Usually, Laura has a better sense about social media than I do. She tells me often that I need to “break up” with people of Facebook. In the end I agree with her, but I still have some roots from past religious experiences that believes I can change people. These people also believe the same thing about me. Often, they are easy to recognize because of the religious sounding names in their Facebook profile. I’ve learned to weed out those people early on because they often have agendas that either don’t interest me or would only take me back to spiritual infancy that I am trying to distance myself fun. At the least, it will end in an argument.
I think I can say without reservation that I would never “friend” a person that garnered the name “prophet” in their Facebook profile. These people generally want to “speak” into my life and they are hoping for an audience that fuels their narcissistic endeavors. Maybe, it’s not always true, but my experience teaches me it is just better to avoid them altogether. Engaging with them either ends with an argument or with them condemning me for some vague thing that isn’t even true. With that said, I have nothing but admiration and respect for those that are truly prophetic and have something to say to the world. I lump them together, the poets and the prophets.
These people, the poets and the prophets, are quite the opposite from the people I mentioned before. They do not seek to be honored or recognized as much as they like to give what they have been given. They have a song to sing or word to say, but because they don’t always understand what it is they are trying to share, it is always with a bit of reluctance that they share their treasure with the world.
I believe Bob Dylan is one of the greatest poets of all time. I recently discovered his song, “Every Grain of Sand.” I think I understand about 10% of it, but I agree with other Dylan fans that this may be one of the greatest songs ever written. I think it’s about the universe. I think it’s also about the Divine. It’s about nature and our place and significance and things like that. But, even when poets are asked to explain their own creations, it’s often difficult for them to explain what they were trying to say.
The Christian Scriptures (The Bible) is a 1600 years record of people struggling to understand God. Many of them were prophets and poets. Along with the authors of the Bible, there are probably hundreds of thousands of seekers that have written about their quest to understand God and the Universe and how it all works together. They spoke in different languages and used different methods, but the way to recognize a poet or a prophet is that they don’t come to definite conclusions. When someone writes to a definite conclusion, we can be certain that they settled for an elementary understanding of things and they probably were not a prophet or poet. Poets and prophets are searching for something deeper—something more Divine.
In some ways, I am trying to put language to the things I am discovering. In many ways, I try to share this with other people, hoping they will find words for the things that they are thinking. That’s a lot of what connection, one of our deepest needs is about. We want to hear a song or read a book that resonates with us. That part of us that has an inclination that things can be understood is what keeps us scrolling and reading and listening to music. But, the other part of us has an inclination that some things are very hard to describe. We need the poets and prophets because some things only get muddied when we try to define them. They are able to wrestle with thoughts and ideas without having to wrangle them into a belief or a system.
To me, love songs are when a poet attempts to put something into words that cannot adequately be described with words. In interviews, they say a lot of things like “It like…” or “It reminds me of…” People often get mad at them because they seem elusive and unclear. But, they are trying to describe something deeper and more mysterious that their language is able to define. People want to nail down the prophets of the Bible to be some kind of fortune tellers, but they were really just people trying to put into words what they were discovering when they went deeper—when they went inside.
In the introduction, I mentioned the idea of “sinking” to get closer to the Divine. It comes from the popular Bible verse that we usually interpret “Be still and know that I am God.” When we “cease striving” or “be still,” we are able to sink into the mysteries that are deeper and more ancient than our words can adequately describe. In my book, The Tea Shop, I talk about Van Morrison’s song, where he encourages us to float “Into the Mystic.” Many time, the conversation with mystics is stalled by the statement, “It’s very hard to describe.” Most contemplatives I know talk about going inside, but don’t ask them for a formula! It’s just a sinking, or a drifting that is hard to turn into a formula or prescription or even a belief.
If our practices can be succinctly described, we will remain in the kiddie pool of the spiritual world. But when we can sink, we can discover more of the depts of the creator and this divine creation. When we allow ourselves to float, we find not a slippery slope but a current of understanding that we may not be able to describe, but we will know much more deeply. We can see more of the vastness of this mysterious, mystical, and limitless journey when we let the prophets and poets lead us there with their colorful versions of “It’s kind of like this…”
Even though it’s hard to go deeper with the prophets and poets, it’s not a waste of time. When we ponder words and thoughts that are hard to wrangle, it deepens our understanding of the things that really matter. History shows that most new discoveries and new understanding comes from these mystical people that dare to imagine what couldn’t be described at the time. We found words for all their imaginations, but in many ways when we did, it put limits on them. We built walls around their expanding ideas and tamed them.
