Embracing Our Original Blessing

meditateIn a previous post, I spoke about the need to learn to make peace with and embrace our deepest selves in order to be freed to fully embrace others, particularly those different from us, including those our society teaches us to see as too strange or on the fringes and even those we experience as adversary.
We discussed the practice of meditation and prayer modeled by spiritual leaders like Henri Nouwen and the Dalai Lama as showing a way in which being present with ourselves can help us learn to transform fear, pain, alienation, into compassion.
While reflecting on my own journey to more fully embrace the depth of who I am and the ways this has helped me more readily embrace those different from or even harsh with me and those I care about, I heard the following song by one of my favorite progressive southern voices, Rev. Meg Barnhouse. Meg is a folk singer and also a Unitarian-Universalist pastor in Texas.
Her song goes,
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“Told us we were born
With a wicked sin inside
But told us it was pride
That I was born of love
Momma and daddy smiled at their sweet baby child

mother holding baby 1

“And I was born just fine the first time
No stain upon my heart
It was state of the art
Don’t need to be born again
Neither do you my friend
You were precious from the start

“Said your body is unclean
Your heart will steer you wrong
You shouldn’t be too strong
Surrender to the Word
Don’t ask it to make sense
You will lose your innocence

gay couple baby

“I was born just fine the first time
No stain upon my heart
It was state of the art
Don’t need to be born again
Neither do you my friend
You were precious from the start

“They said a loving father
Had killed his only son
Because of something I had done
And I deserved to burn in hell
For being born to earth
Unless I had a second birth

“Yeah, I was born just fine the first time
No stain upon my heart
It was state of the art
Don’t need to be born again
Neither do you my friend
You were precious from the start”

“Inside my heart’s a spark
Of divinity
The truth has set me free
And I can feel my spirit dance
When I’m in love with the light
That shines love back on me bright
“I was born just fine the first time
No stain upon my heart
It was state of the art
Don’t need to be born again
Neither do you my friend
You were precious from the start”

lovingkindness-pic

For some, these words of Barnhouse’s, which I find some liberated and liberating, might cause them to flinch. I know if I had heard them ten years ago, I would have flinched. What does she mean “I was born just fine the first time … Don’t need to be born again”? What about Jesus’ admonition in John 3 that we must be born again if we might seen the kingdom of God?
In actual fact, the sort of realization Barnhouse describes in her song is exactly the type of mother and foetusexperience Jesus talks about. Jesus describes a returning into the womb of life, not the earthly womb of our physical mothers, but the womb of the Holy Spirit. Such a return is a putting aside of the wounds and damages of life which warp our consciousness so, through a messy and painful process like labor and childbirth is (just ask any woman who has given birth!), we can come out seeing the world with fresh eyes, a new perspective. We can see life with the simplicity of a child. When we do that, when we lay aside the false and damaging messages we have let shape us from childhood on and truly begin to see ourselves and others as we really are, only then can really see ourselves as we are from God’s eyes. Only then can we see how we fit into God’s working in the world, which is what Jesus means when he says “kingdom of God” in the Gospels, not heaven alone.
You can see this in how this teaching of Jesus is rendered in the other Gospels we have preserved for us in the Scriptures. While John, in his regular deeply poetic and mystical way, uses this extended metaphor of returning to the womb to undergo a rebirthing through the messiness and pain of labor, now not of water breaking but of being broken open by Spirit, the other Synoptic Gospels all have a simpler saying of Jesus: unless we become as little children, we cannot enter this kingdom and find our place in God’s working in our lives and world. (Compare Matthew 19; Mark 10; Luke 18).
Ironically Barnhouse’s words invite us to the exact kind of experience Jesus describes – a change in our awareness, seeing ourselves and others with new eyes – rather than discounting Jesus’ words. Yet she playfully draws on Jesus’ words as a way of illustrating the misuse of Jesus’ words by some who embrace a radical and damaging approach to original sin not found in Jesus’ words.
This approach, grounded in the teaching of St. Augustine was pretty foreign to Christianity augustine of hippobefore Augustine came onto the scene and in fact is denied by the Eastern Orthodox Church and many modern Protestant traditions. Augustine and those who followed after him taught that we enter into this world already damaged. Through our parents and their parents before, going back to Adam and Eve, we all enter this world with a nature that is sick, so that there is no good in us. Even our most basic impulses are wrong, so we cannot trust our own desires. Our basic nature has to be changed from how we enter the world by a born again experience, a mystical encounter only some ever experience.
I grew up with such an approach to theology in the various traditions that shaped my development as a Christian. In that background, you learn to not trust your own feelings, to assume your deepest self is not in fact good but broken. Listening to your heart will lead you toward certain temptation. Even your body will betray you, for isn’t that where sexual desire comes from?
You learn to view daily life as a battle against your basic desires, where you fight to fit an image of what a holy or good person is that may never fit you. You learn to treat your dreams and hopes as temptations of the devil or your “fallen sin nature” unless they fit the rigid doctrine of your church.
I learned over years of such tradition a distrust of my body, of my feelings, and of my hopes and dreams. I learned that God called me to sacrifice who I am in order that I might please God.
I learned such an approach to life among Adventists, evangelicals, and charismatics, but I feel like this approach is critiqued as it rears its head in a variety of Christian tradition in the song “Turn it Off” from “The Book of Mormon: The Musical”:
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book-of-mormon

