“Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Eleven years ago while taking a break from driving, sitting at a Midwest truck-stop, watching TV on my satellite connection, this breaking news story darkened my soul like nothing else in recent memory. As a young boy I had attended public school with Amish boys and girls, I lived in communities where the clop-clop of Amish buggies passing by was a normal everyday occurrence, my family shopped at the grocery store with Amish families. Their way of life was fascinating to me. How could they follow such a simple lifestyle eschewing modern conveniences and still be the happiest people I knew? I greatly envied their humility and dedication to the community of believers which they chose to follow.
Even today as I write this, my eyes well up with tears. Innocent schoolgirls gunned down execution style by a madman. On October 2, 2006 I cried like a baby for several hours. My driving partner could not console me, my prayers would not stop the tears, the God of my understanding had deserted me. Five killed. Others injured. The young boys who had been herded outside stood by helplessly as their schoolmates inside screamed while shot after shot was fired.
“For the sake of Christ, my God, they were children! Why?” That’s all my mind could process until later in the day when the news reported a statement from the Amish elders of that community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, “We forgive the gunman.”
Oh my God! These simple, peace-loving men and women, having suffered the most horrific of crimes perpetrated against them, immediately turn a most hateful act of violence against innocent children into an opportunity to show the world what Jesus expected of them. “Forgive him, Father, for he did not know what he was doing.”
Could I have forgiven? If my little girl was one of those standing in front of the blackboard with her back to the gunman waiting for her turn to be murdered, could I forgive? Even today, eleven years later, I don’t know that I could answer that question honestly. I know what Jesus said, I know what the teachings are, but I am still a man who sometimes feeds on justified anger. Perhaps I am the one who needs forgiveness.
That day and the days following were a time of continual mourning. More tears, more questions, less confidence that American society would ever turn from violent rhetoric and behavior. In time the tears did indeed wash away the sorrow. A brighter day appeared.
Those who mourn, including me, realize that mourning is another day in the seasons of life just as pain, depression, illness, disappointment, and inadequacy. Life is an inescapable mingling of sorrow and joy. Without the times of sorrow we would not recognize joy. Without the sorrow we would not seek the blessing of a Comforter.
“Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
“Jesus describes those who grieve as feeling the pain of the world.”
“Saint Ephrem said, ‘Until you have cried, you do not know God.'”
Jeremy Camp released a video and recording encouraging us to endure the pain and sorrow for there will be a day…….
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Revelation 21:4
I have this recurring thought of a meeting and conversation between Jesus and Buddha, both of whom are verifiable historical figures, in which, after offering solutions to the world’s suffering, Jesus bows to Buddha and says, “The Lord be with you.” Buddha replies, “Namaste, I bow to the divine in you.”
Wow! How different would our world be today if the major religions could take it upon themselves to honor and respect each other’s faith walk? Not only could we honor and respect, but we could also embrace each other as co-inheritors of the grace and mercy of our respective Lords. All of us are children of God who have received different messengers throughout history to teach the truth of one universal entity which we, as Christians, choose to name God.
That, in essence, is the teaching of Jesus which I believe exhorts me to live life inclusively and compassionately. Man’s created theology is secondary to this nugget of truth revealed by the author of Mark.
30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31
A few scholars of religion have tried to connect the two, Jesus and Buddha, through historical access. Jesus, in his lifetime, could have easily heard the teachings of Buddha from merchants and Buddhist priests who undoubtedly travelled the trade routes between Israel and the Far East. It’s an interesting theory which would add a dimension of mystery to the story of Jesus; however, it is not a necessary component to verifying the validity of our messenger.
Marcus Borg in his book “Jesus and Buddha: the Parallel Sayings” attributes the similarity in sayings to the probability that both mystics were inspired by an indwelling Spirit of holiness which enabled them to recognize the unitive presence of a Oneness, a universal energy which transcended human understanding and religious distinctions. Following is an excerpt from that book:
Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). The Buddha says, “Consider others as yourself” (Dhammapada 10.1).
Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:29). Buddha says, “If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires [to hurt him] and utter no evil words” (Majjhima Nikaya 21.6).
Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45). Buddha says, “If you do not tend one another, then who is there to tend you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick” (Vinaya, Mahavagga 8.26.3).
