Daily Devotional: What Have I Ever Lost by Dying?

letter writingSo today I begin fresh content on my blog.

My daily readings I post have always been written for me, then cleaned up for others.   I write what I am getting spiritually out my meditations so that it might help others grow.

I am doing that now, but I know that what I’m about to share is not for everyone.

For right now I am in the pit of grief.  At times I see light over the horizon.  But at times it is only darkness and shadows.   For those who don’t know, on October 23, 2015, I walked in to find my beloved wife of 12 years not breathing.  Despite all I or the paramedics did, she has not breathed since.

This has been heart-wrenching and traumatic.  So now my spiritual journal is a journey through grief.

I invite you to join me in it, but I understand that it is not for all of you.  When you have been touched by grief, you can find solace in other’s journeys.  But at those points in my life in which such agony had not touched my soul, I pulled back from the site of it.

I am calling this series of posts, however long they run – and they will run until I feel I am done – “What Have I ever lost from dying?”

This  one of my favorite poems of Rumi, written after the unexpected rumi quote 2death of his soul-mate and dear friend (if not lover) Shams.   It is one that may not be helpful for anyone, but since I encountered it shortly before Kat’s death it created a frame for Kat’s death that is helpful to me.  I like to imagine Kat “soaring past the angels” now when I can as Rumi describes the one who dies. I have let these words give me courage as I face into the many daily deaths of life in grief, life lived in the midst of the emptiness her passing leaves me. Yet its question “What have I ever lost from dying?” is what I feel I confront in my grief. Unlike Rumi in this poem, I find I have lost much in this death of grief, when my dear love has gone.   But I do find I am learning, gaining, becoming new through this journey. So I can understand its hope that in my dying God may open up to new life.   I pray that my sharing my journey with some of you will help you find new life along your pilgrimage of grief, trauma, loss, and new beginning.

Here is Rumi’s beautiful words:

galaxies“I spent millions of years in the world of inorganic things as a star, as a rock…

Then I died and became a plant–

Forgetting my former existence because of its otherness

Then I died and became an animal–

Forgetting my life as a plant except for inclinations in the season of spring and sweet herbs–

like the inclination of babes toward their mother’s breast

mother with baby in lead sunsetThen I died and became a human

My intelligence ripened, awakening from greed and self-seeking to become wise and knowing

I behold a hundred thousand intelligences most marvelous and remember my former states and inclinations

AngelAnd when I die again I will soar past the angels to places I cannot imagine

Now, what have I ever lost by dying?”

May you find new life in all of your dyings.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Daily Devotional: Answering God’s Call to Be Prophets of a Better World

john baptizerMatthew 3:1-12

I always find the picture of John the Baptizer in the Gospels a striking one. To me he is the quintessential prophet.   His life pictures the life of the prophet in every age and time:

First his message transcends religion. We see this in who records and remembers it. Early Christians wrote the Gospels telling the life of Jesus which necessarily include the life of Jesus’ mentor John the Baptizer.   Though we don’t know if they viewed themselves as a different religion than the Judaism John practiced when they wrote the Gospels, very quickly Christianity became its own religion. Today it is mainly Christians following the life of John the Baptizer. But also I find Muslims also read the story of Jesus, as they revere him as a prophet, and are drawn into John’s story.

john baptizer 3A prophet’s message transcends the bounds of the organized religion of their day. The have insights through mystical encounter with God which reveal religion to be what it is: a set of props. Masks used to represent and point to the face of God, without being the face itself.   Rituals which act like plays, re-enacting the move of God in history to help point us to the movement of God in our lives, but which if they do not do so are just so many empty gestures.   Prayers that, yes, can invite us to deep encounter with the Sacred in our whole lives and the Sacred in others but which also can be just hot air which we blow out in our fancy words in order to weave a barrier to hide from our eyes and the eyes of others our moral emptiness.

And so John can up-end religious tradition, calling people who have gone through the motions of the worship of Judaism their whole lives into the bathing ritual reserved for those who are converting to faith in the God of Scripture and Israel from lives empty of knowledge of this God.   It is a powerful statement that moving through the motions is not enough, without in our own hearts and lives having that reality birthed.

In every faith and culture those raised up by God as prophets have brought such a message. In Islam, I cannot but think of Rumi who in his stirring poetry raised an image of God as Divine Love that draws all rumi quotepeople & creation into union. In language reminiscent of John’s language of fiery judgment on religion, this Muslim mystic said he to not look for God in mosques and temples: they do not on their own hold God as a dwelling, for if God does not dwell in your own heart God is not there but if you through faith discover God in your own God you can see God anywhere. It reminds me of the words of Kierkegaard who questioned who was truly experiencing God – the dignified worshipper of Christ at church who voiced all the “right” words of faith on Sunday morning but whose heart remained untouched or the one who worshipped the idols of non-Biblical faiths which his contemporaries viewed as superstition but did so with the intensity of infinity?   He was suggesting a reality behind the outward symbols of religion which those religious symbols point to, which is what we are invited to encounter and yet without which the symbols are all empty, pointless.