“I got a feelin’
That you could be feelin’
A whole lot better than you feel today

“You say you got a problem
Well, that’s no problem
It’s super easy not to feel that way

“When you start to get confused
Because of thoughts in your head
Don’t feel those feelings
Hold them in instead

“Turn it off
Like a light switch
Just go click
It’s a cool little Mormon trick
We do it all the time

light-switch

“When you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t seem right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light

“And turn ’em off
Light a light switch
Just go back
Really, what’s so hard about that
Turn it off
Turn it off

 

Child Abuse Statistics

When I was young my dad
Would treat my mom real bad
Everytime the Utah Jazz would lose
He’d start a drinkin’
And I’d start a thinkin’
How’m I gonna keep my mom from getting abused

“I’d see her all scared and my soul was dyin’
My dad would say to me, “Now don’t you dare start cryin'”

“Turn it off
Like a light switch
Just go flick
It’s our nifty little Mormon trick
Turn it off
Turn it off

dancing near god

“My sister was a dancer
But she got cancer
The doctor said she still had two months more
I thought she had time
So I got in line
For the new iPhone at the Apple Store

“She lay there dying with my father and mother
Her very last words were, “Where is my brother?”

“Turn it off (yeah)
Bid those sad feelings adieu
The fear that I might get cancer, too

gay couple

“When I was in fifth grade
I had a friend, Steve Glade
He and I were close as two friends could be
One thing led to another
And soon I would discover
I was having really strange feelings for Steve

“I thought about us on a deserted island
We’d swim naked in the sea and then he’d try and…

“Woah!

“Turn it off
Like a light switch
There, it’s gone (good for you)
My hetero side just won
I’m all better now

“Boys should be with girls
That’s Heavenly Father’s plan
So if you ever feel you’d rather be with a man
Turn it off

prayer-hands

“Well, Elder McKinley, I think it’s okay that you’re having gay thoughts, just so long as you never act upon them.

“No
’cause then you’re just keeping it down
Like a dimmer switch on low
Thinking nobody needs to know
But that’s not true
Being gay is bad but lyin’ is worse
So just realize you have a curable curse
And turn it off
Turn it off
Turn it off

“Now how do you feel?

“The same.

“Then you’ve only got yourself to blame
You didn’t pretend hard enough
Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes
And find the box that’s gay and CRUSH IT!
Okay?

crushed-bo

“No, no, I’M not having gay thoughts.

“Alright, it worked!

