Daily Devotional: Called Out of Isolation into Deep Connection

all saints 2I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

interconnectedness 3

In my last note I posted on how “Give us this day our daily bread” invites us to recognize as we pray those words how deeply interconnected we are.  How our lives and the lives of others around us are intertwined.  We are intertwined not just with those like us, in our situation in life. But this intertwining includes even our lives being intertwined with those struggling under oppression, illness, ostracism, or other crushing situations who are hanging on through a fragile thread.  Most surprising is that this “us” includes those very different from us perhaps in ways we find challenging, even those who feel to us like enemies threatening our very selves.  Our lives all hang in the balance, our futures are all interconnected.

This prayer invites us into living as ones mindful of our deep interconnectedness with each other and all that live in this fragile, beautiful, yet resilient web of life that embraces not just those like us but people very unlike us and even, as Psalm 104 suggests in painting a picture of God providing  for the life of all creatures in nature, including every living thing.

This is so different than the dominant message of our culture, which teaches us to be self-made men and self-made women.  In her stunning book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, scholar and activist bell hooks explores the ways in which our culture’s messaging about what a full life looks like deeply damage individuals, particularly men, by teaching us that strength is found in radical independence, in a pull-yourself-up by the boot straps mentality in which you are taught not to need others, not to need to delve to the depths of your feelings where true human connection happens, and to look at life as a series of conquests.  She masterfully presents the process in which young boys are taught to shut down their emotions, to not let people into their inner world, and only allow themselves to express anger, frustration, and control.  This is a recipe for

isolation.  And,  though her work in The Will to Change focuses on men, this message that the full life is one of deep independence, where you say you don’t have need for connection but can blaze on through life without others, I think is also communicated by our culture to people regardless of gender.  We get this message that to be strong is to be aloof, to be in control, to be unemotional or, if we have emotion, to be those emotions society views as positive such as pride, happiness.   We are taught to shut down or hide those sides of ourselves viewed as unpalatable.  Yet to fully connect we have to be able to fully experience the depths of all of who we are and be able to be truly open, truly connected with others.

This tendency to view life’s goal as to be alone, some Thoreau in a Walden in the woods who is untouched by other’s views, blazing ahead in our own pursuits, also takes shape in popular American spirituality.  Growing up in an evangelical Christian home and attending an evangelical Christian college, a phrase that I came to know intimately was “a personal relationship with Jesus”.   This I was told was the central point of Christianity.  This “personal relationship with Jesus” is beautifully pictured by this old Gospel song:

“Well, me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

 

“Well, I know a man that once was a sinner

I know a man that once was a drunk

I know a man that once was a loser

He went out one day and made an altar right out of a stump

 

“Me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

 

“Jesus brought me through all of my troubles

Jesus brought me through all of my trials

Yes, Jesus brought me through all of my heartaches

And I know why my Jesus is gonna forsake me now

 

“’Cause me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

 

“We can’t afford any fancy preaching

We can’t afford any fancy church

We can’t afford any fancy singing

But you know Jesus got a lotta poor people out doing his work

 

“Me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

 

“Me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about”

 

Lest we pick on evangelical Christianity alone, this individualistic approach to spirituality, which says it is just about me: my beliefs, my needs, my sense of connection to what I consider Sacred, is dominant across the religious scene.  There are many liberal interconnectedness 2Protestants for whom their rejection of evangelicalism and embrace of the sort of liberal views I share with them is not about embracing a deeper connection with others and all of life but instead about pulling away from a sense of tradition, finding a way to say they have no need of anyone to dictate what their lives are like.   Outside of Christianity, we see it too.   How many people raised in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim homes are flocking to the beautiful, vibrant, and life-giving faith of Buddhism out of appreciation for the inner healing, peace, and serenity its meditation practices and rich philosophy can create while also using that very individual practice as an excuse not to connect with rich community, intentional relationships with challenging people, which is as much a part of whole-hearted Buddhist practice as it is the faiths they are leaving behind?  I am not a huge critique of the spiritual-but-not-religious movement emerging in our culture, as some are.  There are many who can find a deep spirituality better outside of organized religion , some for whom this at this moment may be their only option due to the trauma sadly the faiths of their childhoods put them through and, if it works for them, who am I to tear it down?  But here, too, there is a tendency to embrace this atomistic approach to life which was so central to the evangelicalism of my old life.  It can be a way of avoiding true connection with others in the intentional way in which religion of all stripes always calls us into when, to be truly life giving, any spiritual path even outside of organized religion requires commitment to values and ideals that are difficult to interconnectedness 4engage, as well as to intentional relationships in a circle of connection which can be challenging.  For intentional connections with others whether in churches, synagogues, and mosques or Buddhist meditation groups and ongoing non-religious spirituality circles forces you to relate to others whose views, personalities, and ways of relating are very different than your own.  Such people challenge you to truly examine how real your Christian love, obedience to torah, submission to Allah, compassion borne of enlightenment, or belief in the interconnectedness of all things (or whatever other spiritual value you believe your path opens you to) are.  It is only in the context of navigating relating genuinely to others very different from ourselves that the true work of spiritual growth can take off, for compassion is only really compassion when exercise to real people and real living things.

