Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Constipated Christians

The circles of trust I experienced at Pendle Hill are a rare form of community — one that supports rather than supplants the individual quest for integrity-that is rooted in two basic beliefs. First, we all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader. Second, we all need other people to invite, amplify, and help us discern the inner teacher's voice.
Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness (2004)

Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity — Let us say, a Buddhist monk — who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian...
Karl Rahner

...that of God in everyone.
George Fox

Christ is all and in all!
Colossians 3:11b

...always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
II Corinthians 4:10

Q: What resources do we have to understand the Truth about ourselves, God and everything else there is?

A: We all have access to what is Real within us. This Truth through vigorous self-reflection is waiting patiently to be harvested through discipline, humility, patience and vigilance, accompanied by many practices (spiritual disciplines) like Scripture study & meditation, prayer, dialogue (which inherently includes listening more than half the time), fasting, silence, solidarity with the marginalized and sharing resources. This hypothesis flies in the face of fundamentalists who firmly believe that the only Absolute source of revelation is the inerrant Bible read self-evidently and in the face of relativists who have become convinced that the Answer is blowing in the wind and that "your guess is as good as mine."

What Quaker & Eastern Orthodox Christians have been saying for centuries is that if human beings are truly created in the "image of God" (Genesis 1:26), then we all have intimate access to both this God and the live capacity to actively reflect God's way in everything we do. And if Jesus is believed, within the wider Christian tradition, to be the "image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15) and "the light of all people" (John 1:4) then he is the decisive revelation of God, a lighthouse of Truth embedded in our souls from birth. After all, only a God of love and fairness would allow everyone on the planet equal access to the real truth about life. So God planted it within each of us and our lives become a journey--indeed an adventure--of discovering the most compelling way to live--in Christian parlance: to find ourselves following the steps of Jesus.

How, then, can we discern what our "inner teacher," our True Self (Buddhists), "the spark of the Divine" (Hasidic Jews), is actually telling us? This sacred, truth-seeking space is what sociologist and educator Parker Palmer calls a "circle of trust," not to be confused with the secret society of fear and manipulation framed by DeNiro's character in Meet The Parents. What Palmer shares, through extensive experience and research, is that we all need a small community of sojourners who provide safety, confidence and compassion in our truth-seeking pilgrimage. This is a team of listeners, valuing silence and gentleness and acceptance, creating a laboratory where people can experiment with the Truth within and without.

Fundamentalists raise an eyebrow to Palmer's bold prescription because it sounds "cultish," a soil for heresy. "Where is the foundation for Truth?" they lament, quoting their Bible or favorite Pastor-Hero. Relativists scoff at the notion that Truth can be found anywhere, let alone the living room of everyday people. But we progressive Christians believe in a bigger (yet much more mysterious) God than the ones on offer in Evangelical churches and Humanist chat-rooms. Truly, the God of the Bible and history continuously offers herself to those on the margins, those whom the experts say couldn't handle the truth. Think shepherds, John the Baptist, lepers, fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, Gentiles. In short, everyone "from the seminary trained to the single mom" (thanks to my Pastor Hero Dale Fredrickson for that phrase).

This whole conversation really just boils down to what we really think the telos (goal) of life is, which is a contested concept even within Christianity. Many Christians believe that life is primarily about "getting saved" from our sins by "inviting Jesus into our hearts." By "salvation," these particular followers of Jesus mean "heaven when we die" and a "personal relationship with Jesus" now. These denominations and sub-traditions believe in "original sin," positing that we are all deprave, worthless, wayward sinners who do not have a chance to live God-ordained lives without making a "personal decision for Jesus." Once that decision is made, in this telling of the Christian story, Christ enters the soul from the outside to cleanse and purify and empower through the movement of the Holy Spirit.

However, EasyYolk is rooted in a Christian tradition committed to a telos that extends far beyond the hearts of "believers:" the healing of the entire cosmos. Our Christian identity and vocation is essentially to join this determined and thoroughly democratic God in fulfilling this hope-filled Dream by means of the wisdom, discernment and love of Jesus planted within. In other words, we are called to join other "people of conscience" (of all nationalities and religions) who commit their lives to making our world more humanizing and dignified for everyone (not just our own particular family or tribe or clan or country or religion).

This is an offshoot of what Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner called "anonymous Christians." Plenty of folks all over the world have lived out Christ-like convictions in the past 2000 years without ever knowing who the so-called 1st century prophet and messiah was. Others, like Gandhi (through a Hindu lens), have flat-out rejected "Christianity," in order that they live out Jesus' unique brand of humanity (humble service, forgiveness, radical simplicity, nonviolent confrontation with evil, etc). In fact, people far more ordinary and ornery than Gandhi reveal the spark of the divine in quite mysterious ways.

