Losing Jesus, Finding the Holy Spirit

May 29, 2017 § 6 Comments

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 4

I entered college hungry to find meaningful religious experience. I didn’t give up on my Lutheran roots right away. I became very close to the Lutheran campus pastor at Rutgers College and spent many long hours struggling over my faith with Pastor Strickler. But my questions only got more demanding and more refined.

Then in my sophomore year, I got turned on to pot and early in my junior year, LSD. There I found some of the experience I had been looking for.

It’s common to hear people proclaim that drug-induced experiences are not real religious experiences. That may be true, insofar as “religious” experiences take place within the context of a religious tradition or their “content” relates to a deity. But these psychedelic experiences were “spiritual” for sure; they were transcendental, inwardly transforming, and for me, beneficial, a positive influence, especially on my inner life. They awakened me to the presence and workings of the Holy Spirit.

Psychedelic drugs showed me that my search for religious experience was not in vain, that the transcendental was real, that my own consciousness was vastly more subtle, beautiful, capable, and connected than I had thought, and that everything was infused with the Holy Spirit, especially other beings. The very structures of consciousness itself were revealed to me, in some modest degree, by those acid trips.

Still, these experiences were limited. And drugs are hard on you. I never got into the really dangerous non-psychedelics, the opiates, speed, cocaine, downers. But it takes a couple of days to fully recover from an acid trip, and being stoned all the time on pot isn’t good for you, either.

But the doors of perception had been opened for me. I now knew that there was a there there. I kept searching.

My perspective on religious experience deepened again when I became a serious student of yoga, which I dedicated myself to as a spiritual path for a number of years, beginning almost at the same time as I discovered psychedelics. I began with Transcendental Meditation in 1968 and soon became a student of Kriya Yoga in the school started in America by Paramahansa Yogananda.

I had the best yoga teachers imaginable, humble, truly expert practitioners who were gifted teachers and deeply spiritual themselves. Moreover, this was a path that was healthy, sustainable, scientific, and intellectually very satisfying. More important, it delivered.

As a science of consciousness, yoga is thousands of years old, extremely sophisticated, and fully tested; it works in ways that no Christian path does that I know of.

Some claim that Jesus traveled to the east, that he was an avatar, an incarnation of Krishna, or at least, that he was a mystic in the eastern mold. I see no evidence of this. He seems very semitic to me. He wouldn’t have had to travel anywhere to learn a mystical practice, anyway; the Greco-Roman world was full of its own mystical traditions. More importantly, so was Judaism.

There are hints, I think, that Jesus may have practiced some form of “meditation”. At least he recommended praying in private in a “closet”, in contrast to the prevailing Jewish practice of his time, in which people prayed publicly and out loud. He had visions, led his disciples into visionary experience, and in Gethsemane, seems to have expected some form of prayer to effect some form of divine manifestation. And Paul was some kind of mystic.

But subsequent Pauline Christianity basically never integrated a meaningful science, metaphysics, and practice of deepening consciousness in its worship or in its lay devotional practice, let alone one that can compare with yoga. And it has historically been hostile to its own mystical movements, often violently so.

The strength of Christian practice is devotion, love for God, what yogis call bhakti yoga—music and singing, focusing rituals involving the senses, religious art, rosary beads and lighting candles, and appeals to surrender the will in faith and righteousness. These devotional tools can be very satisfying for people with a bhakti temperament. But bhakti yoga is not my path.

So I let Jesus go. He seemed irrelevant, with no real path to experience him directly and reliably that appealed to me. High church ritual seemed empty to me and the altar call, the “low church” appeal to surrender the will to Jesus as my savior, seemed an answer to a question I wasn’t asking. Meanwhile, I had found what I was looking for: a door inward to my spiritual center, practices that got me there consistently and reliably, a thought system that explained and supported the practice in a coherent and “scientific” way, all presented in a tradition that was ancient and venerable.

It would be decades before Jesus and I reconnected.


