Friday, January 25, 2019

Are You Spiritual But Not Religious?

’m spiritual but not religious.”  That is the way more and more people describe themselves in this culture.  “I want a piece of the spirit world”--I guess they mean—“but I don’t want to bother with all the fol-de-rol that comes with religion.  Buildings and bureaucracies and budgets are not worth my time.  The sentiment is not far from that of the 19th century poet Robert Southey, who said, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him his leprous bride the Church.”  There is nothing much new about the preference for the “spiritual” over the “religious.”  The latter seems all balled up with the material—money and property and organization—and there is a long, long tradition that pits spirit against matter with a clear preference for the former.  Spirit is assumed to be good whenever it rivals matter.
To be spiritual but not religious would appear, at first glance, to be an attractive choice.  (And, lest you think I’m going to come down on the side of being religious,  let me warn you that I have nothing whatsoever against being “spiritual” per se.)  But, whatever its advantages, “spiritual” is not necessarily easy.  For one thing, I haven’t yet met a person who can successfully say what being “spiritual” is.  Does it mean saying one’s prayers?  Does it mean serving the sick and needy?  Does it mean reading the Bible?  Does it mean meditating on the Tao?  Does it mean using beads and feathers and doing dances?  Does it mean hitting the streets and demonstrating for universal health care?  It can mean any or all or none of those things, depending on what anybody decides it will mean.  And, incidentally, none of the things on that particular list is easy.

But one thing seems clear.  To be spiritual has something to do with spirit.  That is not much help, given the long list of things that “spirit” can mean—including such disparate things as “ghost” and “liquor” and “enthusiasm for one’s school.”  Let’s cut to the chase.  Spirit has to do with God.  Perhaps the most memorable equation of the two comes from St. John’s gospel where Jesus says to a Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”  Luke no doubt would agree with that, but makes the point in his own way.  Twelve times before we reach Chapter 4, where we find today’s story of Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue, Luke has referred directly or indirectly to him as a person uniquely shaped by the Holy Spirit and therefore uniquely “spiritual.”  But Jesus is more than a practitioner of spiritual things.  He is literally filled with Spirit. 

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he says in the words of Isaiah.  His is going to be a ministry of bringing good news to the poor, bringing release to the captives, of opening the eyes of the blind, of freeing the oppressed, of proclaiming the Lord’s favor.  In a real sense, Luke answers the question of what a spirit-filled life looks like by telling the story of Jesus’ ministry.  All those things that Paul writes about to the Corinthians (which you heard in our second lesson today) are manifestations of Holy Spirit.  But the fullest manifestation of Holy Spirit is Jesus.  Praying and healing and feeding and teaching and forgiving and giving his very life when there was nothing else left to give:  these are the things that a life full of spirit does. 

Let’s drop back for a minute and view Jesus through a longer lens.  How would we know he was “full of spirit”?  A word of caution here.  It is tempting to imagine (and that is all we can do, imagine) that being saturated with spirit has something to do with personality traits such as being animated versus being quiescent.  There is no way of telling what Jesus was really like, and to suggest otherwise would only betray what we ourselves project onto him.  But Luke, I think, would tell us that Jesus’ personality was not the point in the first place.  The point is what holy spirit does, not how it appears.  On the other hand, Luke has inherited some key ideas from the Jewish experience, and one of them is the close connection between spirit (ruah) and breath.  Spirit is life.  Another is the notion that the outpouring of spirit, on David or Elijah or Gideon, for example, enables one to do deeds of surpassing power.  Life and power are thus what, for Luke, Jesus supremely manifests.

But, unlike the other gospel writers, Luke does not stop with telling the story of Jesus, as if the point were that Jesus was the beginning and the end of it all.  He writes a whole other book that we call “The Acts of the Apostles.”  That is, as much as Volume I, the Gospel According to Luke, a document about spirit.  It did not stop with Jesus.  Spirit-filled lives continue in the Church.  It is not insignificant that the title we give to Volume II is Acts.  The Spirit is not about having a degree in God and retiring into pious dreaming or something of the sort.  The Spirit is life and power that gets expressed in re-interpreting scripture to those honestly searching, as did Philip; in healing the way that Jesus healed, as did John and Peter; in boldly confessing the Truth in the teeth of oppression and even  going to jail because of one’s witness, as did Peter and Paul; of letting one’s heart and mind be changed to include the previously excluded, as did Peter; and of redefining the vision of the Church, as did Paul; of practicing generosity and hospitality, as did Lydia; of turning around and making good after failure, as did John Mark.  And all of those stories of the spirit have to do with you.  They are told to make the connection between the Spirit that possessed Jesus and the Spirit that possesses the Body of Christ.

