Sunday, April 26, 2009

Saying "So long, self"

Not much to say this week. I've been sick today, feeling quite depressed and tired. However my service tonight did me good. Our pastor, Rev. John Merz, spoke of the experience of the holiness of God in our lives as the "I:Thou" moments, a concept he learned from Martin Buber. Buber's idea was that there are two modes of daily living; "I-It" and "I-Thou." "I-It" is the way most of us function day to day, at a semi-unconscious mode of living. The way Merz put it was that in "I-It" most of the outside world is objectified, deadened, except for how it figures into our purposes and goals for the day.
Then there're the "I-Thou" moments where something happens that takes us completely out of our routine, out of our habitual responses, and brings us a connection with someone or something. A piece of music that flutters in from nowhere, a baby that starts laughing and jumping as busy business people walk by around him. Moments where we experience the miracle of creation itself, where we abandon ourselves to it.
Some of the happiest freest moments of my life have been when I no longer worried about myself, when I could step outside myself completely. And these days, I am in the exact opposite position, worried about my job, my finances, my future and this weekend, my health. I pray that this week for a more healthy balance, and more moments outside myself.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gay marriage: yes or no?

1.Okay guys-it's all over the papers, and I think it's time we talked about it.
I'm for it. I think that churches have the right to oppose it, but I don't think that individual churches and denominations should hold sway over state and federal policies. If two consenting adults want to get married, it's not the state's job to protect the sanctity of sacraments, just the freedom of the church to practice those sacraments.
I also strongly reject the idea that gay marriage is a threat to marriage. Any couple that can provide a good example of a monogamous commitment should be an encouragement to the rest of us that marriage CAN work.
Heck, if the churches really want the government to defend marriage, shouldn't we ban divorce? 50% of marriages end in it! It's the #1 marriage killer, I would think, after death!
Okay, enough of me talking...TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK!
Love ya all. -Dan

It's good to know what you need

I believe today was my last day with the Unitarians. After trying a couple of services, I’ve found that I need a bit more of Jesus in my church than what they have to offer.
I came to the Unitarians because I questioned my faith, and still do. I question whether Jesus is the son of God, whether there is a heaven or hell, whether my prayers do any good for anyone but me. And I sought them out as a group that saw skepticism as healthy,and inquiry as a twin of faith.
Yet I also realized after just a few Unitarian services, that although I question my beliefs, I still thrive on them. I still need to hear Christ’s words on a regular basis, in a community of the like-minded who are looking to him for guidance. The Unitarians left that part of me cold with intelligent but somewhat more watered-down generalizations about the human spirit and the sacredness of everyday life. The messages were lovely but a bit too general for my needs.
Thankfully, I have found communities over the last months that are both Christian and healthily skeptical. Both Transmission and the NYU student Episcopal group have provided a space where doubt and even dissent is welcome, yet faith in Christ is also multiplied.
However, I don’t regret trying out the Unitarians. As I walked out of the service today, I had a wide smile on my face. I felt revived: realizing I actively DESIRED more Christ was kind of liberating. I think it’s a gift in this life whenever we can put our finger on exactly what it is we yearn for. Thankfully, with Christ, the access is pretty easy, and the supply never runs out.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Learning from hunger