This prophetic vision calls for a life of social justice. When Matthew quotes Isaiah about making paths straight, it is a prophecy of God working through individuals to create a great levelling. Every age has its rumi quote 2great haves and have-not’s, where the resources of life which God gives to be freely and equally available to all now are held in the ownership and power of a select few.   One cannot stand on the heap of the pyramid of human life without crushing someone – usually many someones – underfoot.   This vision of Isaiah in whose steps John walks is one we see expressed in many other prophets in our time. I think of St Hildegard of Bingen who broke with the convention of the Middle Ages which, against the Biblical example of women preachers like Deborah and Priscilla and Junia, told women they most be quiet and not speak out. In that world, Hildegard publically preached, proclaiming the insight her mystical encounters with Christ gave her, envisioning a world where humanity joins the Holy Spirit in Her mothering work of greening all creation not forcibly ripping its resources in a rape-like way from the Earth’s body. She cried out against the men of her day who used power as nobles and as church leaders to crush underfoot the poor and in so doing the torment the earth and the greening Holy Spirit who dwells within all life.   I think of Gandhi who called for a radical reorganization of life in India where empire ended and all women & men are recognized as equal and equally bearers of the divine. I think

Servant of God Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and its newspaper, The Catholic Worker, is depicted in a stained-glass window at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in the Staten Island borough of New York. Day was received into the Catholic church at Our Lady Help of Christians in 1927 at age 30. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) (Dec. 21, 2012) See DAY-SAINT and DAY-LIFE Dec. 21, 2012.

Servant of God Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and its newspaper, The Catholic Worker, is depicted in a stained-glass window at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in the Staten Island borough of New York. Day was received into the Catholic church at Our Lady Help of Christians in 1927 at age 30. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) (Dec. 21, 2012) See DAY-SAINT and DAY-LIFE Dec. 21, 2012.

of Dorothy Day who called out for recognition of workers as not deserving being crushed under foot by the wealthy captains of industry. I think of Dr. King and Desmond Tutu who called for an end to racial oppression by means of systems of segregation, oppression, and marginalization. John like them speaks out against the system of economic oppression inherent in the Roman rule and the religious practitioners of his day who had to accommodate this oppression in order to keep their place in society.

This flows from an alternate vision of the world, in which the power structures and patterns of piety are revealed to be empty and toxic when removed from a connection with Spirit that produces justice. And so John sees a vision of a blazing fire coming soon to tear down the structures of society, revealing their emptiness and also revealing new ground upon which a new world can build.   Although such prophet’s words can be misunderstood into a kind of apocalypticism which makes people fear the end of the world and life itself, in truth the judgment is never so much against people and the end never of all life but always the end is of the structures and systems which destroy life, destroy harmony and community, and oppress.   In this way John’s vision is like Martin Luther King’s dream. A dream of universal brotherhood and sisterhood unites them all – and all true prophets of God – but the way to such brotherhood and sisterhood coming is a tearing down of every barrier to them. That always feels like fire and destruction, for it comes at the pain of laying aside cherished beliefs, practices, systems, and ways of relating.   Those will fall – either through us willingly embracing personal and social change or through them falling by collapsing on their own weight. For structures built on the few thriving on the pain of the many are not sustainable.

The way forward is modeled by John and by many of the prophets of history. The way forward is a path of downward mobility, of renunciation. John lives is a man of the wilderness, living off the land, and not buying into the structures of wealth and power. Yet his father is a well to do priest, who works as a part of the temple establishment which survives by accommodating religion to allow for Roman oppression and for ripping off the poor.   John had to give up comfort, give up stability, give up many treasured aspects of his life, to be able to receive this vision of unity, harmony, which his experience of God gave him.

The same has been true of other prophets as well.   Francis of Assisi’s vision of God was actualized by renouncing a life of wealth, living among the poor as one who is poor.   Jesus gives up the work of his earthly father of a carpenter to become a wandering preacher, living among the poor of Palestine. The Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment only after giving up the wealth and security of nobility.

john baptizer 2The path John paves calls and challenges us all. It is not that all of us must become poor, but rather we must be willing to lay aside our securities. Our notions of ought and right. You see, we are part of the problem, a part of what keeps the universal vision of the prophets which Jesus called the realm or kingdom of God from bursting forth – a vision of universal human brotherhood & sisterhood, of lives that heal the earth, of creativity rather than chaos & violence. We hold onto notions and practices that support systems of oppression, patterns of marginalization, and ways of destroying life itself.   The many who choose to be baptized by John do not enter lives in the wilderness as John does but they commit to begin to change their pattern of life, so that in small and big ways they start to create tiny ripples of healing in the world.