Robert Southey 1774-1843
Yes, the Body of Christ, the Church.  Have I pulled a fast one on you?  Here we were only a minute ago talking about being spiritual, which sounds like such an individual thing, freed from association with that leprous bride of Christ who married so unfortunately beneath himself, and here we are talking about the Church.  But the very reason that Southey and others, perhaps even you, complain about “religion” and find the Church to be so leprous is precisely because, stripped of spirit, it is at best dead and at worst deadly.  What a pitiful caricature of Jesus’ body we are if we are lifeless, energy-less, dispirited, in a word.  It is a sad and terrible day when one has to choose between being “spiritual” and being “religious,” if by spiritual we mean “filled with spirit” and if by “religious” we mean being lifeless.   Bodies are meant to be vivified by spirit.  Your body is that way.  Jesus’ body was that way.  And the Body of Christ, the Church, is that way.  Quite simply, the Church, as the example of “religion,” is meant to be spiritual, and cannot be truly itself if it is not.

Yet in the popular mind a person does not need community in order to be complete or fulfilled or whole.  But we Christians have a different point of view.  The New Testament understands that it is precisely by being united to Christ and to Christ’s new community that we in fact find and know and feel the Spirit.  I do not mean to suggest that somehow a person’s worth is tied to how much they “go to church.”  But I do mean to underscore that true Christian spirituality involves practicing the life of the Holy Spirit—which is another way of talking about the Life of Christ and thus the Life of God—in community.  It is even possible for a person to lead a solitary life as a hermit and be Christian, so long as one is connected in some major ways to the community.   Some of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith, like St. Seraphim of Sarov,
St. Seraphim of Sarov Feeding the Bear
and Julian of Norwich, have been sterling examples of Spirit-filled lives while living as solitaries.  But they lived solitary lives so that by their prayer and counsel they could contribute to the Body of Christ, not to get away from irritating people.

If you have noticed, I have drawn no sharp line between “spiritual” and “spirit-filled.”  I concede that the two terms sometimes seem quite distinct.  But at the end of the day to be authentically spiritual is to be thoroughly alive, and to be filled with the Spirit is likewise to be totally alive.  And to be both is to be unmistakably full of life and power. 

That is why we are here today.  If you are charged and ready, great.  Lend your spirit to the whole body of the faithful, which in turn empowers you.  If you are dispirited and doubtful, come to the table and be fed by and with the one whose life is full of Spirit.  And if you are quaking in your boots with fear of what faces you tomorrow or the next day, sip the wine of wholeness which is a spirit that will quicken you once more.  To a small and fear-struck army, Shakespeare’s King Henry V, grown from a playboy into a leader, says,

Henry V (1989 film with Henry Branagh) before the Battle of Harfleur

Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height…
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit,..!

Follow your spirit.  Your spirit.  The Spirit.  The Lord and Giver of Life.  Follow.

A sermon preached on Luke 4:14-21 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010; revised 2019

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Leather and Justice

artin Luther King Weekend in Washington always coincides with Mid-Atlantic Leather. Or I should probably say that the organizers of the latter have for years placed the event on the MLK Birthday weekend.

At first it would seem incongruous—a community that most of society would look upon as curiously fetishistic—focusing on things not in the slightest way linked to the great causes of Dr. King. Indeed some probably would think, if they gave any thought to it, that leather-loving men and women ought to be ashamed of partying when they ought to be taking cues from the holy example of Martin Luther King, Jr., trampling down the now virulent rise of a new wave of racism and allied injustices.
The face of leather is not always fierce.

Granted, I might be erecting "a straw man" just to knock him over by bringing up a subject that is far from the top of people's consciousness by and large. But that it precisely why I'm commenting on it today. I'm giving my life to work for the liberation of people from the shame-laden traps in which they're caught, traps erected by social forces that see no earthly good in subcultures heavily populated by sexual minorities as the leather community is. I'm giving my energy to encourage wholeness that can only come when we accept every part of ourselves, not just those that cut the muster in whatever now passes for polite society.

A huge part of that process of liberation is overthrowing the idea that great spiritual ideals—indeed the practice of a spiritual life—is incompatible with erotic energy, which sometimes finds expression in fantasy and fetish as well as in more domesticated places like the marriage bed. Indeed one of society's ills—I speak of globalized Western society in particular, but there are others—ills largely undiagnosed and thus untreated is the continual repression of erotic energy. No, I'm not talking about "sexual energy" and calling it "erotic" to sound intellectual. Erotic energy is Love, and Love has many forms and faces, its sexual visage being only one. As Carl Jung once said, eros is not about sex; it is about relatedness. Little wonder that we are a society shredded between extreme wealth and grinding poverty. No wonder at all that we are prey to forces that constantly stir up division and tear us asunder. Hatred of men for women and women for men; disdain for people who we imagine to be threatening a sacrosanct way of life; active persecution of minorities; shaming of those who are differently colored and those of different abilities than the majority; exploitation by those in religious and political authority of vulnerable people in their care and charge: credit that to a huge and devastating mismanagement of erotic energy. Someone once called sin "trampled-on love." Those things warp, twist, stomp on, degrade, and ultimately trash love.
"Only love can drive out hate."