“Turn it off
Turn it off
Turn it off
Like a light switch
Just go click (click click)
What a cool little Mormon trick (trick trick)
We do it all the time

“When you’re feeling certain feelings that don’t seem right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light

“Turn it off
Like a light switch on a cord
Now he’s isn’t gay any…

“Turn it
Turn it
Turn it off”

Within all traditions, such misapplications of the stories of faith which draw us together can lead us to deny our deepest selves, heap shame upon ourselves.
matthew-foxThe harmful effects of teaching people to live such divided lives is well described by Matthew Fox in his book Original Blessing,
“…an exaggerated doctrine of original sin, one that is employed as a starting point for spirituality, plays kindly into the hands of empire-builders, slavemasters, and patriarchal society in general. It divides and therefore conquers, pitting one’s thoughts against one’s feelings, one’s body against one’s spirit, one’s political vocation against one’s personal needs, people against earth, animals, and nature in general. By doing this it so convolutes people, so confuses and preoccupies them, that deeper questions about community, justice, and celebration never come to the fore. Blessings is politically dangerous; the art of savoring is politically suspect; pleasure is too often a route to sharing the pleasure – which is justice-making; justice-making conjures up passionate criticism of what is. [For] … ‘As a rule it was the pleasure-haters who became unjust.’ The prophets and others who disturbed the status quo did not seek only justice. They sought blessing, blessing for the many, not just for the few.”

Fox goes onto argue, not for dispensing entirely with the tradition of original sin, but for a reframing it with original blessing as its centerpiece. Original blessing is a recognition of Psalm 139 and Genesis 1. Genesis 1 tells us that in each thing God made, God turned to them with the loud and vocal proclamation not they were damaged, broken, wrong, and bent on evil but instead that they were good, very good. Psalm 139 appropriates this language not just to the world as created long ago, in the beginning, but to each of us today. We are invited by Psalm 139 to pray to God saying that we thank God that we individually were fearfully and wonderfully made, when knit together in our mother’s wombs.

broodyspirit1Original blessing is embracing who we are at heart as good, carriers in our uniqueness, of the image of Christ.
Framed in this way, we cannot be understood as at heart, in our truest selves, as wrong, sinful, broken. Such language in Scripture can be seen as hyperbolic, a description of how warped we can become in our thinking and attitudes when we lose our way.
Rather than meaning we enter the world damned to hell, unable to do any good thing, with a sin nature that must be radically changed, original sin can be re-framed as talking about our shared experience of becoming damaged or broken by life.

As Pia Melody spoke of in the excerpt of The Intimacy Factor I shared earlier and as bell hooks described in her book The Will to Change, our society does damage us early on. What wounds and warped perceptions we might take into life that we must again and again take back into the womb to come out seeing ourselves and the world fresh, as Jesus challenges us in John 3, occur before we have any choice or say. God does not, as Augustine and others in his tradition posited, hold us guilty for such brokenness nor does it either condemn us to eternities of torment. It does not mean we can never do good. Rather, such experiences get us out of touch with our own essential goodness, the ways in which we enter life as bearers of the likeness and image of Christ.
Baptism-of-ChristThe work of grace in us is to help us begin to heal that breach such warped messages about ourselves and world, which are often coupled with traumatic experiences such as abuse, molestation, and discrimination, bring. It is a restoring of our own awareness of our original blessedness, our ability to see ourselves as good, very good; and also ourselves as fearfully and wonderfully made. It is a reclaiming of the promise of baptism in which we are reminded that what is said over Jesus in the Gospels is true for us: before we have done anything good or bad, before we could ever deserve it and despite anything we have ever done or had done to us to make us believe it cannot be true, God already says of us: “This One, this One right here, is my child. This one is the one I love. This one is the one in whom I am well pleased”, not because of anything they have done or will do. But because of who they are: God’s very own child. Or, as Barnhouse says, The Creator’s “sweet baby child, … precious from the start”.
Learning this about ourselves frees us to live life more fully. But it also frees us to embrace others around us. For, as Tutu said in the quotes I shared from No Future Without Forgiveness, it prevents us from buying into the idea that those who are different than us are truly outsiders of this grace that fills the universe and embraces every creature, or that those who harm us or others are moral monsters. No, they – like us – share in a spark of goodness.
Whether you buy completely into Fox’s language of original blessing or not, such a call to recognize ourselves as bearers of sacred worth and others as bearers of the same in whatever way your experience & beliefs allow, is necessary in learning to fully embrace others and ourselves.
How have you made this journey?
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Micah

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