We have to do the same. It might be hard to quit only having friendships of people like us, but if we put aside our commitment to feel safe a little bit and build friendships with people in a different class, of a different race or religion, of a different sexuality or gender expression than our own, we will come to see ourselves & our world differently. If we choose to put away the rhetoric of violence or war, trying to learn the practices of peacemaking in our small ways we might not stop armed conflict, but we might add push to the voices calling for less armed conflict in the world and create a space of safety in our families, our homes, our offices, our schools.

I could go on.

But the call of Acts 2 is that all of us can like John become prophets in our own small ways, by pushing beyond the outward forms of religion to encounter Spirit for ourselves both within ourselves and also outside – in nature, and in others. We can be voices calling for the building of a better world here and now, and hands and feet of God working to make small changes to build that better world.

That’s a call worth hearing. It’s worth answering. Let’s do our small part today.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: The Thin Places of the Heart

revelation throne room 3Isaiah 57:15 speaks so to my heart this morning. The Lord tells Isaiah and through Isaiah each of us that God both dwells in the high and holy places of this world and also, most especially, in the humble and open heart.   Probably Isaiah had in mind the courts of the temple, resplendent with wealth and glory, where worshippers will gather from miles away by the thousands.   Isaiah first felt God’s presence in the vision of God as king high and lifted up, surrounding by the shining host of heaven, in just such a place.

I think we all have holy places, what the Celtics called “thin spaces”, where we feel particularly close to God. It may be a temple like Isaiah, a church where we go where we are open to an awareness with God. I’d never thought I had such a feeling of thin spaces in church buildings but instead felt more of a nearness to God in nature until calvarymethodist_032811I returned with my wife to a church we worshipped at during a particular trying transition in my life, Calvary Methodist in Durham. It is a quaint but beautiful little church that when we worshipped at had a special outreach to gay and lesbian couples, where old wise saints of decades wrapped their arms around gay youth in loving embrace.   I worshipped there at a time I had felt called into a new ministry of such welcome only to have it fall apart, seemingly unfinished, at great personal cost. That church was a place of healing for me, where Kat and I could renew our relationship to each other, where I could lick my wounds and heal my soul, and also where I could see the vision of church as a community where all are welcome was not a pipe dream but could be a reality, for though not perfect Calvary was doing its best to be just that.   When we re-visited that church, I felt the Spirit like the quiet cool pitter patter of rain breaking out on a hot summer day all about me. I felt my heart open up and knew I was in a thin space for me, a place my heart opened to God.

The Blue Ridge ParkwayI find this too when I go to the hills and mountains of Appalachia. There is something to sitting overlooking rolling hills in every direction, seeing yourself astride on rocks which share space with clouds, which makes you realize how large life is, and how tiny. Whenever I get to go to the mountains as I did last October and will again this for our church’s retreat at Blowing Rock Assembly grounds, I find myself opening to God in all of my senses, as if they are made alive by some spiritual electricity in the air.

These thin spaces are not any more holy than anywhere else, for we know a God who lives in, through, with, and under all things. This God is always nearer than the air that we breathe, closer than the sunshine on our shoulders.   But we are not always open to this. These thin spaces are places where we are able to stop, to pause, to interrupt our routines because of how different the places are and truly see. We see what is always true, but which is made shockingly evident by the way the location opens us up to the ever-present Truth we know as the living Christ.

It is easy to think God is only there, with us, in holy places. Yet Isaiah says, no, God most especially dwells always, rumi quote 2ever, in the heart of one open, humble, pliant to God.   This saying reminds me of a saying Sufi mystic and prophet Rumi. He said a challenging and sometimes misunderstood statement – forget the mosques and temples, he said, for God does not dwell there. If God does not dwell already in your own heart, you will not find God in those temples; but if God does dwell in your heart, you will find God wherever you look.   As most prophets, Rumi did not mean literally temples or mosques do not matter, but rather what counts is an open heart. For those open to God in each moment, they can find God within their life in every rumi quoteexperience. For me, this is the goal of the spiritual life: to open my awareness to that of God in each moment, in each place, in each person.

I’d love to hear from you how you find God in each moment, in each person, in your life.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah