Spirituality Unmoored

Spiritual experience sickens when detached from the nitty-gritty realities of daily, material life. 

The Transfiguration by Raphael Sanzio, 1520

Some 20 years ago, I served on an advisory board for a Protestant seminary. In our first gathering, the school’s administration sketched for us the broad dimensions of the seminary’s curriculum. The emphasis was heavy on academic theology and field education. That represented their best judgment as to what was proper preparation for the task of ministry.

At the end of the presentation, one in our group asked, “Who is teaching our future clergy to pray?” The question seemed to throw the administrators for a loop. They did not conceive the seminary teaching spiritual practices.

Much has changed since then. The current president of that same seminary writes a weekly blog on spirituality. Many seminaries around the country now offer not only courses in spirituality, but also certification courses in spirituality and spiritual direction.

Likewise many local congregations now give great emphasis to prayer practices as well as other spiritual disciplines. The church my wife and I attend is one. Every educational term there is at least one offering in spirituality, sometimes more than one.

I belong to a professional association for Christian educators. I note the frequency that discussions of spirituality come up in its newsletters and national conferences.

Mainline Protestantism seems to be awash in spirituality. I applaud this because the practice of contemplative prayer has played a very formative role in my own Christian life for the past 25 years. I believe in the spiritual journey. I am glad that many others now see its importance, too.

And Yet

Yes, and yet. I am becoming increasingly concerned about this growing popularity with spirituality. When popularization latches onto any thing profound, it tends to water down the profundity. Quickly the popularized version becomes something innocuous or disappointing.

This, I fear, may be happening with the fad for spirituality. It runs the risk of becoming something cloying, sweetly sentimental, and therefore riskless. We use spiritual practices not to enter more deeply into the nitty-gritty realities of daily life, but to escape them into an unreal never-never land where nothing bothers us.

Gordon Cosby, the late pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., always instructed his parishioners that they must be engaged in two simultaneous journeys in their individual lives and in the congregation’s life. One journey is a journey inward. It is the journey we pursue when we engage in spiritual practices. The other journey is a journey outward, as we engage in ministry and mission to the world outside our inner fellowship.

What has always impressed me about his vision is that he never regarded the two journeys as an either/or. We must engage in both…and simultaneously.

If we do not, our journey inward becomes very self-centered. Our spirituality will sicken. We need to journey outward as a check on that ego-centrism. But likewise, if we engage only in a journey outward, then we quickly burn out. Our inner energy is depleted. We lose either the joy or the momentum to serve. Our spiritual practices keep us in touch with the spiritual springs of our inner energy and inspiration.

I have always felt Cosby was spot on in his analysis. His vision has become my own.

What I fear is that with our current obsession with spirituality, many people and churches today are falling into the very trap that Cosby warns against. We are so focused on spiritual experiences that we are neglecting the simultaneous call to ministry outward.

Mountaintop Experiences and Life in the Valley

Here I find the beauty of Mark’s vision in his gospel. In Mark 9:2-29 Mark tells two stories about Jesus. As is usually the case with Mark, the two stories are not two independent stories that just happen to follow another. They belong together and comment on each other. So we must read them together.

Mark 9:2-8 tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a high mountaintop. It describes what must have been a spectacular spiritual experience for the three witnessing disciples. Jesus glows in a dazzling white light. Moses and Elijah stand beside him in conversation.

Talk about a spiritual experience. Not much can top that. It so impresses Peter that he proposes to build three shrines on the mountain to commemorate the event. In this way he would like to hold on to the experience. This might mean that he, James, and John could return to the site over and over again to bask in the glorious memory.

But the brilliant light fades, as do Moses and Elijah. All that remains is the heavenly voice instructing them to listen to Jesus. Religious experiences never last. What does endure is the gospel word.

Jesus then leads them down the mountain. He tells them to say nothing about the experience until he rises again from the dead. His words make no sense to the disciples.

When they reach the valley (Mark 9:14-29), they encounter a confused scene where a desperate man seeks a healing for his epileptic son. He does not get it from the disciples. Only a fierce argument.

