Test Every Truth!

My friend, Heiwa No Bushi, is a Buddhist-Christian monk, founder and Abbot of the Thomasville Buddhist Center in Thomasville, North Carolina. A former Christian minister, he has degrees in philosophy and theology. He also received classical training in both Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. He holds black belts in three different Japanese martial art forms, making him, as friends often say, an “official badass.” He places his teachings under the moniker “Bodhi Christo” which means “enlightened Christ,” an amalgam of the two rich streams of Buddhism and Christianity. He and I collaborated on Four Truths on a Crosstown Bus, (downloadable for free here.) In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), he shares some reflections on his journey.

“On this adventure, I remain a lifelong learner…”

This is my story, but I believe it reflects all our stories.

I grew up in south Florida, essentially a preacher’s kid because my grandmother was heavily involved in both the southern and primitive Baptist movements. She was so devoted that when people within her circles wanted to erect a building, she loaned them the money.

By the time I was six years old, my grandmother had become a minister in that church, but she struggled constantly against patriarchy. The congregation was so misogynistic that they wouldn’t allow her to be a regular preacher. However, she was a very clever bird. She decided that every time they gave her an opportunity to fill the pulpit, she would use her grandson to introduce her. It was a way of deflecting all the attention from her, and the result was that I became a phenomenal, entertaining bit of Sunday mornings! People came to hear my grandmother because this young boy really knew how “to lay it out there.”

All that time I worked with my grandmother, I saw the inconsistency between her church life and her home life. At church she was outwardly “righteous,” but at home she would speak in ways normally prohibited. I thought it was hypocritical, but she quoted the Apostle Paul from I Corinthians: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

As grandma’s ministry grew, I began to feel a calling to attend seminary. I received my training and then, in my early 20s, I traveled overseas with the military. It was a time of hands-on experience, what I call “tacit education.” It challenged me to look at the deeper and wider aspects of life on our planet. I encountered many other faiths, not only seeing their beautiful richness, but their many parallels, especially the “golden rule.”

In my experiences as a Christian, I had not encountered a real moral teaching about how to treat our planet, especially “lesser creatures.” As a lover of the earth, I found a much greater connection to creation through other religions, especially Buddhism and its tremendous emphasis on caring for all living things. Jainism also intrigued me. It insisted on not naming “God,” believing there is no particular god outside of ourselves.

These religions lifted up a type of humanity that many circles of Christianity seemed to usurp and ignore. They spoke volumes of higher learning to me, and it seemed to me that Christianity did not stand up in the court of reality. For instance, where in Christian scripture was the insistence on an intimate relationship with all living things that I found so beautiful in Buddhism?

Then I thought of the parable Jesus told of seeking out the one lost lamb. He was saying to the majority, “You hold on tight, I’m going to get the one that matters.” This began to bring out what I call the “more mature” interpretation of Christ that I am trying to live out today.

In my teachings, I emphasize that there are three types of knowledge.

  • Explicit knowledge that comes to us from textbooks, manuals, Sunday school lessons taught as literal. This is a form of cultural programming, even indoctrination.
  • Codified knowledge which is the design of the society around us—from traffic signs to laws to the licenses we need to practice our professions. All this is meant to make sure that we follow the rules and remain in compliance with the status quo.
  • Tacit knowledge which we gain firsthand in the laboratories of our own lives. It can’t just be told to us; we must experience it and adapt it to the reality of our own understandings.

The bottom line is that we must test any truth for ourselves! Examine it in the light of our minds, hearts, consciences, and personal experience. I feel religious institutions, especially the Christian church, should be some of the most unregulated organizations in our society. They should always call us to the high adventure of exploring a fuller spiritual life.

On this adventure, I remain a lifelong learner, carrying on something my grandmother taught me long ago. “Go beyond what educational systems teach you,” she said.

Take on the world. Tacitly hold it, experience it, live it and understand it!

You can connect with Heiwa No Bushi here.

Called by His Ancestors

I met Joedy Yglesias while training to become a Texas Master Naturalist. He calls himself a Bodhisattva of the Earth, someone whose compassion extends to every living creature. It is his calling. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (free download here), he shares the journey of how he came to this place in his life.