It’s time to be wild again. Take a prophet or poet on the journey and float out into the mystic. Dive deep into the mysteries of life and let yourself sink long enough to know what can only be imagined, not defined. Take a step out into the desert with those that have ventured there and find mystery and paradox and nuance, not certainty and doctrine. Listen to words of the poet:
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.
As I write the words to this chapter, the world is amid what most would describe as a crisis. It is described on a government website in my home state as, “an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was first detected in many locations internationally, including in the United States. The virus has been named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”). COVID-19 is spread through contact and has quickly spread throughout the world even to my hometown of Rock Port, MO. My Facebook feed today includes my mother’s disappointment that the virus has reached her hometown. The numbers change daily, so I won’t bore you with the numbers, but it’s safe to say we are in the middle of a pandemic.
Of course, there are some that are blatantly dismiss it as a crisis. They want to make it something spiritual or call it a conspiracy. For the sake of brevity and because I’m part baby boomer, for now I will just dismiss them as idiots and move on with what I’m trying to accomplish here. For me, I was just isolated from my job for 20 days, my daughter has been quarantined in her home for 2 weeks and we hear of new updates every day. Most of the people that dismissed this pandemic have been slowing arising from their slumber, including me.
I don’t know about you, but people like me have a coping strategy we like to employ. When something unique happens, we try to normalize or minimalize it. If I can somehow tie what is happing to something that happened in the past or if I can make it seem smaller in my mind than it actually is, then it won’t be as scary or I won’t have to make any changes in my life to adjust to the changes that are impending. Even though I like adventure, I like planned adventures and what I am discovering is that this is a living contradiction or maybe even an oxymoron. And, to make it worse, Dr. Mary Jeppsen state the following:
“There have never been times like these…unprecedented”
The situation we find ourselves is indeed like nothing most of us have ever seen or experienced in our lifetime. I have very few reference points for dealing with this crisis, so as I start to experience my part in this pandemic let me just state a few guidelines that I am building from. Primarily, it is okay not to be okay and it is okay to feel what you feel. Any time we shame ourselves or others for feeling what we feel, we just create many more problems and we have enough challenges. We don’t need to add guilt or shame or more despair to the equation. It’s enough on its own merit. The other thing I would share with you is what my friend Dr. Paul Fitzgerald say, “Don’t waste a good crisis.” So, hopefully that is what I am doing here.
Be where you are
Mrs. Beaty is one of the teachers I remember from private school. I remember her as kind and compassionate. She was probably patient also if she had to deal with me in those days, but every time someone talks about school, the classroom I picture is hers. Back then, teachers took roll. They would call out your name and you could either say “here” or “present.” Both of them meant the same thing – you were in the seat that was assigned to you. The word present didn’t mean what we now commonly refer to as at least some form of awareness and sort of a single-focus on something particular.
Jesus seemed to have this presence. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think he necessarily was always impressive, but I do believe he was always present. As a boy, when he was in the temple, he was fully present with the teachers and didn’t realize that the caravan for home had already left. He was fully engaged with what was most important and not distracted by other people’s agenda for him. When he was in the boat, he was fully engaged in the task at hand even when the task was taking a nap. When he was in the garden, he was in garden and not a million miles away. When he went away to pray, he was fully present in prayer and not reliving the past or dreading the future.
Over the past 18 months, I have been doing some very simple, physical work. People often ask me, “So, what’s the plan?” By this, I think they are struggling to see me as doing this physical work for anything more than a temporary stint. I’ve been an office worker for much of my adult life. The story of the last few years takes a long time to delineate and where I think this might be going is hard to describe, so I just say this:
This is what I am doing today
I say this because that is exactly what I say inside my head. If I look beyond the boundaries of the current day, or sometimes hour, I may become frightened of the future or regretful about the past. The best place to be in in the present. It’s really the only time we can live in. Our minds typically are in a hundred places at once. Often, we are absent from the moment we are participating in. There is a time to plan, but even those plans are subject to change. There is also a time to go back and do some necessary repair work. It can be fruitful, we just can’t live there. The only place we can live is in the here and now.
So, I say to myself, “This is what I am doing now” and “this is where I am.” One of my new favorite theologians, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness if you are attentive, you will see it.” This is how I want to live the rest of my life—in the present moment, experiencing joy and happiness because I was paying attention.
When Mrs. Beaty would say, “Mr. Forehand” and I would say, “president” or answer in a funny voice, she would exclaim “Mr. Forehand just say ‘here’ or ‘present’.” When Mrs. Beaty said present, she wanted to know if I was there. When Laura says, “Are you here?” she means “Are you present?” Let’s all come back to the present and live in the only time we can!