The man pleads for Jesus to step in and Jesus does, healing the boy. Afterwards the disciples ask Jesus why they could not heal the boy. Jesus responds, This kind can come only through prayer (Mark 9:29).

Together these two stories illustrate the point that Gordon Cosby makes. The three disciples are given a powerful spiritual experience on the mountaintop. But they are not meant nor allowed to remain there in its rarefied spiritual atmosphere. Instead Jesus leads them down into the pain, suffering, and frustrations of life in the valley. This is daily life, life in the material world of the body, the place where most of life is lived.

What gives Jesus and his disciples the power and resources for serving those demanding needs in the valley is the practice of prayer. And so Jesus and Mark would have us travel to a quiet place of retreat for prayer and then back into the valley over and over again. This is the  cycle that leads to spiritual maturity.


A Biblical Model for Voicing Our Rage

Bible text: Psalm 137

As a poem, Psalm 137 reminds me of that insect-eating plant, the Venus flycatcher. Like the plant’s succulent smell, the opening words of this psalm pull us movingly into its expression of sorrow.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

We live through the anguish of this psalmist who has survived the Babylonian destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.

But as we read on, we find the sentiments become darker and rawer. The psalmist asks for divine vengeance on the Edomites who taunted the captives as they were led out of the city.

And then come some of the most vindictive words in all of the Bible. The psalmist turns his bitterness on his Babylonian captors. He cries out:

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones

and dashes them against the rock.

We cringe in disgust at the sheer hate expressed in this line. How did it ever manage to be included in the holy book?

That question has troubled Bible readers for generations. Some deal with it by banning the recitation of this psalm in any Christian worship service. They say it does not fit with the irenic spirit of Jesus.

Others deal with the raw sentiments of this psalm by allegorizing them. C.S. Lewis is one. In his Reflections on the Psalms, he interprets the little babies as the infantile temptations, the small indulgences, and the petty angers that afflict us all.

They woo us and wheedle us, he says, with tiny special pleadings that make us believe that if we indulge in these tiny sins, no harm will be done. But these tiny sins can grow into something monstrous. So Lewis advises that we follow the advice of the psalm and knock out the brains of these tiny sins before they grow up.

I have a major problem with both strategies. Both reduce the Christian faith, I fear, into a form of cotton candy: sweet, gooey, and ultimately insubstantial. If Christianity cannot deal with the ugly realities of real life—like violence, injustice and the hatreds they trigger—does it have any place in a thinking person’s life?

Someone who speaks a similar sentiment is Kathleen Norris, that wonderful Presbyterian writer who has found so much spiritual nourishment in Catholic monasteries. She writes of one convent where the nuns had banned all cursing psalms like 137 from their daily liturgy.

But Norris quotes another nun, a liturgist, who visited the convent and came away saying, “I begin to feel antsy, feeling something is not right. The human experience is violence, and the psalms reflect the violence of the world.” (See Norris’ chapter on the psalms in her book The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, Page 97.)


Being Clear-eyed About the Violence of Life

Indeed, violence is a part, a huge part, of human experience, and something is not right when we banish acknowledgement of that fact from our religious life and worship. The Bible certainly does not.

Psalm 137 stands as eloquent testimony to the anger, anguish, and hatred that violence and injustice triggers in us human beings.  Here we experience the bitterness the survivors felt in their exile and the hatred that exile has bred for their captors.

Before any of us condemn such feelings, I think we need first to have experienced what those exiles had undergone. It is terribly sanctimonious of any of us to say to the wife who lost a husband in the collapse of the World Trade Center that she must forgive the Muslim jihadists the violence they caused.

It is also sanctimonious of us to say that survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima must forgive the Americans who obliterated their city.

Unless any of us have gone through such horrific experiences, we need to be careful about how quickly we preach Christian forgiveness. For such terrible violence does indeed breed deep levels of rage. And rage is an appropriate response to such violence.

Violence against another person creates deep scars that do not quickly wash away like a fake tattoo on the skin.