I celebrated today. I celebrated Mid-Atlantic Leather weekend by enjoying a brunch with dozens of other men gathered in a non-pretentious and lovely home, who took the occasion to make contributions to "Brother Help Thyself," a community-based organization that provides financial and other support to non-profit organizations serving the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS community in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. metro area. Most people there came dressed in leather to one degree or another. And conversations were what you'd expect of any social gathering--who was doing what, where people lived, what they were working on, what their plans were for 2019 and so on. In other words, dress aside, we were just human beings having a great time. Government workers, physicians, therapists, clergy, architects, writers, and lots of folk about whom I have no clue: we were all brothers celebrating membership in a community, drawn by the peculiarity of liking a special commodity made possible by the larger brotherhood and sisterhood of animal life.

At that brunch I was just as much celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. His was a life and a witness to liberation from all forms of oppression. Had his life not been cut down in its prime, he would have waged battles, as indeed he had begun to do, that were far larger, wider, harder than even the Civil Rights struggle that gave him prominence. His witness consistently called out the evils, often unconscious, that cheapen human flesh and quench human spirit. Most of the guys chowing down on brunch today were men who have discovered the stellar brilliance of abandoning conformity to be themselves. I don't imagine that one soul there would disagree with these words of Dr. King: "You know, a lot of people don’t love themselves. And they go through life with deep and haunting emotional conflicts. So the length of life means that you must love yourself. And you know what loving yourself also means? It means that you’ve got to accept yourself."

The future of justice hinges on the strength of Love.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

More than Hand-wringing

I think it was Robert McAfee Brown who wrote back during the Viet Nam War that he really looked forward to the day when he could get back to theological reflection and writing, but that he felt compelled to speak out about the injustice and cruelty of war for as long as it took.

I feel something of the same way about these days. For over two years now I have awakened every day thinking that the news could not possibly be worse than the day before. Somewhere along the line I noticed that the thought was utterly vain. The news is indeed always worse, more dire than the day before. Surely there are bright spots here and there, stories of heroism, reports of generosity and kindness, spotlights shown on neighbor helping neighbor. Yet I would be remiss, and so would you, to let ourselves become more than momentarily distracted from the serious disintegration of American democracy that is accelerating alarmingly. There yet may be a Day of Reckoning in the offing, but until it dawns, we are awash in the dark and troubled waters of lies, deceit, delusion, and the degradation of public discourse. And those are just symptoms of a thoroughgoing sickness, a pernicious malady deep in the bones on our communal life.

Ah! Communal life! One of the brightest and most articulate scholars I've known at close range in recent years is Charles Lawrence, a former parishioner of mine and erstwhile professor of law in Georgetown University. He made the comment once that the purpose of the Constitution was to create community. I agree, although to be sure those were not the terms used at its inception. I also know well, and he much better, that the Constitution was skewed in the direction of protecting the interests of the rich and powerful, notably the then slave-holding population that begged to be placated. And thus the evil of human debasement was written into the fabric of this otherwise laudable document that attempted for all that to create community, a true commonwealth.

We have lost much of what the promise held. Not everyone has, by a long shot. There are still signs of hope that not everything of worth is diminished. But still the troubles we have that cluster around a belligerent, foolish President and a dysfunctional White House are much deeper than the players themselves. Not until we undo years and years, decades now, of idolatry fixated on the accumulation of wealth (always at the expense of the poor and powerless) will we even begin to touch the root causes of a decaying civilization.

The young will scorn me for being far too pessimistic, as I would have myself when my eyes sparkled with hope for a future bright with opportunity. Those who have lived as long as I know, or should know, that there are no men or women riding white horses that will prance in to save the day, no leaders that can turn this heavy-laden ship of State around in a few short years. We might end the stupidity of shutting down the world's most powerful and once promising government. We might address even some hard problems such as health care for everyone. We might restore some respectability of the United States of America among the nations who now fear that we've lost our minds or laugh us to scorn. But the real crisis that we face is not a pathetic band of abused and war-weary immigrants pleading for asylum and some measure of economic opportunity. The crisis is the now practically uncontrollable degradation of the environment, the wanton exploitation of natural resources, and above all the widening gap between the shrinking percentage of wealth-holders and the burgeoning ranks of the economically oppressed.

We can do more than wring our hands. We can do better than fight each other. We can call ourselves to remember the community that we were created to be and to become. And at the bottom of the stack lies the possibility that we can stop making deals with Death that so frequently is made up and decorated to look like Life. We have the power to bore more deeply into our souls and to start the reconstruction of the world by the reordering of our Selves. It won't happen as long as we tune out, cop out, drop out, and resign our rights and powers to those who only care about feathering their nests. And it won't happen as long as we dam up the Love within us, afraid that should we try loving for a change we might lose what little we have. It was always true and it always will be that giving ourselves away is the only hope we have of ever finding ourselves.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019