Joedy at Big Bend Ranch State Park

My parents raised me as Catholic during the ’70s and ’80s, a time when Chicano Americans were having an existential identity crisis. For those of us on the left, it meant consolidating our power, supporting La Raza or the United Farm Workers. For conservatives, it meant identifying more with their Spanish colonial roots and ignoring the indigenous aspect. The Catholic church and the government had always done a good job of separating us from those roots, which led to internalized racism. For my own parents, who wanted to make things easier for their children, it meant giving their children English names. This was part of the American Dream as they saw it.

I was quite involved in our local parish church. I taught catechism and sang in the choir, all the while trying to deal with my gay identity. I eventually thought I might join the priesthood as a way of circumventing that issue, essentially shutting it down.

Then, one day while visiting Austin, Texas, I saw a poster advertising a group called Shaman’s Circle, hosted by gay activist Toby Johnson. Toby had an earlier association with Joseph Campbell, having spent time with him in northern California. He had been a Roman Catholic priest but gave up his ordination and dedicated his life to focusing on gay spirituality. Like Campbell, Toby understood religion as myth and metaphor, and he introduced me to a much wider awareness of my spiritual journey.

I attended their shaman drumming circles and discovered that it was all white men. I approached them with the idea that even though I couldn’t afford their retreats, I could join them as a worker and bring a different ethnic perspective to their group. It was a great experience! Toby took me under his wing like a spiritual father, teaching me some of the primary truths from Campbell, like the journey of “the hero with a thousand faces.”

I came to understand how important my indigenous heritage was to me. I discovered that many of my relatives had practiced indigenous rituals in the past, but they hid it because the culture considered it pagan. The more I delved into it, the more I developed my own unique spirituality as someone who is half Native American.

Toby convinced me that the priesthood wasn’t right for me, so I joined the Navy. I loved the adventure. I saw it as a challenge to participate in the military from the inside, showing how the LGBTQ community could bring honor to the institution. I was still practicing my Catholic faith, operating as the lay leader on ships, but after I returned to America from one deployment, I saw a Unitarian Church flying the rainbow flag. I visited their fellowship, and it blew my mind how they welcomed the spiritual writings and traditions of so many faiths. I began to attend there on a regular basis.

 After a final deployment to Iraq, I returned to live in San Antonio, Texas, suffering from PTSD. To get my head clear, I began to visit a number of Texas State Parks—camping, volunteering, and eventually receiving my certification as a Texas Master Naturalist.

I believe that the universe opens up to us at just the right time. While touring Seminole Canyon State Park, I saw, for the first time, the ancient pictographs for which the park is famous. When I looked at them, I instantly had a connection. I intuitively understood what they were really communicating, an awareness that amazed our “expert” tour guide.

As I spent more time outdoors, everything seemed to fall into place. Even the snakes, tarantulas, and vinegaroons emerged when I was there. I felt a deep connection and kinship with my indigenous roots, especially in the Trans-Pecos desert region of southwest Texas. I knew I was home.

Today, I am working with Texas Parks and Wildlife at Big Bend Ranch State Park, a remote and beautiful region of our country. It’s where I belong right now, and I feel it is part of my journey to help protect this majestic landscape. Our natural resources are under attack through neglect and development, and although I know I can’t fully stop it, my presence can help preserve the spiritual magic of nature for others.

My ancestors call me here, and every time I go into the canyons, I sing a prayer song of the Lakota Sioux to let the spirits know I am present.

Tunkasila wamayanka yo
Le miye ca tehiya nawajin welo
Unci Maka nawecijin na
Wowah’wala wan yuha wauwelo.

Grandfather look at me
This is me standing in a hard way
I defend Grandmother Earth
and I come humbly with these ways

You can connect with Joedy on Facebook or Instagram

Liberated from Literalism

I met Rob Mueller because of our association in Mission Presbytery, a consortium of Presbyterian churches in south Texas. I quickly grew to admire many things about him: his openness to other faiths, his commitment to justice, and his nearly three-decade devotion to a bilingual congregation on San Antonio’s westside. Eventually, we joined in writing a book entitled Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission. The Co-moderators of the Presbyterian Church (USA) chose it as “Study Book of the Year” for our denomination in 2019. It was a great experience, not just the creative birthing, but how my partnership with Rob changed me. In that process, I learned that the expansiveness of his faith had not always been present. He, like anyone with spiritual courage, struggled to be where he is today. Here he shares the evolution of his views on Christian scripture, an excerpt from the book The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters, downloadable for free at this link.