This fact has come home to me in a profound way as I have gotten to know several people who were sexually abused as youngsters. I have a friend who once worked as a crisis counselor for a telephone counseling service in Dallas. The service sought to provide a listening ear to people in trouble and direct them to places where they might find the help they needed.

One night she answered the phone and started talking to a woman who told a horrific story. When her brother turned 16, her father tied her to a bed and told her brother and his friends to go to it as his birthday present. Her life was devastated by this gang rape, leaving her with deep stains of shame and anger.

Any violence we perpetrate against another leaves psychological scars. But I have come to believe that sexual abuse can be one of the most damaging things we can do to another. It triggers deep, deep anger.

We Christians can do a further injustice when we sweep such experiences under the rug and tell people, “Oh, just think positively! Forgive and forget.”


Dishing Out Our Abusive Language onto God

So is there something in this terrible psalm…and in other vindictive psalms like it…than can help us deal with such experiences in life? Yes, I believe there is.

Unless anger is released and healed, it can poison a whole personality. Psychologists say that when anger is unacknowledged and suppressed within a person, it can sometimes manifest itself as depression. The road to healing is releasing that anger.

The problem is that it must be done the right way. So often the anger we feel toward someone who has hurt us cannot be directed to that person because they are more powerful than we are and can cause even further harm.

The temptation, therefore, is to take out our anger on someone who has no connection to the problem at all. A man, for example, is berated by his boss at work. In reaction, he takes it out on his wife when he gets home. Or a child is so upset by her parents’ impending divorce that she takes out her anger by beating up another kid on the street.

Such misdirected anger feeds more anger, which in turns feeds even more anger ad infinitum. Just witness the endless rounds of revenge that have accompanied the Protestant-Catholic strife in Northern Ireland or the Israeli-Arab strife in Palestine.

What we need to notice in the cursing psalms like 137 is not just the vehement language the psalmists express towards their enemies, but also the audience to which that language is directed.  The psalms are prayers, and the one addressed in most of the psalms is not other human beings, but God.

Now, I think that is very important. Rather than heaping abuse on another person, the psalmist directs his abusive language to God.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God,” cries out another psalmist (Psalm 139:19). And yet another prays, “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers” (Psalm 10:15).

Does God approve of this kind of vindictiveness? I don’t think so. But what these prayers do do is bring the malevolent feelings into the presence of God where they can begin to be dealt with.

Years ago, I saw the play The Miracle Worker which tells the story of how Annie Sullivan was able to reach out to six-year-old Helen Keller and free Helen from her psychological and social isolation. This isolation had resulted from a fever that had left the infant Helen blind, deaf, and ultimately speechless.

Helen lives in the constant frustration of not being able to communicate with anyone.  As Sullivan begins to work with her, there is a scene where Helen takes out all her frustration on her teacher by beating Sullivan repeatedly on the chest. Sullivan holds the child in her arms until the anger subsides.

What I think is happening in the cursing psalms is something like this. People express their anger by beating on the metaphorical chest of God. And God just holds us in his arms until our screaming and yelling are exhausted. Then God says, “Let’s now deal with this anger you have just expressed.”

Slowly we can begin to come to terms with the anger and the violence that caused it. I say “slowly” because healing the anger may take some time, maybe months or years of therapy.

In this respect the cursing psalms serve a beneficial purpose. They model a kind of spiritual therapy. They show us a way to release our anger without the anger fueling another round of violence and abuse. Maybe, just maybe, in this process the anger can be transformed into the inner liberation of forgiveness.

A Prayer for All Peoples

Bible text: Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4

At the heart of Christian piety lies the prayer we traditionally call the Lord’s Prayer. It is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. Its words are designed to guide us in wording our own prayers.

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 trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen

Through centuries of use, this prayer has embedded itself deep into the European and American consciousness. I was fascinated to recognize that when I was watching the funeral of Princess Diana on TV back in 1997.

At one point in the service, a bishop started leading the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. The TV cameras showed nearly everyone in Westminster Abbey and among the crowds assembled outside reciting the words. In a world where fewer and fewer people attend church, still a large proportion of the secularized crowds around us know and can recite this prayer.