Be who you are
In the Bible, there is an incident described that I would describe as something similar to a drone strike. To make a long story short, Elijah the prophet and King Ahaziah get into a struggle about whether the king is respecting God. Elijah responds to the king’s lack of respect for God with calling down fire from heaven (like a drone strike) and wipes out the soldiers in successive waves (50 at a time) until Elijah (and apparently God) finally shows some mercy. It seems like a bit of an overreaction, to say the least, but it leaves me with lot of questions.
The question I ask is, “Is this what God is really like—does he really end people’s life just for disrespecting him?” To me that sounds like a gangster or a mob boss more than a loving, restorative God. It seems retributive and even childish, not wise like I imagine The Divine to be. The other big question I ask is, “Is this how we are supposed to be?” Are we supposed to be retributive to those who oppose God or don’t consult him first or believe in him? Apparently, the Israelites believed in the drone strike god because there is another reference to it in Luke chapter nine.
After the transfiguration, Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem and send messengers ahead to secure lodging for their visit. When the Samaritan village was unwelcoming, James and John question, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaving to destroy them?” Apparently, the common belief about their identity was that when someone stands in our way, we remove them from our path in the quickest and most efficient way. That’s was their understand of who they were. Even though Jesus teaching was completely contrary to this, they still clung to the ancient misunderstanding about God and what the people of God are like.
Jesus rebukes them. In some manuscripts, “You don’t know what kind of spirit you belong to.” If I could interpret a little, I would suggest that the battle is between the spirit of retribution and spirit of restoration. Jesus demonstrated his love and mercy toward the Samaritans (the sworn enemy of the Jews) several times. When Peter tried the way of retribution with his sword in the garden, Jesus rebuked him and basically told him, “that’s not who we are.”
Most of us like Peter are just trying to fit in. We want to be significant and we look to other people for models of how to get where we think we are going. James and John wanted to be like Elijah that represented the prophets. I can relate to that because I love the poets and the prophets and often lump them together. But in our desire to be significant, we have to remember that the one basic requirement is we first have to be who we are. We have to be authentic. One of my oldest daughter’s favorite quotes used to be Oscar Wilde’s statement:
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their life is a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
I have tattoo on my arm of a couple of Chinese characters. The characters are a Mandarin word about authenticity. It literally means, “Real.” That is my prayer for the second half of my life and my hope for the world. I want us to be who we are.
Maybe this pause in our lives will cause us to consider living differently. Maybe we can get out of the patterns we have become accustomed to and decide what is important and what is not. Hopefully our lives will become much simpler by determining what is truly necessary and what is window dressing.
My hope is that we will learn to be where we are and be who we are!
YOU ARE FOLLOWING THIS BLOGYOU ARE FOLLOWING THIS BLOG (MANAGE).
Got together with some mental health professionals and talked about the current crisis and how it is unique in it’s characteristics. How is this crisis unique? How can we cope effectively with the crisis. What is common to all of this? What did the participants hope for our near future?
Richard stepped down from his role as a pastor in 2003. He now spends his time writing and making animated videos and creating cartoons. We had a great conversation about his thoughts around organized religion. This is good stuff!
(From the Facebook page)
Right now millions of Christians are opting out of today’s organized church system. But a lot of them aren’t leaving because they want LESS of Jesus. They actually want MORE!!! Does that sound crazy??? Then check out the FREE AUDIOBOOK version of the former Number One New Release, “Unchurching: Christianity Without Churchianity”.
A long-time friend confronted me by text message the other day. He probably won’t read this and I’ll keep the details vague so you can’t tell who he is. Most people that confront me about my beliefs do so with some level of concern, so I try to recognize their vulnerability and courage to do that. My guess is that they feel they might be able to “save” me in some way. Often the coversation reveals something about me and especially about my former beliefs.
Here are a couple of things this person said to me:
“There are many people that are worried about you and praying for you”
“Karl, you are not on a good journey”
“You may be finding worldy peace but not what God has intended for you”
“You have turned from the love you once knew”
“It brings me to tears to have to say this to you.”
I am sure this is how I would have confronted someone in the past. Apart from the judgement and worry and fear, which aren’t prescribed in the Bible, I could tell he was genuinely concerned. But, why exactly was he “about to cry?” The more I thought about it the more I remembered the fear. Fear was a natural part of the organized religion I was involved in. We called it concern, but it was really just fear. It was a natural part of doing business.