Reverend Rob Mueller with Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Reverend Cindy Kohlmann, Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA)

At age 16, I had a powerful and life-rearranging conversion to Christ. I gave myself and my future to God at the altar of my best friend’s Pentecostal church. Seeking fellowship, I attended my girlfriend’s Evangelical Free Church youth group and started opening the scripture with studies produced by the Navigators. These fellowships instilled in me a desire to devour the scripture and steeped me in a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. They told me that the essential meaning and purpose of the scripture was to lead us to personal salvation. At the time, it was a powerful and animating message for me. I swallowed it; I believed in it. I developed such a fanatical daily discipline of reading and studying the Word that my parents worried I had joined a cult!

In college, I joined the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, continued with a Navigators men’s study, and joined an ad hoc Tuesday night prayer group. The prayer group was wildly ecumenical, including folks from Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist, nondenominational, and mainline traditions. We would pray, share, and discuss our faith lives. The deep relationships I developed with Christians of varying perspectives opened me up to new ways of looking at scripture. My friend Matt English, a deeply-rooted Presbyterian, introduced me to the persistent thread through scripture that presents the divine imperative for justice. This thread expressed a concern for collective salvation more than personal salvation. It viewed God’s activity as transformative of society and not simply of individuals.

InterVarsity introduced me to Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, a book that turned my world on its head! For the first time, I began to understand that the Kingdom of God was not just about me and Jesus, but about how the world around us should look. Another friend introduced me to Sojourners magazine, the reflections of justice-oriented evangelicals in inner city Washington, D.C., Sojourners helped me build bridges between these two often opposing theological camps.

I read biblical scholarship from a historical-critical perspective. In my Sociology of Religion class, I read Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy, and discovered how we set up certain unassailable truths to act as a canopy of meaning over us, while in reality, all of those “unassailable truths” can be critiqued and even changed. This discovery began to pry open the rigid frameworks I had inherited from conservative influences and prepared the way for a significant shift in my view of scripture and how it acquires authority.

My seminary education helped me to identify and appreciate the diversity of voices within the scriptures, even how they critiqued one another. Biblical inerrancy no longer worked for me. Gospel parallels revealed the many differences in Gospel details, and I learned that factual historicity was not the dominant concern of Gospel authors. Rather, the effort to communicate meaning was central. The Bible became a library of books assembled by diverse writers over thousands of years. These writings were shaped by their particular places and times in history. They were still “inspired” by the Spirit of God, but not dictated word by word, detail by detail. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg helped me realize that a story could still convey truth and meaning without being factual.

My most challenging hurdle during seminary was the exclusive claim by many in the Christian faith that salvation is only through Jesus. Today, I have a completely different understanding of certain “exclusivist scriptures.” When Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” I believe he is inviting us into the pattern of death and resurrection he exemplified. Jesus’s “Way” is the surrendering of our ego, a dying to self, so that we may discover our unity with others in God for an abundant new life.

I have encountered this wholeness in other people of profound faith who do not share my same tradition. Interfaith conversations now enrich me; at an earlier time, they would have simply been arguments in an attempt to convert the other person to my way. The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Anthony de Mello, Thomas Merton, John Philip Newell and Richard Rohr, helped me build bridges between my tradition and other faiths. They speak a language I can understand.

Today, when uncertainties or challenges to my understanding of God arise, I delight in being stretched into new ways of thinking. Together with Meister Eckhart “I pray to God to be rid of God” because every attempt I make to understand God is flawed and limited, so I must forever open myself to the God I don’t yet know or understand.

And so, my journey continues!

You can connect with Rob on Facebook, Divine Redeemer’s website, or their YouTube channel.

Soaring in Sky Church!