Using Jesus

May 27, 2017 § 2 Comments

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 3

When I was little, my father told me that if I ever found myself wondering what to do in a situation involving right and wrong, I should try to imagine Jesus doing it. I never forgot that.

When the lottery for the draft was instituted during the Vietnam war, my number—my birthday—was number one, the first to be drawn and the first to be called. I had to cut short my hippy hajj to California in the summer of 1969 because I had to come back to beat the draft. Which I did, but that is another story.

By 1970, the war had really ramped up and one day, talking to my then girlfriend, who would become my wife a year later, I came to a personal crisis: I felt compelled to confront my dad about the war.

Maybe the biggest mistake of my life. A huge fight. He ended up disowning me, telling me to leave and not visit or call or write. That if I ended up going to prison instead of serving, as I told him I was prepared to do, he would tell his friends I was dead.

At one point in that terrible afternoon, I reminded him of what he had advised about using Jesus as a test and I told him that when I tried to imagine Jesus piloting an attack helicopter over Danang, I just couldn’t do it.

He looked at me with this utterly stricken face, turned away, and changed the subject. I had used Jesus as a dagger to morally wound my father. I was morally wounded myself by his denial. We never fully recovered from that moment and from the ongoing conflict between us, though we did eventually rediscover our love for each other and became quite close in our we’re-not-going-to-talk-about-anything-substantive-or-personal way.

But I had been such a hypocrite. I was right about Jesus and that helicopter. But in that moment, I did not think about the fact that I could no more imagine Jesus taking all the drugs I was doing, or having the sex I was having, or living the lifestyle I was living.

I don’t think my father saw this right away, either. I think he was at that moment too freaked out by the act of my moral jiu jitsu and his own inner conflicts. But I don’t think it took him long to realize how I had used him and how I had used Jesus. I don’t think he ever forgave me for my willingness to hurt him so, or for challenging his faith that way, or for subjecting him to the sure knowledge that I would not be joining him in heaven, that in fact, I was going to hell, and he, like Lazarus in the parable, would be sitting in the bosom of Abraham looking down on my eternal suffering.

Wanting Jesus

May 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 2

I was raised in a moderately pious evangelical Lutheran family in Minneapolis. I was always quite religious by temperament, enough so that I think it made my conservative father a little uneasy. To his mind I think my interest bordered on excessive, to be excessive was to be a kind of radical, and therefore not to be fully trusted.

But my mother was very supportive and, in fact, they both were, really. I became very involved in church life, singing in the choir, participating in the youth group, getting the Boy Scout’s Pro Deo et Patria Award, and so on. In my high school senior year, I gave the sermon on Youth Sunday.

In my first year of confirmation class, as a seventh grader, I immersed myself in study. With my mother’s help, I memorized  the Sermon on the Mount, a couple dozen psalms, I Corinthians 13, and the entire Luther’s Small Catechism (it is pretty small) with all the Bible passages that were the answers to its questions. I loved it.

But late in high school and then especially in my freshman year at college, I found myself yearning for more. I looked around me at the good people in my church and our pastor, who was a gifted singer and sermonizer, and made two discoveries:

First, no one was actually experiencing God. They were going to church and doing everything else that was asked of them, just as I was, and it seemed to be enough for them. But no one spoke of direct communion with the God they were worshiping. For communion, the wine and the bread were enough. Me—I wanted God to light up my nervous system with something more transcendental and earth-shaking. I wanted some kind of inward transformation, though I could not have articulated it that way at the time.

This yearning was just a blind desire with no real content or context. I barely knew what it was I yearned for and had no idea what to do about it.

The second discovery arose from the war in Vietnam. My father, my pastor, and as far as I could tell, my church, believed that this war was maybe not so righteous as their own World War II had been, but necessary. More importantly, they apparently believed it was consistent with their faith in the Prince of Peace.

This was a deal breaker for me. Both discoveries were. I was not going to settle for a religion that could not deliver genuine religious experience and I was not going to practice a religion that could sanction senseless violence in violation of its teacher’s teachings and example.

