Yesterday I led another prayer/worship service for the Presbyterian Native American Church near Irving, NY. Five of my family came to join us, which accounted for half of the attendance. In its hay day, the Wright’s Memorial mission church drew in several more and boasted a Sunday School of scores. Today, a few older members stick with it, with no more monies or missionaries flowing in for support and leadership. Most have just dropped out or died and a few have decided to return to their more historic native traditions. As a non-native, I feel somewhat as an outsider.
Always checking out the church lectionary before preparing a “talk,” I was intrigued by the selections from Galatians written by the early apostle Paul and the one from Luke where the story portrays Jesus raising a man from the dead right out of his burial buggy. Paul in the passage brags that after years of being a top gun Jewish Pharisee learner/teacher/enforcer, he awakened one day to an encounter with the divine. Paul says he was such a great advocate of the teachings of his faith, he sought out perverts and non-orthodox and either put them to death or persecuted them. Indeed, he was on his way to enforce another purge and inquisition when the light from the sky struck and he was changed.
Paul’s change led him out into the Arabian Desert where for three years he found a completely new faith and understanding of spirituality. He now bragged how he never even sat under any of the early church founders but learned oneness and love alone with spirit in the wilderness. He did run into Peter once later while visiting Jerusalem and perhaps the brother of Jesus named James. He didn’t seem very impressed with either. But mostly, his awakening to Spirit in his life came from his encounters and experiences in the desert outside of organized, religious classes.
I tried to share with the congregants yesterday that organized religious zealots can be very dangerous, as any organized religion with a plethora of rules can become. Religious groups tend to divide, as the saying goes, while spirituality unites. Over the centuries organized religious groups, hell bent on following “God’s teachings” have murdered and exterminated millions of people, many of them indigenous people with their own “nature” religions. I reminded the few natives yesterday how in their history, the Christian Church had often been extremely brutal in wiping out their form of spirituality and living. I told them of the Presbytery near Seattle which in the late 19th Century voted to legalize extermination of Natives who did not convert and be baptized.
I also reminded them of how most outstanding spiritual leaders and teachers came from outside the popular organized religions of the day. Even stories from the Bible support this, from Moses to Jesus who were called into their work outside the organized religious structures. People like Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi were quickly turned on and murdered by their own religious leaders when they became openly inclusive toward all people as brothers and sisters.
Today, with so many talking about “thinking outside the box,” I believe it easily applies to organized religion as well. We easily become locked in to the herd ideas of specialness and exclusiveness of others. Hatred continues to abound in the world today promoted by hundreds of groups of “believers.” Wars continue to rage as peoples radically believe their Holy Books demand such violence. It’s time for more returns to the desert and a waiting for “new orders.”
I tried to remind the people yesterday, including myself, that God is everywhere and accessible to anyone at anytime. God, Transcendence, comes to us in nature, in our homes, in our travels, with our neighbors, and occasionally, even in our religious structures. We don’t need to wait for missionaries, for new buildings, better music, large grants and better trained experts. The Holy Encounter comes when we long for it, wanting a deeper realization of God’s broad truth than we’ve ever known. We’ll then experience it, awakened while hoeing the garden, mowing the lawn, walking along the path, wherever.
In the Luke story, Jesus is purported to have raised the dead man back to life from his bier. I really don’t believe this story is literal, any more than the resurrection celebrated at Easter by Christians. It’s a metaphor of a person living life being completely dead to life itself and suddenly being awakened. Indeed, the word “resurrection” means to awaken from sleep. In my favorite book, A Course in Miracles, I first thought in reading it I would be able to effect physical miracles too! But then after a few years, I realized the words had nothing to do with physical miracles but all to do with one’s thinking! The miracle is the shift in thinking God is outside of us, to be found in special books or structures to the understanding that God is with us, and indeed, the True Us as the Son or Daughter of God.
God bless those mission churches which years ago where established to give the “lost” the truth of the church’s teachings. People were baptized, renamed and retrained to think of God being within certain buildings, funneled in through appropriately trained religious leaders, who taught people to abandoned or destroy their earlier pagan beliefs and practices. And we all have been the poorer because of it. May we be open to the Light on our roads to Damascus, leading us out into the deserts of renewal and awakening, returning to be lights of love, tolerance, compassion, inclusiveness, and peace.