Dear readers,

Today I've been fasting for Good Friday. No food at all, and nothing but water, tea and lemon juice to drink.
I wanted to deepen my experience of the day by replicating some of the suffering of Christ, even though part of me thinks it silly to impose suffering to grow in faith. Part of me equates fasting with self-flagellation, vows of silence, celibacy and other restrictive disciplines we impose on ourselves to get closer to God. I have an instinctive resistance to that brand of religion. Jesus spent his life simply yes, but he enjoyed life amongst the sinners, doing good in the public square, not hiding away in asceticism burying his appetite for life.
Another part of my resistance to fasting is that I've seen it used to get attention. One weekend when I was in college in the late 90s, a student group set up shop outside the student center to protest the U.S. embargo against Iraq, citing the deaths of children.
Their form of protest was to sit out on the steps of the center for three days, fasting. There was singing and giving out information, but their biggest signs declared that it was a "Fast for Iraq." For some reason, I thought it ridiculous that their form of building awareness was to make themselves suffer.
I'd think anybody who didn't give a damn about the issue would just look at them and say, "Ha! Let 'em starve! Those self-righteous bozos!"
Looking back at it, it wasn't the fast itself I was opposed to, but the demonstrative nature of it. Perhaps the advocacy statements made sense, but the fact that they made their fasting so public got to me. Perhaps I have been affected by that old advice, "Do your good works in secret."
Initially today, I wasn't sure if my little fast would have any effect on me. I moved through the day a little grumpy, but clearheaded. Then came the evening and a test: forgetting my fast, my roommate invited me out to dinner with his friend. Should I deny myself the pleasure and stay home, or take it as a sign to go enjoy the company of friends and break bread? WWJD?
I decided to combine my two interests: I went to dinner but denied myself food, and this was when the fast got interesting. My roommate and friends got a prix fixe three-course meal, appetizers, entrees, beers and dessert. I sat there with a cup of green tea and watched.
First, I felt like an outsider, and that's when the fast first began to hurt. I was going through the day just fine in my own private discipline, but discipline becomes less enjoyable in the midst of those enjoying freedom. In the same way, I think it's easier to be poor when you're not right next to wealth: you may not be aware of how bad you've got it and see the little that you've got as enough.
But when you're poor and surrounded by the well-off, the same drive that could help you survive could turn to resentment, and perhaps then violence.
This came to mind, and other things popped up as they moved from appetizers to entrees. I began thinking about how hard it must be for somebody on a strict diet to be in group situations, the discipline to be out with people who can eat whatever they want, the control it must take. I imagine family and friends try to be considerate, but when a group goes to an Italian restaurant, I'm sure a dieter sees stuff going around the table that they ache to eat. No wonder so many fall off.
As they moved towards the end of the meal, I thought about that old weird piece of advice every mom used to give their kids to make them finish dinner, that guilt-laden news flash "There are children starving in Africa." What was the logic of that? I guess if children are starving in Africa, then I should shut up and be grateful I have any food at all, and should eat every bit?
I never got this: if I have extra food and there are children starving in Africa, then shouldn't they be the ones eating it? Why am I overfilling my belly while these kids starve? And furthermore, if you're really concerned about me understanding starvation in Africa, wouldn't it be better to DENY me an occasional meal, rather than guilt-trip me into eating more?
By that logic, it's like filling the belly is a salute to the fact that by the grace of God, I'm not like them. I guess for any family that's escaped poverty, that's a natural thing to enjoy. But it's also rather hedonistic and self-centered. "I'm going to eat up, because I thankfully am not in your shoes." If I heard that and was on the other side of the equation, I'd want to cut you open and enjoy my meal.
As I recall, Jesus rarely complained about being hungry. He got tired and angry, and even thirsty on the Cross. However, he didn't complain a lot about poverty and hunger. Sometimes, I almost think that that lack of complaints, combined with his love for the poor, has made it easier for us to excuse the existence of poverty.
We do charity like Jesus did, but I think fewer of us see starvation, especially when others are feasting, as the same intolerable hell as genocide or the AIDS epidemic.
I wonder if Jesus had talked more about the cruelty of poverty, maybe things would be different. But then again, we've selectively ignored and heeded Jesus' words for centuries.
The fast has clearly done me good, since it's got me thinking, but I don't quite feel like I've hit rock bottom yet. I wonder how far I should go. Should I take myself to the point of physical pain, or stop now that some awareness has come of it? Your opinions would be welcome.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Going where the spirit leads you

"The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So is it with every one who has been born of the Spirit." John 3:8 (Weymouth New Testament)

Sometimes I just don't feel called to going to church on Sunday. For years, I thought that was just laziness or depression, and that I had to force myself to get out the door and go. Somedays, I turned out to be right, and getting out helped me escape a rut of some kind by seeing friends and finding solace in a lively worship.

However, when I woke up today, my resistance to going to church was less about depression than exuberance. I woke up with the sun today (completely by chance, having fallen asleep at 10 last night) and then sat on my rooftop enjoying the wind at 7. I began looking along the Brooklyn horizon and thought of going to Prospect Park. I've been living in New York over a year now and I'd wanted to see it for sometime.

I knew though that I'd likely to miss the 11 am service at the Unitarian church, so I was torn. Then I read my spiritual passage for the day, from Garry Wills' "What Jesus Meant." The passage spoke of how Jesus cared far more about the state of our spirits than our rituals. I could tell my spirit, which I usually equate with my greatest joy, wanted to visit the park.

