Monday, March 24, 2008

Book Review - I'd Say Yes God, If I knew what you wanted

The title alone made this book intriguing. The concept of the book was timely as I go through a time in my life requiring spiritual discernment. I found the book an easy read. The book described a broad range of discernment techniques. I also feel the personal stories added a dimension that allowed one to better understand how each discernment process might be experienced. I enjoyed the balance of stories about historically known figures and people I will never know. It is a reminder that all people’s stories and experiences are important and a learning experience. Too often we go without ever hearing about the heroic stories of individuals’ spiritual journeys’. If nothing else this book is a reminder that we are not alone in this quest and that each person travels their own journey in a unique way.

I have tried a number of the discernment techniques described in the book. In particular, I have found the labyrinth to be a particularly powerful discernment practice. Our church created a full sized labyrinth, and out of respect for the work everyone did, I walked it. I really did not expect to gain anything from it. Yet in every step, I found a metaphor for life. Do we take shortcuts? Do we finish what we start? How do we avoid obstacles? Where we are heading? Life has some twists and turns and we need to continue to see where it leads. More importantly, the labyrinth is where I connected with the divine. It is something that is unexplainable to me even to this day. Possibly it is the focused nature of the activity. Over time, what I have found is that I can connect to the divine anywhere and at any time, if I open myself up to it. I still go back and walk the labyrinth on a periodic basis. Each time it re-focuses my attention to the divine.

Another technique of discernment I have used is journaling. When I started journaling I did not consciously realize it was for discernment. When I started I just wanted to express my ideas and thoughts on my experiences in life. As I wrote, I just let it flow from my mind (onto the computer). The more I did this, the more my thoughts flowed and the more self aware I became of who I was, how came to be who I was and why I thought what I thought. I think the dangerous thing about understanding the will of God, that even the author recognizes is that even psychotic murderers believe they are following the will of God. I think the reason I find the technique of journaling satisfying and enjoyable, is because it satisfies my psychological intellect that there is reason behind my journey, not just a mystical feeling. I think this speaks to the issue also that we must not rely on just one discernment technique. There is a need for both the mystical and the rational in our discernment process. I often find it interesting to go back and look at what I wrote a year or five years ago and to see what has and has not changed in my thought process.

I have also over the years had a meditation practice. When I have been disciplined in following my meditation consistently, I find myself more at peace, and more open to hearing God’s will. Another form of discernment that I use which I do not recall reading in the book is the arts. I have found the arts to be a great stimulus to better understand ourselves and the world around us. Particularly movies (and theatre to a smaller degree) have become the new storytellers in our society. These stories frame moral questions and issues that ask us to question our beliefs on certain issues. These stories allow us to see ourselves in the roles of these characters and make us question who we want to emulate, how we want to live our lives, and what we consider right and wrong.

There were many stories in the book that I found inspiring. In particular, Doug Seeley’s story on page 51-55, under the concept of Divinity loves Diversity was very moving. His struggle to understand and accept that there was something greater than our individual intellect that is active in this world resonated with me. It talked of the Oneness of the Universe and the connectedness of all things. . As I was reading this story, I really related to it and then at the end when I read he was a Unitarian I just smiled.

I think Doug Seeley’s story touched on another issue that is very important as well. The issue of synchronicity of the universe versus trusting your own instincts can be a conflict. Other stories in the book spoke of times when other people gave advice that related to their discernment but was ultimately in conflict with what the individual was feeling. Synchronicity is a challenging concept. It defies reason. In my life, when I look for it or become aware of it, I can say it does exist. I do not believe that life is a sequence of events that randomly happen. I believe life is causal in nature. Yet receiving a message (verbal or visual) or meeting a person at a critical time with no apparent connection happens. We all look for signs. We want to believe there is a reason for everything that happens. Sometimes this can lead to superstition, rationalization and wishful thinking. So as always, I look for balance. I open myself to the synchronicity of the universe without accepting it blindly. I analyze the messages I receive and make them a part of my decision making process.

I liked the comment from Rebecca’s story on page 175 that “if it doesn’t feel or seem right for you, wait. God will find other methods to inform you” and “God will keep working with us until we get the message.” Also in Catherine’s Story on 187 it states “God would be with me whatever road I took” was very comforting. Yet in the end discernment isn’t always (and shouldn’t) be a comforting experience. It should force us to face our deepest inner self with the goal of helping us shape our lives. I also believe there has to be a balance between ongoing discernment and discernment paralysis.

I believe discernment is an ongoing process. We must however at some point make a decision, commit to it, and act. Ultimately making decisions about our lives and acting on them needs to be the focus of our discernment. If we stay on the fence too long through indecision, although we may not fall (fail), we will never grow.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Thoughts on Salvation

Thoughts on Salvation.