For me at this time, Jesus was divine; Jesus and the Christ were the same thing—he was Jesus Christ. But I saw no path to his presence in the practice I’d been raised in. And I yearned for a path that wasn’t so hypocritical, that practiced what it preached.

Jesus, the Christ, and I

May 26, 2017 § 4 Comments

Why a thread on Jesus, the Christ, and I?

This series is my testimony regarding Jesus, the Christ, and Jesus Christ, what I know from my own experience, what I choose as a matter of experimental faith, and how I choose to act in my religious life based on my experience. I separate Jesus, the Christ, and Jesus Christ because for me they are separate. I have experienced them differently and thus I think of them differently.

I have been struggling with these relationships since my freshmen year at college in 1965. My struggle has both intensified and clarified since I started writing this blog. Writing has always been an integral and dominant aspect of my spiritual life: I find myself writing about what’s going on for me spiritually and I find myself turned back toward the Light by what it reveals as I write.

More specifically, though, in this blog I find that almost every thread I follow leads me in to the Christ. Almost every Quaker problem or concern I consider seems to have our relationship with the Christ at its heart, or at least, as a radiating epicenter of pressing unanswered questions. I have come to believe that, for liberal, post-Christian Friends, at least, these relationships—with Jesus, the Christ, and Jesus Christ—deserve a level of attention, discernment, and integrity that we do not give them, and that this negligence has become a stumbling block.

Maybe I’m just projecting. I know that I need to sort these relationships out, so here I am in this blog. I feel this need because I believe that the Religious Society of Friends is a Christian movement, and I am not a Christian by any of the five definitions I’ve felt compelled to identify, save perhaps one. So what am I doing here?

As a matter of integrity, I feel I must conduct myself as a guest in the house that Christ built. I am so grateful that I have a place here, but I am clear that Christ belongs in the master bedroom, not out on the living room couch, or in some outbuilding, where so many meetings have put him.

I feel we are a Christian movement for a lot of reasons—historical, demographic, in terms of Quaker discernment—which I won’t go into here. But the most important reason is that, according to the testimony of Friends who were there, we were gathered as a people of God by Jesus Christ. I cannot in good faith, or with integrity, gainsay their testimony. For me, that changes everything. I accept their testimony as truth.

So I feel led to offer my own testimony.

The Gathered Meeting—A Pendle Hill Pamphlet

May 1, 2017 § 1 Comment

I have been on vacation for several weeks and also not led to write anything particular lately, but I do have a bit of news: Pendle Hill has published an essay of mine on The Gathered Meeting as Pendle Hill Pamphlet number 444, published in April 2017. Here is a link to their page for the pamphlet.

Much of this pamphlet first appeared as a series of entries in Through the Flaming Sword under the Category The Gathered Meeting. Note that entries for this and other categories appear with the most recent entry at the top, so to read them in the order in which they were published, you have to start at the bottom.

In several of those entries, I found myself exploring the role of the Christ in the gathered meeting and I did not include that material in the pamphlet submission, both because of limits on the length of the piece and because those thoughts really were an exploration that evolved as I was writing and they never quite coalesced into something that felt solid and experience-based enough to trust as a contribution to the pamphlet.

I am still thinking about how we were gathered at first as a people of God by the spirit of the Christ and how we are gathered today. I think these are important questions, but the answers I have so far are useful to me, but still only an unfinished personal exploration, and in the pamphlet I wanted to be as useful to others as possible. I do plan to return to this theme of the Christ and the gathered meeting and write more about it.

The Politics of Passion Week

April 1, 2017 § 4 Comments

Easter’s coming.

One of the most evil things the Scary Clown has promised to do as president is to reinstate torture as a weapon of the state in its “homeland security” arsenal. The last president to do that, and his evil architect vice president, were both Christians. It was this insane contradiction that prompted me to start my first blog, BibleMonster.

For arguably, the most famous person to be tortured to death by an imperial power as a religious insurrectionist was Jesus. The charge for which he was crucified, which was nailed onto the cross over his head, was “King of the Jews”. The soldiers were surely laughing with sarcasm when they posted those charges, but the state took them deadly seriously, nonetheless.

For in fact those charges were true. Jesus was in insurrectionist.

He had started the week with a royal procession into the city, deliberately invoking salvationist and apocalyptic oracles from the prophet Zechariah, assuming royal accoutrements that invoked the monarchy of King David that was both idealized and rife with prophecies about return, and bringing with him a jubilant mob. Then the very next thing he does is raid the national currency exchange. He then spends the next several days leading up to the Passover feast publicly assaulting Rome and its Quisling government in Jerusalem with stories and provocative legal interpretations, then hiding away so successfully in the woods on Mount Olivet that the authorities needed an informer to find him. All this under the very noses of the Roman legionaries, who had built a fort abutting the temple precinct walls overlooking the very courts in which Jesus was staging his insurrection.

And those soldiers were not alone. The Passover season was always a time of civil and political unrest in Judea, and especially in Jerusalem, so the Romans reinforced the Jerusalem legion by bringing in the Syrian legion for the duration of the holiday. For Passover was, after all, the thanksgiving celebration of a people who had been formed as a people in the crucible of divine deliverance from slavery to empire.

The intervening millennium had not diminished the people’s memory of Egyptian slavery, or the Passover and Exodus one bit. Nor was Egypt the only empire that Yahweh had delivered them from. Jesus and his listeners remembered deliverance from Babylon some 600 years later. And just 200 years before their own time under the Maccabees, God had delivered the people from the Seleucids, the descendants of the Macedonian general who inherited the Persian Empire when Alexander the Great died. Judaism was at its core, among other things, a religion about deliverance from empire.

And here came another prophet modeling himself after that first one, Moses, a man named after the conqueror of Palestine, Joshua, whose very name was a battle cry, and deliberately taking on the mantle of their most successful and imperial king, David. Some of the people in the streets actually called him Son of David.

Jesus’s ministry was book-ended by trials. It began with his trial by the Satan in the wilderness after his baptism, and it ended with his trial before the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor. This has special resonance because Judaism as a religion is, at its core, a legal system. It is all about justice and, therefore, about judgment.

Jesus pronounces judgment on the temple-state on his way to the city at the beginning of that fateful week when he curses the fig tree for failing to bear fruit. He condemns the temple-state and the Romans with his teachings in the temple courts. He replaces the temple-state’s central religious institutions at the Last Supper. He goes out of his way to fulfill several apocalyptic prophecies in Zechariah. And he camps out on the very mountain that the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah say will be the first place to which Yahweh returns when he delivers his people the next time. That is—for Jesus—this time.

This apocalyptic expectation is a difficulty for us today that we’ll have to deal with, because it’s apparently central to Jesus’s mission in this week. But it’s worth remembering that for Jesus and his followers, that expectation was grounded in a thirteen-hundred-year-long history of prior promises of deliverance from empire—and real fulfillments. Jesus had several reasons for quoting Jeremiah in the so-called “cleansing of the temple”.

But before we get to apocalypse, I want to explore some of the events of Passion Week for their meaning in their own time and for their relevance for us today, revisiting some of the posts from a previous series. Below are links to the posts in that original series, for readers who may have found this blog after they were first published in 2016 and not know about them. Here are links to those posts, one for each day of the week, plus a couple of afterthoughts:

Why become a member?

March 29, 2017 § 4 Comments

Why would an attender apply for membership in a Quaker meeting?

In a lot of meetings I know, the only thing it gets you, really, is the privilege of serving on some new committees and maybe some more deeply internalized sense of responsibility to attend meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship, and to support the meeting financially. In a word, you’re signing up for responsibility. Not to denigrate the quite wonderful sense of belonging that membership brings for most of us, I suspect.

So we may be fairly clear about the member’s responsibilities to the meeting (or not). But what is the responsibility of the meeting to the member? This is what I want to focus on.