After a relaxing long walk, I made my way back to NYU and stopped in a new church, Judson Memorial, for their Palm Sunday mass. The service was nearly over when I got there, but I at least had the chance to rest in the house of the Lord for a few minutes. It was a great relief.

Now over the last months, I've spent my Sundays at several different parishes, and so far I haven't settled on one. Some people might fault this: my mother used to have a school of thought that you go to the parish you have, not the parish you want. I think she took going to our local parish even with boring sermons and funereal music as a selfless way of putting her faith before her own tastes. There's definitely a praiseworthy commitment there.

But to me that kind of forced parish loyalty goes against how Jesus moved through the world, how he encouraged us in John to follow our nomadic spirits. Jesus was a wanderer, always on the move. So to make sticking to your parish part of being a good Christian seems a bit off to me.

There are some weeks when the Spirit calls me to services, and others to fellowship, or some kind of journey like today. I may seem irregular or erratic, but I am constantly, consistently working to listen to the Spirit. And to me the most organic encounters with the divine are when we go beyond our routine.

Would love to hear from you.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Making myself vulnerable

It's been a tough week for me. In a meeting with my supervisor at my part-time internship, I was given some tough critiques. As he went on, I began feeling insecure, a bit humiliated and quite vulnerable, like a child being disciplined by his father.

This kind of vulnerability can be a very physical experience for me. My pulse quickens, and sometimes I tremble or get cold. In some cases, my eyes water up. And at these moments, I lose the guards I've put up to efficiently tackle the mad crowds of New York and the search for success. Of course, that loss feels awful.

But I also believe that vulnerability is something God wants for us. I used to go to a Wednesday night service at Manhattan's Riverside Church, a Gospel-style service called "Space for Grace," with gospel hymns and clapping, frequent cries to God, and tons of "YES, JESUS!" shouts and "MM-HMMs!" coming from the Harlem audience.

On several Wednesdays, I would come in tired and irritable. I would read the program and sit there watching, usually impatient for the sermon.

Usually, though, I arrived when the ministers were passing mikes out to the crowd for them to offer praises and prayers to God. Sometimes a member gave praise for a marriage or a graduation, but more often it was a prayer for the sick, the dead, or the mistreated. I would get irritated after hearing a few of these, perhaps with the thought that the ministers were letting the crowd take over the show: when were we going to get back on schedule? But usually the ministers went on until every raised hand had been given a mike.

Now I had nowhere I had to be after the service was over. What was really happening was a resistance to being vulnerable to these people's experiences, especially to their pain. I came in wanting learning and inspiration, but not wanting to be vulnerable.

And yet I don't think we can get too far in our maturation without allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and I believe God treasures vulnerability. I believe vulnerability is divine.

In fact, that is for me the height of sexual intimacy: the moments where you and your partner are completely vulnerable to each other, literally naked and staring each other in the face, with no place to hide. And hopefully no reason to either.

Last night, I was reading one of my current self-help books, Taming Your Gremlin, by Rick Carson. In it, he has a 15-minute meditation where I was supposed to sit silently and imagine a person I loved deeply and a conversation we would have about our opinions of each other.

As I began, my mind was off in other places, and part of me was thinking the exercise a waste. Carson's book was asking me to be vulnerable, to open myself up to possible pain. And the part of me that's learned to protect myself from feeling weak and vulnerable was trying to blow him off.

However, I managed to do it: I imagined a conversation with my father in which we talked about how we really felt about each other deep down. It made me sad and grateful and ultimately very at peace. Afterwards, I saw my Dad had called me and on my call back, I told him about the exercise. He laughed and we had a great chat. None of that would have happened if I hadn't let myself be vulnerable.

We're taught that only the strong survive, but to me, true growth in life demands we learn to be vulnerable. I don't even like the word "weak" here: to me, it takes strength to put your guard down and be open. Our daily lives can feel like a boxing match, where we face an opponent and have to dance around danger and keep our fists up in order to succeed.

But to thrive as children of God demands a different approach at times. Though it may seem foolhardy or dangerous, we've got to learn how to stop dancing, take off our gear and be open to punches. After all, as they say in the fitness world, "No gain."