Steve Nootenboom comes closest to a Renaissance person of anyone I know. He is a filmmaker, painter, master carpenter, sailor, rock climber, and hang glider. I first met him when he and his family visited a church I pastored in north Los Angeles County. We soon became lifelong friends. I have always admired his dedication to a simple, nomadic way of life. With very few possessions to tie them down, he and his wife travel in a bus whose interior Steve designed to be amazingly livable. Our conversations about art, creativity, and the spiritual life can last for hours. I asked him to share his amazing perspective on how hang gliding has become a spiritual discipline for him. This is an excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters, downloadable here for free.

Watch one of Steve’s takeoffs here

In 1977, I had my first hang gliding flight. I will never forget the moment my feet left the ground and I felt completely free of the earth and its cares. I was hooked!

Every time I launch my glider, I get the same sensation as that first time I flew. I feel so connected to God when I am flying that I have nicknamed the sport “Sky Church.” I tell people that I have to fly up in the sky to find God.

Hang-gliding requires intense focus in the moment—shutting out cares, events, worries, and the 10,000 things mentioned in Taoism. When you are flying, you are looking for the invisible, such as hot air rising in “thermals.” Some of the indications of a thermal are the smell of sage brush rising in the desert air, or the smell of French fries when you’re over a city. When you get in a thermal, you circle around in that tube of ascending hot air and it can send you soaring at up to 5,000 feet per minute. You also keep your eyes on those local pilots, the birds. They know right where to go!

My glider is about 70 pounds, and I can easily carry it on my shoulders. My flights average about two and a half hours. Some have been at 18,000 feet with a small oxygen tank tied to my harness. I have soared for over six hours at a time, crossing more than 150 miles of bleak desert with no motor, simply searching for and trusting the lift of air currents.

The concentration required for these flights focuses and clears my mind. I can hear instructions from God about what to do in business or my marriage, and I get strong impressions of what the future holds outside my scope of knowledge.

Here is an example of Creation speaking to me during a flight.

I was traveling through Montana with my hang glider tied on my truck top. I found a high ridge facing the prevailing wind. I launched and soared for about two hours down the wooded backbone of this beautiful slope. I found myself getting very low and finally began to sink in a canyon with no way out. My first instinct was terror. Then something I believe to be God cut through my fearful thoughts and I felt hope and peace in spite of seeing myself crashing into giant pine trees. Just then, a red-tailed hawk came strafing under my wing and I knew I needed to follow him. I followed him into a deeper part of the canyon where all logic would say DON’T GO! At the end of that box canyon, the hawk started to circle, a clear indication of a thermal. He and I did a sky dance together, around and around, until I was 1,000 feet safely above the ridge again.

I continue to attend my “Sky Church,” sometimes as much as twice a week. After every flight, I feel rejuvenated with a clear perspective and a new direction. I have often said to non-pilots that a two-hour flight hanging in the Presence is equivalent to a two-week vacation. Although I find similar connections to God in prayer and meditation, there is still something special for me about soaring above my troubles below. It certainly takes faith in your glider, your abilities, and God to just run off a mountain with some Dacron and aluminum strapped to your back.

But I am a believer that faith honors God, and God always honors faith.

Visit Steve Nootenboom here or here.

The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters

I relish hearing the stories of others on their spiritual journeys. For this project, I invited 20 people to share personal experiences from the laboratories of their lives. These are moving and diverse testaments to the overall thesis of this book. Each chapter includes their testimonies under the heading Las Historias de la Gente. If you read only their words and none of mine, this effort will be worthwhile. I thank them for their contributions!

In the stories of others, you will find language and concepts that differ from yours. Some may seem too expansive or “out there.” Others may seem parochial. Please suspend your judgment. Practice tolerance. Give yourself to each person’s journey with a measure of grace. Look for the underlying pattern of liberation. Celebrate with them!

This book arises from a time and place in history shaded primarily by Judeo-Christian teachings. Thus, many of the stories are about emerging from a particular compression of culture. Obviously, it would be different if I were writing from an Asian or Middle Eastern setting. This is why I urge you to see the pattern in each story, not just the details.

Here is a link to download a free PDF copy, easily importable into your Kindle device or other e-reader.

Namaste! God bless you! As-salamu alaykum! Mitakuye oyasin! May the Force be with you! Keep on truckin’! LOL!