I think our meetings pay too little attention to their side of the covenant with members, to what they owe the members, beyond providing a roof for meeting for worship and some coffee afterwards. What does the member get out of the deal that is different from being just a faithful attender?

I think we can name with some confidence three things that meetings try to offer. I would then add a fourth, one that I think is extremely important, but I’m not so confident that we have this one covered. Meetings offer members:

  1. communion, that is, meeting for worship, the regular opportunity to share the presence of the Spirit;
  2. community, f/Friendship in the Spirit, which includes
  3. pastoral care; and (in my understanding)
  4. spiritual nurture—active, proactive, even focused nurture of spiritual gifts, opportunities for personal spiritual exploration and formation, and discernment and support of leadings and ministries.

The first three we take seriously already, though it’s not always so easy to do well. Most meetings have committees dedicated to this work and they try hard. But for all intents and purposes, we offer worship, community, and pastoral care equally to both attenders and members. Nothing here changes with the status of meeting membership.

The fourth service is the only one that we would not necessarily give to attenders in the ways that I personally desire from covenantal community—that is, meaningful engagement in one another’s spiritual/religious lives. And for me, this is one of the central missions of a Quaker meeting, one of its main reasons for existing.

For me, covenantal community means that the community is willing to engage with me, actively and proactively, in the nurture of my spiritual gifts, the support of my leadings and ministry (including my vocal ministry), and in the formation and nurture of my spiritual life in general.

It’s the proactive part that differentiates membership from “attender-ship”. I think we would not presume to get intimately involved in someone’s spiritual life without her or his express wish. Thus, the difference between being an attender and being a member is that you invite the meeting into your spiritual life, recognizing that, in the Quaker way, the spiritual life only fully flourishes in the embrace of community.

This applies to both aspects of eldership, both positive spiritual nurture and accountability. Put another way, we promise to protect the meeting’s worship and its fellowship on behalf of all its members and attenders, so that all can feel welcome, spiritually nurtured, and safe in our community. In essence, we notify members that we will hold them accountable for their negative behavior. In practical terms, this means we bring up our commitment to protect the worship and the fellowship in our clearness committees for membership.

For it’s in the clearness committee that the rubber hits the road. It is here that we ask an applicant what their spiritual life consists of and just how involved we can get in helping them put it together and deepen it. Many people come to us without a very clear idea yet of what the life of the spirit means or consists of for them. Do they want help in exploring and clarifying that? For those who are already on a fairly clear path, how can we help?

The one area that obtains for all applicants in this regard is vocal ministry. Our clearness committees should ask what the applicant thinks and feels about vocal ministry—their own in particular, and vocal ministry in general. Do they welcome our attention, support, and even correction in their vocal ministry? Do they consider it a sacred calling that deserves and even needs the community’s involvement?

All this presupposes, however, that the meeting is actually going to engage with members in the ways I’m talking about and that it is equipped to be of service in these ways. I don’t think I’ve ever known a meeting that is clear about its role in members’ spiritual lives or prepared to be proactive in the ways I’m talking about. Even my own meeting is hesitant and it has a Gifts and Leadings Committee specifically charged with with this role. Many also do not have seasoned Friends who could be good resources and mentors to others in their spiritual lives and who are also willing to serve in this way.

So, for a meeting to offer something substantive and distinguishing to attenders considering membership, the meeting must have a rather deep conversation about its mission, about its role in members’ lives. It needs to be clear with its membership care and clearness committees about what it expects of them. And it needs to be prepared to deliver on its promises if it’s going to make any in the first place.

If it does not have the spiritual and human resources to nurture its members’ spiritual lives, it needs to reach out to other meetings and to the wider Quaker network. Can it bring people in? Can it help to send members to nearby retreat centers? Can it at least hold viewings and discussion of the many great videos now available on QuakerSpeak.org, or discussion groups on Quaker readings, Pendle Hill Pamphlets, its Faith and Practice?

This, in my opinion, is an essential calling of a Quaker meeting and what we owe our members.