It is startling, however, to notice that there is nothing distinctly Christian about this prayer that has been central to the Jesus movement ever since Jesus taught it. The prayer does not invoke the name of Jesus, as do most other Christian prayers when we add on to the end, “in Jesus’ name.”

The language is not distinctly Trinitarian. Yes, the prayer invokes God by the name Father, but this prayer precedes by a couple of centuries the Trinitarian meaning Christians were to later give to the word Father.

In fact, the most Christian element in the prayer is probably this naming of God as Father. This language reflects Jesus’ own practice of calling upon God as his Father. The Aramaic word he used was Abba, which can be translated as Daddy. Jesus’ usage expresses the intimate relationship that Jesus seems to have felt with God. He wanted others to share that intimate relationship as well.

What I find notable about this prayer is that I imagine most Jews and Muslims would also feel comfortable in speaking this prayer. Calling God Father was not the most favored usage in the Hebrew Bible, but I don’t imagine any Jew would feel he or she was compromising his or her faith in addressing God as Father. And phrases like “hallowing the name of God” and praying for the coming of God’s kingdom are very distinctive Jewish themes.

I am not familiar with common usage among Muslims, but I again doubt that most Muslims would feel they compromised their faith in speaking this prayer. And probably many others of others faiths might feel the same.

So this prayer that many Christians regard as distinctly theirs proves to be a prayer whose wording allows people of many different faiths to join in a united invoking of God. Is it not characteristic of Jesus that in creating a model prayer, he should choose language that unites rather than divides?

Prayer on the Temple Mount

Scripture texts:  Isaiah 56:7, Mark 11:17

In reading Isaiah, I find what God says in Isaiah 56:7 a haunting verse. God speaks into the future—the age of salvation—and declares that in that time, his temple shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Eunuchs and Gentiles who have been excluded from the temple will be welcomed in. It is another one of the Bible’s amazing visions of inclusivity.

In Mark 11:17, Jesus cites this verse as sanction for his driving the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. His citation implies that the future age of salvation has arrived. The temple needs to be opened as a place of worship for all nations. It must be cleansed of all that distracts from the supreme work of prayer.

Yet the spirit of exclusion remains 2,000 years later. Jews lament their destroyed temple at the Western Wall. Muslims lay claim to the site of the temple with their Dome of the Rock. The temple mount remains a locus of conflict and competing demands, not a place of prayer for all nations.

Playing the what-if game, I have long wondered what it would be like if the Dome of the Rock were to be opened as a house of prayer for all peoples. The mosque sits upon the very site of the Israelite temple. Here Abraham prepared to offer up his son. Here undoubtedly Jesus walked the pavements surrounding it. And here Muhammed began his visionary night ascent into heaven.

What if the mosque were to become an open place to all people who wish to draw close to God? What if people of all three religions—indeed of all faiths–were welcomed to use the mosque as a place to draw near to God? Would not then the vision of Isaiah and Jesus be fulfilled? The Dome of the Rock could become a symbol of the most profound inclusivity.

This is not to propose an amalgamated religion, composed of elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam combined. I believe the three faiths share much in common as children of Abraham, but each is also different. We must never try to erase the differences in a naïve belief that amalgamation will ensure peace. But in the act of prayer, people of faith (despite their different theologies) can be spiritually one in acknowledging the sovereignty and compassion of God.

As I see it, each of the three Abrahamic religions could and should retain a special site in Jerusalem that is hallowed to their unique faith. For the Jews that would be the Western Wall. For Christians the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And for Muslims the All Aqsa mosque at the south end of the temple mount. But the Dome of the Rock would become a place serving all of humanity as an open place of prayer.

I realize that in the present heated religious and political climate of the Middle East, such a proposal is totally unrealistic. It would take a great act of condescension on the part of Muslims to open the Dome of the Rock as a place of prayer for all faiths. And fundamentalists in all three faiths would vehemently oppose any such convergence of the three faiths in this way.

But one can still dream. And there remains God’s promise that one day this site will indeed be a house of prayer for all nations. May that day come quickly.