Just finished Joel Green’s book “Salvation” Not exactly light bedtime reading, but certainly lots of food for thought, especially for a divinity student.

My biggest challenge with the Christian idea of salvation is that only through Christ can people be saved. I guess it depends on the definition of what Christ means. Does it mean only through love and peace, and connection to the interrelated universe? Or does it mean literally accepting that the physical person/God Jesus died for our sins. The latter just does not resonate intuitively with me. I have met people who I believe are peaceful, loving people that I have to believe if there is a heaven, they will enter it. Does anyone believe that the Dali Lama will not be granted access to heaven because he has not accepted Jesus as his personal savior.

On the one extreme of course is atheism which believes that we live eternally by the works we do and how they affect the world after we have left. Whether true or not, I do believe we are always apart of what we have created while we were here for good or bad. On the extreme of salvation theology are the radical Universalists who believed everyone was saved upon death. This created controversy even within Universalism, as many felt it gave people too much leeway to act indiscriminately in this world without consequences.

I did like many of the concepts that Green put forward, in particular that we find salvation within community. It is an interesting question, as our society is often besieged by messages of personal relationship with Jesus (God) and personal salvation. Yet I think of all the twelve step programs are with groups of people. People have historically always grouped together to achieve their desired end. The question is what is the desired end. I think when all people have the common end of creating a loving, just and righteous world then we will have heaven on earth. The point Green makes is that the purpose of community is to bring people to consciously change their thinking to bring this about. Can it be done differently? What if everyone in the world just meditated peacefully? Not sure of the answer to that, but I can say there is a difference meditating in a group versus meditating individually. There is a certain energy that is created by being with others in a common practice. It is unexplainable to me logically, and I can only speak to my personal experience about this but I find it to be true. Ultimately I believe life is about creation. Do our actions end in creating a more just world. The point of this whole intellectual thought process is if it ends up in action towards creation of heaven on earth. (Interesting that the saying creates the acronym HOE – a garden implement for digging, weeding, turning over the soil. We need to dig deep within ourselves, and turn ourselves over to create this. I am sure I am not the first person to come up with this, but I see future sermon out of it!!).

I thought Green’s comment that “to transform the imagination is to transform human existence.” I actually like this concept although it has elements of new age philosophy within it. I do not think we can just self actualize what ever we are thinking. I do believe though that if we think we can do something, we are more likely to be successful than if we don’t think we can do something. I also think that we often are not aware of what we are capable of, and thus we have to stretch and test our boundaries to find that answer. This to me is also the concept of jumping into the abyss. It is the unknown. Often we fear the abyss, but really what we fear is the unknown. I think this speaks to our fear of God as well. Even Green says on page 106 “Disclosure of the will of God meant standing at the threshold of fresh ways of conceiving God’s work, and stepping across it”.

Salvation theology really is something that is created because we fear the unknown of what will happen when we die. We also are trying to understand why we are suffering in this world, especially when we often see apparent injustice all around us. Salvation is human’s way to deal with this. Again what are we being saved from. Sin? Sin is redefined generation by generation, society by society. Doesn’t this speak to the relative nature of what sin is? I ask the question of myself, is there an absolute sin, just as we ask are there absolute truths. To me, sin is separating myself from the reality that I am inter- connected to the universe. I realize that everything I do has consequences to everything else in creation. When I forget this, my actions can result in harm to others. This to me is sin.

Green speaks of forgiveness as well as part of salvation. I find this meaningful as it brings me back to the liturgy of Yom Kippur. Forgiving others for their sins against us. Asking others to forgive us for our sins against them. Forgiving ourselves. I think this is an important part of salvation.

What do I believe in the end. I think we intuitively know right from wrong. I agree this can be also be taught right from wrong within community. Of course the challenge is that different communities think different things are right and wrong. When we all come to the same realization, (of course I think if everyone agrees with me J, but really I mean when we understand our place in the universe) we will know peace. This may never happen in a hundred more lifetimes, but each generation (or each lifetime) we should try to move closer to this. (I wasn’t thinking of reincarnation when I wrote that, but really upon re-reading it, it has that ring to it) When we align ourselves with the universes will for ourselves, that is when we will find peace within. We must constantly educate ourselves, and learn and evolve. We must work towards creating a peaceful loving world. We are not perfect. But we need to work towards perfection. Even if we never reach it, even if we know we will never reach it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I believe in a benevolent universe, so maybe that is grace. I believe in my heart, if I try to live a good life and harm no others, if there is a heaven, I will go there, whether I believe in the deity named Jesus, Buddha (not technically a deity, but you know what I mean), Yahweh, Allah or Zeus.

In the end, hopefully I will find out when I die, or maybe not.