – because she transcends every version of patriarchy.
I don’t know about you, but the picture that was painted for me about Jesus’ mother was quite different than this one I’m presenting here now. Somewhere in my upbringing, I inherited a kind of cultural conditioning about women that caused me to understand Mary as an embodiment of meek, quiet, unquestioning servitude. Frankly, as far as I was concerned, she seemed a little bit like a victim of all these male players in her story – i.e. God chooses this fate for her, Gabriel “announces” it to her, Joseph waivers about whether or not to quietly end their engagement, and then Jesus happens to her.No irreverence intended, but Lord knows if I was Jesus’ mother I would be living on a steady drip of Xanax for all of my days.
But, Mary. Well, I have a feeling she did much more than just “endure” her fate. There is this account in the gospel of John, for example:
1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Here you have the mother of God, carrying around her sincere faith in her own son, and gently nudging him along towards his path… as mother’s do. “You can do it, darling”, is something I know every loving mother has felt and said to their child thousands of times. Mothers often believe in their children’s potential long before they themselves do, and this account of Mary’s faithful encouragement of her child really strikes a deep chord with me.
On the surface this may sound awfully presumptuous, but I look to Mary’s example when I think about how I want to mother my own daughter. If Mary spent all of her days as a mother believing what the angel of God told her about her son, I imagine she would have had three things in her mind at all times:
- The human child – because babies’ human qualities force us to pay the most immediate attention; keeping them healthy and alive is an all consuming job for many years.
- The divine child – surely she would be looking for the divine qualities she believed her son possessed from the moment she felt him stir in her womb. She would have held this knowledge about him in her heart, and both nurtured and honored the things that emerged from him in accordance with her knowledge.
- How on earth these two aspects of her son could co-exist in human form, and how she might need to be involved in helping him to reconcile this.
As a practicing psychotherapist, I find it impossible to believe that Mary wouldn’t have had a significant impact on Jesus’ concept of himself. Even though he was God incarnate, he was also human, and every human being I have ever met has talked to me about the impact their mothers have had on their relationship with themselves. I don’t think God does things without understanding the consequences, and I believe that it must have been extremely important for Jesus’ mother (and maybe his father too) to know their son’s identity, and help to nurture him accordingly.
If this is true, then Jesus would have been raised by a woman who looked at him with a recognition of both his divinity and his humanity every time her gaze met his. Can you imagine being raised under that kind of gaze? I once heard the Dalai Lama speak about his own mother, and how her love for the human he was, as well as her reverence for spiritual being he was becoming influenced his development more than anything else. Apparently, having parents – chiefly, a mother, who believes in you is powerful stuff.
And so who did Mary’s son become in light of this kind of affirmation from his Mother?
Now, here’s where I may have to get super tangental about the person of Jesus for several paragraphs, but it’s worth the quick dive into those waters – so hang with me here.
Jesus, believing in both his humanity and his divinity, reportedly experienced a deep intimacy with God, and also demonstrated a courageous kind of love for his fellow human beings. His entire ministry was a demonstration of this love – love for God above the superfluous rules and regulations the religious authorities were fond of imposing, and love for people beyond the conventional stereotypes and judgments of his time. He didn’t preach from a pulpit, but got down in the dirt and grime of messy human life, and offered people practical help (food, safety, community, physical healings), and preached the most hopeful messages about the character and nature of God. (i.e. “God is like a loving father, God is like a good shepherd, God is like a generous land owner, etc”).
To his disciples, his message was even more wildly hopeful.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes [like] me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…” — John 14:12
His populous message of individual empowerment and social interest made many of the powerful and influential people in his culture so angry with him too. The “powers-that-be” of his particular time and place felt so undermined by his ministry, that they were often described as being enraged to a actual murderous level, and eventually condemned him as a heretic.
“Who gives you this authority?!” they would shout. Jesus’ answer every time: “God”.
“I and the Father are One [in essence and nature].” – – John 10:30
I think it’s important to understand that this wasn’t an unconsciously arrogant response on his part either; he knew he was on borrowed time by giving this answer, and expected to be killed for his boldness and spoke plainly about this to his disciples:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” – – Mark 8:31
Jesus seemed to be crystal clear that his inevitable death and resurrection was a necessary condition for his “students” to finally understand this critical bit about their own identity too:
“Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”. – John 14: 18-20
Although this is a bit cryptic and maybe poorly translated, I believe that Jesus was continually inviting his disciples to understand their shared communion with God. I also think that they needed this big death and resurrection event to shake up their schematic understanding of God. It’s important to understand that before Jesus’ life and ministry, the Hebrew people believed that no one could experience the direct presence of God except for the highest, holiest priest, and only on the highest, holiest day in the highest, holiest of circumstances in the highest, holiest part of the temple.
Jesus’ whole life was a big confrontation of this assumption, and he offered a direct invitation to anyone – prostitutes, thieves, murderers, women (insert eye roll from me) – that chose to, could experience God (the Holy Spirit) “living in their own hearts”. Now, I think that phrase gets over-used, and therefore a little watered down, but no one alive during the time of Jesus’ life would have missed the meaning, nor misunderstood the huge theological shift he was determined – and destined – to initiate on that corner of the earth.
Okay, my tangent about the person and ministry of Jesus is complete.. for now.
Back to Mary and Jesus’ relationship. To summarize:
- She believed he was fully human and fully divine.
- He believed this too.
- He proclaimed – with the authority of one who is fully human and fully divine – that all human beings could also claim this divine inheritance.
Now let me be clear, I don’t think I’m raising the next Messiah, but I do think that the symbolic and/or historical figures of both Mary and Jesus teach us that we have an obligation to respond to both the divinity and the humanity that co-exist within our children – and ourselves too – and then ultimately learn how to nurture a relationship between these two aspects of our being.
… And I simply assume it’s going to be easier for my daughter to make this connection within herself if I help her believe in it.Looking at the example set by Mary, it would appear that one of the best ways for me to help my daughter believe in her own inner spiritual capacity, would be by believing in it for her first.
Of course, it will look and feel much different than it did for Mary because whether she is symbolic or real, she was working with the kind of ‘absolutes’ that both symbolism and literalism make possible. I don’t work in absolutes because I am not a symbol, and I am not the literal vessel for a singular divine being either. Nonetheless, when I think about Mary, I can’t help but be reflective about what it would feel like to be raised by a mother who tries to nurture a connection to both your humanity and your divinity.
Happy Mother’s Day to the most remarkable lady in the game. Mary, you are my symbolic model for how to stand alongside the development of a creature that belongs partly to me and partly to God.
“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.” — Dr. Frank Wilczek
I recently listened to physicist, Dr. Frank Wilczek, being interviewed on Krista Tippett’s luminescent radio show, On Being. During a larger conversation about the beauty of the physical world, Dr. Wilczek spoke about a particular revelation on the ‘deep truths’, as he called them, of the natural world. “You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth”, he said.
One of the more accessible examples of this is how we understand that light – in physical terms – is both a particle and a wave. We have instruments that are able to prove and verify this phenomena now, but at one point not that long ago, this was a big argument among scientists. Many believed that light was either or particle or a wave, and by virtue of physical law could not be both.
We are often very slow to accept the things that confront our systematic way of organizing the world, and can be a bit too stubborn about understanding reality through our own chosen lens. Of course, logic would seem to suggest that if it’s black, it can’t also be white; if it’s night, it can’t also be day. Dr. Wilczek explained, however, that the more we know about the physical world, the more it appears that all of the deep truths seem to be recognizable by this phenomena of oppositional truths.
During the course of the interview he expanded this scientific principle into a more philosophical one:
“…sometimes it’s useful to think of [things] one way. Sometimes it’s useful to think of [things] another way. And both can be informative in different circumstances. But it’s very difficult, in fact, impossible, to apply them both at once. And I think that’s the essence of complementarity (emphasis mine). You have to view the world in different ways to do it justice, and the different ways can each be very rich, can each be internally consistent, can each have its own language and rules, but they may be mutually incompatible, and to do full justice to reality, you have to take both of them into account.”
This way of thinking is important to me, because it’s how I experience religious ideology, which I would certainly put in the category of “deep truths”.
After all, it would seem that if one religious dogma were true, then conflicting ones could not also be true. However, in my own experience of diving deeply into a variety of religious traditions, I have found that most of them to ring true, despite what would appear to be very real dogmatic conflicts on the surface.
For example: from a surface understanding of Buddhism, the Christian concept of an eternal end to human suffering through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has no resonance. BUT, if you understand the Buddha’s awakening as a release from the subjective experience of suffering, as well as Jesus’ intention for humankind to experience that same freedom from subjective suffering (i.e. the suffering of an ego-only orientation to the world) in the here and now, then you see that these two beliefs are very much complimentary to one another.
Even within one particular religious or spiritual way of thinking, you must be able to comprehend this complimentary quality of opposing truths in order to embrace the whole of the spiritual tradition. An example from Christianity might be how the Christ figure is both fully human and fully divine. On the surface, allowing both of these to be true might suggest an internal conflict of logic, and yet the faith tradition is born from the alchemy of these two truths.
In recent years, I have found myself believing in a particular “deep truth” about religious scriptures themselves. I have decided to regard them as both fallible and infallible simultaneously. In other words: inspired by God, but written, translated and interpreted by men. This has changed the way I relate to them, and allowed me to look at them with increased skepticism and increased faith.
I now read the words in the Bible and try to discover the universal truthfulness within them, rather than taking them at face value and having to reject them with my rational sensibilities or embrace them with irrational stubbornness. I realize that thhis last phrase may offend some people of faith, which I regret, but I also stand with a conviction that faith is not strengthened by a rejection of questioning. So far in my life, all of my doubting has enhanced my belief.
There is no longer any fear in my beliefs, nor a sense of needing to defend my position.
After all, my position keeps evolving alongside the changing terrain of my experience, and my faith in Mystery only increases the more I am faced with what I cannot answer.
“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds”.
— Alfred Lord Tennyson
During my first go-round with Christianity,
everything was mediated through this narrow window:
“This is good, that is bad”.
Two wings of a conjoined umbrella under which to sort everything
Including one’s self.
Soon my body was bad
My mind followed suit.
Eventually I discovered that my heart too was “deceitful above all things”.
But then something unexpected happened.
Some force much more powerful than my body, mind, and heart rebelled ferociously inside me.
It screamed with rage and indignation, and demanded of me that I set it free.
I think the word “sin” is one of those words that has become so misused, misdirected, and misunderstood that it’s almost taken on a new colloquial meaning, quite different from it’s original conception. Most often, I have heard this word used like a weapon with which to wage a character-attack on oneself, someone else, or whole groups of people. 99 times out of 100, when I hear this word used by Christians, I cringe almost involuntarily. There’s just something I don’t like about how it sounds in most peoples’ mouths.
The most recent example of this occurred during a meeting with a minister on the eve of my daughter’s baptism ceremony. This man – a wonderful man, and a kind, generous, gracious host to our family during this event – wanted to make sure we understood what a baptism ceremony was, and what it was not. We had a lovely conversation about spiritual rituals in general, and I was very moved by the humility with which he approached his role in his church.
At one point in the conversation, he wanted to make sure that we understood that a baptism ceremony wasn’t some kind of “magic” transformation event, and that we would be leaving church that day with the same little baby we had brought with us. He said this warmly but seriously: “she will still cry, she will still be a sinner” –
“It’s my understanding, sir, that the Hebrew word for ‘sin’ means to ‘miss the mark’. I don’t believe that my 7 month-old daughter can yet be aware that there is ‘mark’ for which to aim, and it doesn’t feel quite right to speak of her this way”, I said.
I knew this wasn’t a completely rational feeling, but I felt like he had insulted my tiny daughter’s reputation. Some fiercely protective instinct rose up from my belly, into my chest, and out of my throat a bit faster than my brain could mediate it. He was gracious, and while he offered a defense of the word use, I believe he also saw that I intended be unmoved about it, and gently backed away. If this had been a contest of character, he would have outperformed me in patience, gentleness, and self-control without the tiniest hint of pride or exasperation.
My point, however, remains a solid one. The Hebrew word most often translated as “sin” in English is the word chata’ah, which means to “miss the mark”, the way an archer might miss a target with his arrow. Chata’ah, or “sin”, is a mistake, an error, a big ole OOPS! To be committ a sin, you must be aiming for something and miss it.
I think that this word, and it’s associated imagery, is such a lovely, inviting, and compassionate way to understand the limits of our own humanity. We all know what it’s like to want to be – or behave – better than we are, and yet still keep making all kinds of little (or big) missteps along the way.
Perhaps that’s what this minister intended to suggest to us as he explained how the baptism ritual wouldn’t rid our daughter of her human limits. And frankly, I’m not sure I was listening well enough to have ascertained his precise meaning (well, would you look at that? That’s actually a perfect example of ‘sin’). Nonetheless, if someone wants to call my daughter a ‘sinner’ – or one day explain to her precisely how she is one – I just want to be sure they understand exactly what they’re saying.
A group of people once asked Jesus how to pray, and he answered with poetry.
Poetry, which presumably got translated many times over since then, and may or may not be accurately represented by the current versions we have available to us today. You can find many rendering’s of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ through a simple google search, ranging in tone from the feudalistic language of King James’ Version:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.
To a more mystical, middle-eastern Aramaic translation:
O cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration.
Soften the ground of our being and carve out a space within us where your Presence can abide.
Fill us with your creativity so that we may be empowered to bear the fruit of your mission.
Let each of our actions bear fruit in accordance with our desire.
Endow us with the wisdom to produce and share what each being needs to grow and flourish.
Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us, as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes.
Do not let us be seduced by that which would divert us from our true purpose, but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment.
For you are the ground and the fruitful vision, the birth, power and fulfillment, as all is gathered and made whole once again.
But my question is this: how do you train yourself to sit in the ground of your own heart-swell, and let yourself be swept up into union with the divine source of life and love Itself?
But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper (Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor—Counselor, Strengthener, Standby) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send the Holy Spirit to you. — John 16:7
After nearly a decade of psychological study, I read this and hear a man saying, “Let me leave this earthy realm so that I might give back to you your own projections of divinity.”
Being God, I believe that Jesus came all this way, entering into the experience of being fully human – loving and grieving and rejoicing and suffering alongside us, that we might be able to see ‘how it’s done’. In other words, how it’s possible to be fully entrenched in this human form, and yet experience the presence of God within us.
Indeed, I am quite convinced that believing in a God who is also alive inside us will ‘help’ each of us much more surely than a belief that God is still exclusively ‘out there'”.