The Jewish Kabbalah, Muslim Sufism and the teachings of Tao also reveal this Oneness, the unitive energy of God within. Contemporary Christianity seems to have become exceedingly concerned with establishing its Jesus story as the only truth to the point that it has lost the Jesus teachings which reveal lessons of detachment, non-violence, simplicity, and anxiety. CAC.ORG
“But what’s even more shocking is that, in the name of this entirely inclusive Jewish man, Jesus, we created an exclusionary religion that ended up repeating what he condemned in his lifetime. It is the non-argumentative, contemplative mind that can easily see this.” cac.org
Sometimes I question within my mind the validity of organized religion. It seems that all the dominant religions of the world began with the wisdom of a sage, a mystic, whose teachings revealed nuggets of universal Truth but then morphed through a series of man’s contributions and adjustments into institutions of hypocrisy and intolerance. The foundational message was lost in interpretations. Greed, pride, and self-indulgence contributed to the transformation from a creed of compassion and inclusiveness to a creed of exclusiveness and dogmatic ritual.
But, then I ask, “And who are you, Larry Brown, to pass judgement?”
I could be spot on in my assessment and if I am, it is, nevertheless, beyond my role in this world to critique anybody’s faith walk. I stand behind the verse which tells me that I will know a man’s heart by the fruits of his indwelling spirit. And that’s all I need to know because even then it is my job to merely share the message. I am instructed to be the carrier not the enforcer.
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Matthew 7:16
“Enforcer” is a word which goes hand in hand with violence, suppression, and oppression. History tells us that, yes, organized religious institutions have been guilty of persecution and genocide, they have conducted murderous crusades and jihads against those of a differing culture, creed, and race. They have missed the mark of their messenger by a wide margin.
I am also guilty as charged. My interior battle between spirit and self has massacred numerous infidels, it has judged and condemned thousands who held opposing views, it has decimated the non-believers of the world. My mind knows the truth of a loving and compassionate savior but, my heart doesn’t always agree. I can be as hypocritical and judgmental as the notorious Pharisees of Jewish culture because my inherent mode of operation is one of self-preservation, not spiritual progress.
But, I have become acquainted with the one who changes hearts. We have an intimate relationship. The Father has pulled me from the pits of an addictive hell and the only requirement for membership in his family is the willingness to share my experience, strength, and hope, the willingness to extend unconditional love to humanity, and the willingness to be transformed.
“and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:2
“We are on a quest for a new kind of Christianity—a faith liberated from the institutional and dogmatic straightjackets we inherited, a way of life that integrates the personal and the social dimensions of spirituality, a practice that integrates centered contemplation and dynamic action. In our quest, we must remember how easy it is to self-sabotage; we must remember that how we get there will determine where we will be.” Brian McLaren quoted from cac.org
I can’t help but love the phrasing, “a faith liberated from the institutional and dogmatic straightjackets we inherited.” That is exactly where many of us have been led by our traditional faith endeavors. Even within my liberal Lutheranism the dogma and theology can become binding chains of thou shalt and thou shalt not. I have been given a very basic set of values in the Ten Commandments which facilitate a sane and peaceful social structure and then an unmistakable rule by which to live:
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Luke 10:27
What more do I need? Everything else within my faith tradition is gravy on the meat. I don’t need to have gravy but it makes for a more fulfilling meal. The weekly church service, the hymns, the scripture readings, the communion, the Advent services, the Christmas Eve candlelight celebration, the fellowship, they all are gravy atop the meat of Christianity which I can now define as devotion to a lifestyle emphasized by the story of Jesus. He and his disciples called that manner of living the Way; I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. These are words written by the author of John 14:6. Within those parameters of love, compassion and service to mankind I have a path to successful and victorious living.
The concept of “emerging” Christianity is an exciting development. Many of us must first learn how to rise above the pain, anger, and frustration which our old institutions of religion have caused in us. The fire and brimstone from the pulpit serve no purpose in our new way of living. When we join hearts with Jesus, we abandon the meanness and bitterness of our old beliefs and habits.