The Heart of the Matter

An icy wind strafes the South Texas desert as we grab our backpacks and walking sticks. Our guide, Kelly Timmons, has just briefed us on the steepness of our descent to see the White Shaman Mural, a famous example of prehistoric rock art. Kelly volunteers with the Witte Museum which now oversees the preserve, and her sense of responsibility for all of us is palpable.

As we turn to go, she notices two service pins on my jacket.

“You’re a Master Naturalist?” she asks.

“Yes,” I reply. “I completed my training last year.”

“I’ve done the training also,” she says. “I just need to finish my volunteer hours. It will be great having you on this hike. I don’t know as much as I should. I’m sure you’ll be able to point out a lot of features to us.”

I smile, but inwardly I wince. Unlike many other Master Naturalists, I am not a walking encyclopedia of taxonomy. I often rely on others to help me identify animals and plants. My specialty is to offer a strong back at work parties, as well as my writing and editing skills for our newsletter. I’m learning but I often feel inadequate.

As we begin the decline into the canyon, two things are clear. One, Kelly is at home in the desert, walking with a lively, athletic stride. Two, she is modest about her knowledge. Though she apologizes for not knowing the names of a few species, her other observations enrich our hike. She shows us resurrection plants brought to life by recent rain, as well as leatherstem, also called sangre de drago (dragon’s blood) because of its red sap. She describes the many uses of the agave lechugilla by native people. She points out clear imprints of rudist and turritella fossils.

“It’s amazing,” I say, “that we are standing on what was once the ocean floor.”

She nods, scans the vista, takes a deep breath. A huge smile comes to her face.

Down we go, then up a ladder-like set of steps to the cliffside alcove sheltering the mural. It is stunning! Only its original creators know the fullness of its meaning, but Kelly and her co-guide, Lacy Finley, describe the prevailing theories—part origin myth, part solar and lunar calendar. What I find fascinating is that the celebrated central figure is most likely the Lunar Goddess, decapitated and adorned with snakes. The Aztecs had a similar violent myth that described the triumph of the sun over the moon. Lacy recounts how archaeologists climbed down to the mural on the winter solstice. Exactly at sunset, a shadow fell across the neckline of that goddess. It gives me shivers!

Just prior to our return, we have a few moments to examine the mural more closely, taking turns photographing and marveling. I walk to the edge of the alcove and scan the panorama. In the distance, beyond beautiful cliffs, is the Pecos High Bridge—a monumental trestle above the Pecos River near its intersection with the Rio Grande.

Kelly joins me.

“It’s breathtaking, isn’t it?” she says.

Then she sighs contentedly.

“This is my happy place,” she says, and the depth of her love for this desert environment—its  plants and animals, its human and geologic history—is nothing short of contagious.

I think to myself: this is the heart of the matter. Master Naturalists can share copious head knowledge about the natural world. That’s important. The science is not only fascinating; it is key to understanding ecosystems and their preservation.

But on a deeper level, what we impart is our joy of immersion in nature. We communicate our gratitude for its rejuvenating power. As pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson once said, “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.”

Back in the parking lot before departing, Kelly and I bump elbows (COVID-style) rather than shake hands. I thank her for the excellent tour, but later I regret not praising her for conveying that deeper love at the heart of the matter.

Hopefully, she’ll read this post. Thank you, Kelly!

The Necessity of Wildness

This past summer of 2020, my crowdfunding campaign for this book supported the Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Texas. It was a creative way to volunteer during the pandemic, and I’m grateful to everyone who joined that effort. Now, I offer the volume for free. The first link allows you to view it as a flip book. The second link will give you a PDF download. The front and back covers are at the bottom. I hope your 2021 is blessed with many hours of rejuvenating time in nature!

The Necessity of Wildness (flip book version)
The Necessity of Wildness (PDF version)

I Found Him Through the Spore Drive

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook: “So, two hours ago I rent 12 Monkeys on Amazon Prime and suddenly, out of the blue, Terry Gilliam shows up for the first time in my newsfeed.”

Yep. We’ve all experienced it. Laser targeting.

Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma confirms the worst about our online surfing. Every click, every preference runs through complex algorithms so that advertisers can pinpoint us for profit. This includes the clickbait articles on our feeds, tailored to our world views. In chilling detail, the film shows how social media has contributed not only to fake news, but to our continued polarization. Literally, two people can sit down at a coffee shop, flip open their laptops, then browse through alternate versions of the world, all of it presented as fact.

That’s the dark side of our addiction to the internet. However, I want to celebrate how it connects us to far-flung places and people.

I liken it to the Spore Drive in Star Trek: Discovery. A network of mycelium spread across the universe, allowing explorers to instantaneously travel from one point to another, as though miraculously teleported. The Discovery’s Captain, Gabriel Lorca, described it this way: “Imagine a microscopic web that spans the entire cosmos. An intergalactic ecosystem. An infinite number of roads leading everywhere.”

What a wonderful metaphor for the world wide web! I often marvel where it takes me, especially through neural networks like Instagram. Daily, I connect with people from every continent. Their photos celebrate life, love, travel and art. There is joy and pathos, faith and doubt, woe and wonder—a colorful panorama of life on our planet.

The other day, I encountered a video streaming some provocative words. Did the videographer write them, or is it someone else’s poetry? I entered the Spore Drive and found the origin, a piece called Scheherazade by Richard Siken, from his collection Crush, winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize in 2004. He wrote it after the death of his boyfriend. I find it haunting and provocative.

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.
It’s not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere,
it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,
how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple
to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
we’re inconsolable.
Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we’ll never get used to it.

Who is Siken? Again, the Spore Drive, this time Wikipedia. He is the recipient of numerous grants and residencies over the years, founder of Spork Press, and released a second book of poems in 2015 called War of the Foxes.

Finally, I learned that he suffered a stroke in 2018. I found his Facebook page which chronicles his struggle to recover, including his first poetry post in two years.

I sent him a friend request, this bard I discovered through the Spore Drive.

Whether or not he responds, I hope he regains his strength. I hope he continues to share his gift.

Jesus is the Treason for the Season

Despite the cautions about discussing religion or politics at family gatherings, we served up heaping helpings of both on Thanksgiving. The debate was lively, and a consensus gradually emerged. Religion in any form can breed fanaticism, closed minds, judgment of others. I use this italicized word on purpose: no one’s religious truth should trump someone else’s.

One of my sons said, “It can even be risky to take children to Sunday School. They might get indoctrinated before they learn to make choices for themselves.”

That’s a mouthful from someone raised as a preacher’s kid. And…he has a point.

Early experience of a  faith community can be wonderfully grounding for children. We can expose them to concepts of unity, service, and love for the human family, especially those who differ from us.

But let’s face it. Critical thinking skills don’t fully emerge until adolescence. Until then, when we present myth and absolute truth backed by authority figures and worship, how can children sort it out? How can they know that the way offered to them is just one of many beautiful options on this planet?

Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, often spoke of the  “post-hypnotic trance” induced in our youth. The weight of what we are taught and how we are treated too often numbs us to our authentic identities.

My parents (God bless them!) had me confirmed in the Lutheran tradition. The task was to memorize and confess the right beliefs. The presiding pastor never encouraged us to think for ourselves, to test every truth in the laboratories of our lives. No one spoke about the sanctity of individual conscience.

That’s why, in my years as a pastor, I approached confirmation classes from a vastly different perspective. Yes, we surveyed the history of Christianity. We examined the scope of the Bible and its genres. We even outlined the polity of our denomination. But we clearly emphasized some central truths. Question authority! Think for yourself! Don’t adopt someone else’s faith unless it makes sense to you!

Which brings me to Christmas. The quaint stories of a pregnant virgin, choirs of angels, and a star spotlighting Bethlehem, arise from the wells of legend. In my childhood, these myths were enthralling. I could feel the breathless expectation of the Messiah’s birth, as if nothing in history made sense before that moment. It, and later the cross, became portals to ultimate meaning.

With a subterranean sigh, I think of how much time and energy it took to unlearn what they taught me. To realize that all faith systems are attempts to apprehend this mystery in which we live. To critically examine holy writings from historical and literary viewpoints. To move from an exclusive faith to one that embraces the journey of every human being, no matter how different from my own.