The goal is for our lives to intentionally harvest (from within ourselves) the fruit of Jesus, the unveiler of the Truth about ourselves, God and everything else there is. Or as the Apostle Paul wrote, "it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me." The fact that Christ lives inside all of us has nothing to do with appeasing an angry God or guaranteeing a life in heaven when we die. Instead, it has everything to do with how we experience and extend heaven from our own lives to the uttermost parts of the world. This isn't the prosperity gospel because it's not about us, but instead about our lives finding meaning and congruence (through hard work, transparent confession, sacrifice, simplicity and constant risk) in an active participation with the healing of the world (reconciliation, redemption, justice, peace, etc).

In addition, this Christian minority report transcends the triumphalistic & patronizing history of the Western Jesus that attempts to convert "pagans" by any means possible (including fear, manipulation, violence, coercion). It naturally contains a more gentle, irenic spirit that boldly proclaims that anyone, anywhere can possess aspects of the Truth, beckoning us to actively approach every relationship with anticipation, listening for the voice of God with wisdom & discerment.

Please don't misunderstand what we are getting at here. We do not believe "all roads lead to heaven." We neither believe in "heaven" (as a disembodied place where all Christians with Jesus in their hearts go when they die) nor do we believe that even all Christian paths lead in the same direction. We obviously have strong convictions about who Jesus is and what it looks like to follow him (hopefully this is obvious to long-time readers). We are radically inclusive: everyone has the Seed of Christ planted within them. We are also radically exclusive: "Christ" does not look like whatever you want him to look like. Remember, the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus warning his disciples at the end of his most well-known Sermon to look out for the deceptive-and-ravenous wolves dressed up as pure-and-innocent sheep and that many folks will call Jesus "Lord" but fail to embody the way of God's Heavenly Reign (Matthew 7:21).

Borrowing a phrase from Cornel West, we believe that humanity is "morally constipated." We all possess what is righteous and good and passionately life-giving, but we mostly struggle to push it out. That's right: we are not "sinners in the hands of an angry God," but instead cracked "treasures in jars of clay" (II Cor 4:7) dimly bearing the light of Christ before a dark and confused world and a God who absolutely adores us and will do whatever it takes to brighten our Flame. We all have an inner teacher, but we are systematically patterned to cover it up through all sorts of counterfeit coping mechanisms (fight, flight, cut-off, caretaking). What Christ called the "narrow way" is vulnerable and risky and most of us, most of the time, choose to walk through the wide gate of self-protection. We have to open ourselves to trust in order to be transformed. This takes a few close friends who will sojourn with us in solidarity and who will consistently and intentionally water the Seed Within with abundant amounts of love, acceptance, forgiveness & patience. We all need a "circle of trust" that gives us space to be ourselves and grow into Something we could not imagine...even if we tried.
All my posts are deeply self-involved (as opposed to objective or neutral), as are all theological, philosophical & political (etc) works (whether that is acknowledged or not). However, this particular piece reflects perhaps my greatest highlight as a follower of Jesus in 2010. My wife and I have participated in a "circle of trust" called Open Hearts every Sunday night since February. Organized around the 12-Step Model, we create space for one another to pursue "our own inventory" during the week and share it confessionally and authentically during our times together. We think long-term in our process. There are no easy answers in this complex world...so we wait and groan and receive support and inspiration from one another, as we search within for our inner teacher's lesson plan. Gritty honesty is contagious. It beckons us out of hiding to step into the well-lit corridors of truth. Our community has a line-up that Jesus himself was magnetically drawn to during his life and ministry: approval whores, sex addicts, co-dependents and perfectionists.

We are all post-fundamentalists, scarred by the fear and anxiety produced from years of worshipping a brand of Jesus in order to save us from hell and the "liberals," highlighted by patriarchal leadership, Republican allegiance and simple answers to every complex question life throws our way. Through our own experiences, studying, reading, praying, dialoguing, self-reflecting and times of silence, we are slowly discerning our often overlooked, underplayed inner teacher, calling us to "lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and...run with perseverance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus..."


  1. Spilling over with gratitude for this post, voices like Palmer and your "Pastor Hero", our circle of trust (and others whose presence beckons the inner teacher out of hiding)... and who God is helping us all to become. Thanks for giving voice to something that has been so poignantly transformative in my own life and how I see God, humanity, the world, and everything else there is.

  2. I was sitting here reading your blog when suddenly through my speakers a lady started singing in a foreign tongue. Startled I had a flash back to my childhood Pentecostal church...but there was no interpretation to follow so I went back to reading.

    Once again you bowl me over with your writing. I'm so grateful that God "crashed" you and Lindsay into my life this year, and the two of you have extended the love of Christ to my "end of the earth"!

    I look forward to the year ahead and more opportunities to journey together.