Idealism needs to be controlled. There is no perfect religion, church, or congregation in this lifetime. I will continue to stumble and bumble along my faith walk because I continue to harbor character defects, but, in the realm of emerging Christianity, I am accepted as I am and I am covered by the grace of a loving and compassionate God. I no longer fear the wrath of a vengeful God or eternity in the pits of a lonely hell on earth.
Within this radical practice of the Way, I accept personal responsibility for my actions and behavior. I control no other brother/sister nor religious institution and I give up the need to judge/condemn their actions and behavior. I accept that they are also giving life the best shot they can within the guidelines of their beliefs. If my church affiliation does not emphasize a ministry to the homeless, then I should do so personally. If my church does not openly accept ministry to the LGBT community, then I should. If my church does not embrace a multi-racial ministry, then I should. I have been freed from dogmatic and doctrinal restraints and it is my responsibility to extend that freedom to others suffering under religious oppression.
Again from the words of Brian McLaren:
“Finally, we need to start small and celebrate small gains. One of the curses of late modernity was the belief that unless something was big and well-publicized, it didn’t count. . . . [Jesus] spoke of tiny mustard seeds, of a little yeast in a lot of dough, of a little flock, of the greatness of smallness, of a secret good deed and a simple cup of cold water given to one in need.”
I want to be a little mustard seed, a cup of cold water to the thirsty. How about you?
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
“To repeat, if God operates as me, God operates as thee too, and the playing field is utterly leveled forever. Like Jesus, Francis, Clare, and many other humble mystics, we then rush down instead of up. In the act of letting go and choosing to become servants, community can at last be possible. The illusory state of privilege just gets in the way of neighboring and basic human friendship.” CAC.ORG
Father Richard, in this daily meditation, begins by discussing his upbringing within the community of white privilege, the favoritism shown to whites, the status of higher education, numerous challenges which whites do not endure and which non-whites face on a daily basis. It is truly a different world for those of us who walk the earth in this life as Caucasian.
When I realized and accepted within my heart the truth of “Namaste, I bow to the divine in you,” the Spirit within would no longer cover my inbred white privilege. It refused to entertain all the excuses I held for my bias and prejudices. It forced me to look upon my brothers and sisters whom God created in various shades and hues as beings loved just as much by the Creator as me. I no longer had an excuse to trivialize the plight of people of color. Our “white” world via politics and extremist religions has demeaned, ostracized, brutalized, and oppressed those children of God and it is my challenge as a white man to make restitution.
In order to do so, Father Richard exhorts me to take the route of ancient mystics who, rather than aspiring to rise toward a perceived heavenly God, focused downward and joined the suffering and oppressed masses living on the edge of survival in an ungodly world. That is where true obedience will be found, where salvation shall be experienced, and ultimately where the living Jesus dwells.
Most of my life has been spent anticipating the great white mansions in the far reaches of the Universe where God and Jesus sit side by side on their thrones waiting for me to arrive for my final judgement. (Incidentally, both of them in my past have been “white boys”.) I no longer wait for that occurrence because the truth as revealed to me, the GOD OF MY UNDERSTANDING, is right here, right now living in the hearts of all humanity regardless of race, religion, nationality or creed. I must now choose on a daily basis whether to commune with God and his indwelling truth or return to a denial of that truth. It’s very simple theology; it is awe-inspiring and breath-taking.
The path which I walk has been tortuous and twisted. I have endured the full spectrum of faith experiences from belief in a God who was vindictive and vengeful, to a God who was aloof and unapproachable, to an errant acceptance of atheism, to the revealing grace experienced in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Even during my period of strident atheism, I came to realize that my denial of God’s existence only fortified that his existence was real; otherwise, why would I expend so much energy denying him. If God is dead, then I should probably take up knitting or crocheting doilies instead of rallying with the oppressed masses or with a suffering alcoholic in forging a better world. If God is dead, then I would need to depend on the “goodness” of mankind to save us from physical and spiritual destruction. I can’t do that because goodness is not inherent, it is derived from a Source.
Matthew West in a very powerful song questioned a God who would allow all the suffering endured by mankind, “God, why don’t you do something?” The reply from his Lord was, “I did, I created you.” I was created to do something, but it all happens through and by the grace and direction of a Higher Power.