Using my conversation with my friend, I would like to tear this apart a little and talk about what I now understand as flawed in this type of fear-based regious system. What does it say about our image of God? What does it say about us?
It assumes no one really has peace.
I talked about peace when I was a pastor, but I’m not sure if I ever really experienced or truly understood it. My friend told me that I didn’t have peace even though he can’t look into my heart of feel what I feel. He asumes that because I don’t follow his specific belief system that all kinds of things have gone wrong for me. After all, that’s a part of the sales pitch every week, “You bettter stay close to God and stay in his word and stay in prayer…” The list goes on, and you never really feel like you’ve got it quite nailed down. But you’re sure that others outside your circle couldn’t possilby have it together.
When messages and conversations begin with fear, they are certain to end with solution that always leaves us with a little anxiety. Am I doing it right? Did I get the facts straight? Did I perform well enough? And, if we’re responsible for each other, did I warn enough other people? There’s always a “slippery slope” or something to be afraid of. Success in a Fundamentalist Evangelical world many times looks more like hide-and-seek and the performing arts more than a relationship.
Like I said, I don’t know if I ever felt real peace until I got outside of that environment and experienced some mystery and nuance and allowed myself to be uncertain. I know it sounds like a contradition, but it’s not.
It makes God out to be a Jerk
When someone says they are praying for me these days, it causes me to go into a tail-spin. I have to assume what they mean because I don’t use that language any more. I’m assuming it means that they want me to do something different. If they are assuming that I’m in some kind of peril, then they are also assuming that God could convince me of what would change my situation. But when I was doing it, we assumed we needed more people to pray to make it happen. That makes God out to be a cosmic jerk, waiting somewhere at a distance saying, “one more person — pray harder — I don’t think you mean it– you didn’t even cry.”
But, deeper than this is the underlying assumption that God is angry and retributive. I’ve been angry as a father (occasionally), but the basic assumption to this type of religious system is that God is angry and retributive most of the time. Since this type of system assumes original sin and that we are inherently bad, the natural assumption is that retributive God is mad almost all the time and it’s our fault. Again, it paints a picture of a God that is waiting somewhere for us to mess up. Don’t make a wrong choice in your belief system! Don’t question the belief that you inherited! Don’t step out of line or challenge too much! The picture is of a God that has a short-fuse and is mostly retributive instead o the restorative picture we find in Jesus.
Many times I couldn’t hardly get the words grace, love or mercy out of my mouth when describing God, without someone adding, “but also judgement!”
What Really Bothers Me
The thing that really bothers me about the situation is that there is so much fear that the people from my previous life don’t want to talk about it. They just really want me to know that they are uncomfortable with my change and they would rather me change back to be like them. If I can fit into their belief system, they might accept me back after a little bit of shaming, but there would be great rejoicing at the Baptist church when one of their lost sheep comes home.
The other thing is when we do that religious thing of saying, “I’m concerned for you,” that’s not what we really mean. What we really are tring to articulate is muti-layered. First, it means that we are absolutely sure that the specific belief system that we have inherited 2000 years after Jesus walked the earth is absultely right, correct and the Bible that we carry is infallible. Are we really that arrogant to think that the chain of custody for our faith is untarnished and pure as the driven snow. The second assumption is if someone thinks differently they are in danger of hell-fire or at least of being unworthly of our fellowship. They especially shouldn’t expect to be in leadership or have a voice in the group, especially if they are women. Again, that’s a very arrogant stance to take, but almost universal when speaking about my former affiliations.
Do you know what the strangest part of my current belief system? I don’t really feel the need to change what my former friends believe. Do I wish they could see what I see? Yes! But, for now, I understand that all of us are on different journeys. And as long as we are inquitive and open, I think it’s good for us to be on different paths. As I look back, I would love to bring my old friends with me and I’d be okay if they didn’t agree. But, to go on the journey, it’s imperative that we begin learning to be brave. And bravery requires that we begin to let go of the fear.
My friend took the first step to the desert journey by doing something uncomfortable and facing his fear. The more he does that, the more he will have the courage to ask the hard questions and risk exploring the big question, “What if I am wrong?”
I wish you well on the journey that you are on. I know that fear is tenacious, but I promise it gets easier to manage every time we face it. Lean in! We’re not wrong to question and to journey out into the unknown. I can tell you for sure, it’s not a slippery slope and you won’t lose your soul — in fact you might find it.
Of course, she is not only just my favorite teacher–she is my favorite in lots of areas. I hope you appreciate how vulnerable it is to share our life with you. Our hope is that it will enhance your life.
Did I tell you we also wrote a book together — check back later this year!