What does this have to do with our experience of grief, trauma, and pain?

For me at least learning the lesson that it is not just me & Jesus who can have our own thing going, for there is not personal relationship to be had with God which could be real without drawing me into a web of messy relationships with other people and other living things, though at first troubling, truly became a source of life for me.

interconnectedness 5When I lost recently my late wife Katharine, the love of my life for over a dozen years, I found in the trauma, the pain, and grief, I could not sustain a personal relationship with God or a meaningful spiritual practice.

Writing about this experience for a meditation for Lent at the church I attend, the United Church of Chapel Hill, I say:

“One of the hardest times until recently for me was when I left the evangelical denomination I was ordained by early in my career over ways I was being asked to mistreat queer people. I couldn’t do that, couldn’t believe God was a God of rejection, so I left that community at great cost. When I did, oh so many people who had promised to always stand by me, dropped out of my life – some quietly like leaves in the autumn, others with thunderous condemnations. I’ve only recently realized how for years this left me deeply wounded, struggling to trust when others say they will be there for me or accept me for who I am they would.

 

“What a surprise it was to me this October on what is now the darkest day of my life to find that, almost immediately upon walking in to find the one woman most precious to me in all the world lying dead, I was not abandoned, nor alone. In minutes, my little apartment was packed, mainly with people from this church. You folks just would not leave me alone. And thank God for that. I fully expected to fall through the cracks Kat’s passing left in my life, forgotten.

 

“I remember one day when two dear friends at this church took me into their home so I didn’t have to face this pain alone, I turned to them and said “I look and I cannot see God griefright now. I try to pray and words won’t come. But I look up and there you are. Your hands holding me up. Your voices telling me I can get through this. And that is enough. Enough of God for right now”.   I could have pointed to many others of you here and said the same. It was your friendship, your support, your compassion that were God, peace, and prayer for me when I could not find those on my own.

 

“This — God as known in community—is what I have found anew here at United Church, not just after my late wife died but even before, starting that first Sunday right after Kat began to speak clearly again after her first big stroke, when we strolled into this church and were so warmly welcomed that I remember Kat saying on the ride home to me, “We’ve found a home here”. You all were truly a home to her those last years of her life, when she was wracked in so much pain every day. You remained such a home to me after her passing.

 

“A home where I could learn to trust again that if I reach out for help, I will find it.   That Jesus’ promise God will never leave me nor forsake me is true for me in and through dear people like each of you who are God’s hands, feet, voices. For this I thank God and I thank each of you. Amen.”

 

Ultimately this is not an either/equation.  We do need a personal journey, a spiritual pilgrimage we take part in.  We do need personal spiritual practice. But when the rubber hits the road, we need others who are the “we” of this prayer.  We need the connection.

We face times in which the darkness is too great.  We face moments when the weight of the world and our lives are so heavy we can barely stand.   We need in those moments arms to hold us up, voices to remind us we can get through.   These will come if we embrace community as a way to move forward.  These will come at times through very unlikely people.  But those deep connections are where life can be borne in the midst of death, joy found in the midst of sorrow, hope found in the moments of despair.

The reality of the spirituality borne of such openness to me better reflects not “Me and Jesus, We Have Our Own Thing Going”, but rather the moving Gospel Song “I Need You To Survive”

“[Chorus: x2]

I need you

You need me

We’re all a part of God’s body

Stand with me

Agree with me

We’re all a part of God’s body

It is his will that every need be supplied

You are important to me

I need you to survive [x2]

 

“I pray for you

You pray for me

I love you

I need you to survive

I won’t harm you

With words from my mouth

I love you

I need you to survive

[Repeat]

 

“It is his will that every need be supplied

You are important to me

[All:]

I need you to survive”

Realizing this calls me to put aside the defense that years of experience, cultural messaging, and my traumas & heartaches teach me to have up.  They call me to let the pain I face not just break my heart, but break it open to others.  They invite me to reach out in my pain, expecting that as in Hogwarts, help will come for those who ask.

It also calls me when I pass through to the other side of my heartache, of my deep pains, to truly remember I remain interconnected in this web of life.   To look for where other hurting, struggling, people are.  To be the one willing to say “I see you.  I am here for you.  You do not have to journey alone”.

If you have been through the dark valley as I have, whatever shape that darkness and that valley took, you know the difference those who walked with you were.  Let us choose to embrace them when they come and to be them for others.  In doing so we not only pray but answer these words of Christ.

Let it be so this day.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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