Yesterday, I saw a familiar sign on someone’s front lawn: Jesus is the Reason for the Season. I don’t know the residents of that home, but I have met too many who insist on this slogan as a cultural mandate. We all know the litany. The myths of scripture, including Christmas, are inerrant historical truth. Jesus is the only way to God. Being Christian means being right. Be saved or be damned.

For me, Christmas is a time to reclaim what it is about Jesus and his message that still guide my journey. His anti-materialism. The way he challenged his own people’s nationalism and religious arrogance. His counterculture stories that still burrow into our souls. His love for the disenfranchised. His victory in forgiving his enemies while they executed him on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.

As the Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith says, that cherubic baby in the Bethlehem manger would grow up to be “unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition.”

That’s why, in good conscience, I can still enter into his story.

Jesus is the treason for the season!

Lovecraft Country and the Great “I Am”

HBO’s Lovecraft Country, based on Matt Ruff’s provocative novel, is not for the faint-hearted. Part sci-fi, part horror, it features savage monsters and a copious spilling of blood. But its plot, its cast, and its exposé of America’s horrific racism are gripping!

One of the characters is Hippolyta Freeman, a brilliant woman adept in mathematics and astronomy. She is also a devoted mother and wife to her late husband George, having worked with him to produce The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional counterpart to The Negro Motorist Green Book.

After George’s death, Hippolyta embarks on a multidimensional voyage of self-discovery. She unlocks the secrets of an orrery, takes the key it offers, then travels to Mayfield, Kansas, the place where George died. There, within an observatory, she finds a machine right of out of H.G. Wells that fits her key. It launches her to what seems like a space ship, where a towering black woman looms above her.

“Who are you?” asks Hippolyta. The woman answers, “I Am.” “Am I in prison?” asks Hippolyta.  “No, you are not in a prison,” responds the woman. “Name yourself! Where do you want to be?”

What follows is a beautiful journey of a soul becoming unbound. Hippolyta first goes to Paris to dance alongside Josephine Baker, letting the sisterhood and bohemian nightlife unwind her. She tastes new freedom, and at first it angers her. She describes it this way to Baker:

“All those years I thought I had everything I ever wanted, only to come here and discover that all I ever was was the exact kind of Negro woman white folks wanted me to be. I feel like they just found a smart way to lynch me without me noticing a noose … Sometimes I just, I wanna kill white folks. And it’s not just them … I hate me, for letting them make me feel small.”

Hippolyta then zooms to a dimension where she learns swordplay, preparing her to command a band of Amazons (fitting given her name). She leads her sister warriors into a savage victory against Confederate soldiers. Finally, she revisits George in a touching bedroom scene, this time confronting him with an awareness that she diminished herself by always putting him and his activities first.

In each of these realms she connects with an essential part of herself, naming it, giving it flesh, setting it free in the constellation of her personality. And each time, what sparks the transition is her acclamation of “I am Hippolyta. I am Hippolyta. I am …HIPPOLYTAAAAAA!” 

Yes! I am!

Discovering the sacred nature of our own humanness is at the core of our planet’s best spiritual teachings. This dawning realization awakens our unique identities. We learn to cast off shackles, employ our gifts, actualize our destinies. It is from this sacredness that we come to cherish and protect the Imago Dei, image of God, in other human beings. Symbolically, this clarity arises as we voice the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush, claiming it for our own lives: I am what I am!

Part of the blasphemy charges leveled at Jesus in the Gospel of John came from his well-known “I Am” statements. We usually translate the Greek words ego eimi as “I am,” but they carry the connotation of “I am what I am.” One of my favorite professors, Herman Waetjen, often said that Jesus was not only intentionally voicing the name of God; he was calling each us to say “I AM” with power and dignity.  

On this level, Episode 7 of Lovecraft County, speaks to all of us in our struggles to rise above the acculturation that clips our wings and does violence to our personhood.

May we all learn to say with Hippolyta, “Now that I’m tasting it, freedom, like I’ve never known before, I see what I was robbed of back there.”

May we all learn to say with Jesus, “I am what I am!”

(For further reading, I wrote a poem called I AM that you might find interesting)