“Religion that pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”. James 1:27
I have no way to really convince anyone of a belief in God, Higher Power, and Spirit World. “The proof is in the pudding” as is often said. The writer of the little book of James puts it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Ja. 1:27) What might he mean?
The Greek word for “pure” is the root of our word, Catharsis. Catharsis is the idea of purging that which is impure to make clean. In ancient Greece it was the word describing monthly menses of women. In spirituality, from those in our tradition called “Desert Fathers,” it meant enduring difficult times of purgation in order to come to purity and love in one’s heart. It is the burning away, often in deep pain, the negativity, anger, guilt and fear which block Divine love from flowing in one’s mind and actions.
Several days ago we noticed our little Dachshund, Carmel, doing a lot of itching and scratching. I checked often for fleas but found none. On Friday Naomi took her to the veterinary in Hamburg. He discovered she, along with many other dogs in these hot, dry months, has allergies and they have caused a “yeast infection” in her left ear. Thus the itching. To remove this disease, he needed to give her a shot which was very painful. Worse, he then had to clear and cleaned the ear with solutions which we must now do for several days. Our little dog was so fearful that when he began swabbing out her ear, she tried to bite him! He had to bring in an assistant! But the ear and infection is now being purged and “purity is returning.” But our little dog and some of our wallet is experiencing pain and shock!
In the New Beginnings process, of which you are a part, I notice each church, in order to experience New Beginnings in growth and flourish must migrate through a process called SARAH, the first stages being Shock and then Anger! Resistance then sets in before Acceptance and Hope begin to emerge. It’s to be expected.
Our dog experienced some of that last week. If I read the past year and half correctly, I have noticed some of that in the congregation. I was asked to come in and help created a “new beginnings” that might help get you back onto your “church feet.” Well if I haven’t created some shock, anger, rejection and church conflict I don’t know what I have to do! But whether it’s a sick dog or sick dying church this is going to be part of the journey back toward wholeness. Expect it, get angry! Aim it toward me, your “vet!” I don’t mind, really. It’s healthy, it’s absolutely necessary. I knew this before starting here. I didn’t start this “business” in a dying denomination a couple years ago! I’ve been with it over 40 years.
So where are we going? Where do I see the vision of recovery, the prescription for a “new beginning” leading you? One of the biggest new ideas which chokes the anger and shock in many is the very idea that Jesus and the stories of the Bible aren’t what they thought they were or taught. The central idea of Jesus’ simple but powerful message was, “God is in you!” You and I are the very Sons and Daughters of God. No, not our bodies, but our inward Spirit. And this knowledge, with acceptance and memory can transform lives and religious communities. For too long “religion” meant castigating, ridiculing, and even purging with death those who do not subscribe to our creeds and beliefs. Sad, sad, sad! The pogrom of 8 million Jews in the last century lead by Adolf Hitler was supported in no small degree by centuries of strong anti Semitism rhetoric and actions by Church teachers and leaders. Martin Luther of the Great Reformation was one of the worse. To purge this bigotry, and it’s hatred toward any of God’s Children, will be shocking, painful, and conflict causing. Some will certainly leave and search out another bigoted and narrow church, or just throw it all away. That’s to be expected. I am not shocked by it. Shock happens!
Some of the most blatant forms of discrimination have been taught, spoken and lived in religious institutions. A long time church member once told me that the first time he ever heard of prejudice against African Americans came from a church leader. In Christ, in our Inner Selves, the scriptures teach we are all the same; there is no male or female, rich or poor, ruler or free, black, white, red or blue. But it’s so easy to miss it. It’s so easy to think we are special, that we are God’s choice elect ones, only in our version of “our” Jesus Christ.
The experience for people who subscribe to such a religion is so often centered around believing and saying creeds and subscribing to certain beliefs will give them Divine Awareness and peace. Organized religions are dying partly because they have been thus so judgmental and condemnatory of others. Yes, obvious hatred and unfairness ought to be spoken out against, but the truest lesson taught is a life lived in forgiveness with a compassionate welcoming to all.
Pure religion is beyond worship forms and what are called Liturgies. A religious form is not God but a pointer and as such always to be flexible and adaptable. I read last week a story of a church nearby which has been called “The Church of the Holy Radiator.” After 35 years, the pastor retired and a new younger minister arrived. After his first communion service people were very upset because he didn’t touch the radiator before he picked up the chalice! So the young “Rev Newbe” went to see the old retired “Rev Tenure” and asked why he touched the radiator. He said, “Just before I picked up the chalice, I would walk over and touch it to remove static from my hands before touching the metal chalice!”
In the gospel reading from Mark 7, Jesus tells the Pharisees and Scribes by their strict adherence to forms and traditions of worship they “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions.” It’s about heart, attitudes, with kindness and love, not about keeping forms intact for generations and hundreds of years , forms and liturgies which are no longer connecting with many in today’s world.
Simple reason tells us nothing here is permanent or unchangeable. Reason also tells us that judgment is always flawed, there are no “bare facts,” and everything is a guesstimate, a darkened glass through which we look. We learn to let go and receive the truth of un-knowing, which the anonymous writer of the 14th Century called, “Entering the Cloud of Unknowing.”
Of course this takes mind training. Our minds from birth are attached to our bodily needs and appetites. They search endlessly for happiness and peace. Yet the answer is in our mind, within ourselves. An old Cherokee story goes that a young brave came one day to the older warrior and said, “I keep having these constant dreams of the black wolves fighting with the white wolves, like the evil thoughts with the good ones. How can I stop this fighting and how can the good wolves win?” And the warrior answer, “It depends upon which ones you feed.”
And so it is. To walk in the perfect law, the law of liberty and freedom, as James wrote (1:24), we do not just listen and but follow and do. We practice learning lines and phrases to carry us through life. The whole book, A Course in Miracles, is a book on “mind training,” of helping to feed the good wolves rather than the guilt-ridden, judgmental ones.
And not only will you experience a deeper peace in letting go, but people around you, lost in bitterness and loneliness, will want to know where you found it.
The result is at times pure bliss, a “perfect sense of freedom” as James says. It’s that subjective elevation we all yearn to experience. It’s the fulfillment of the constant sexual cravings for oneness, bliss, going “out of the mind.” While in the Baptist seminary, many years ago, a professor said the Hebrew book, Song of Songs was probably an early sex manual for young couples! It is the yearning for sexual oneness with another which but symbolizes the experience we have from time to time in meditation and awareness.
A guru in an ashram, 25 years ago, was trying to help me meditate. I keep finding it laborious; I couldn’t still my constant thinking mind. One day he said, “You’ve got to get your sex into it!” I thought at first he was a “dirty old man” but then I began to realize what he was saying. Breathe in and out that deep longing for oneness, letting go of every other attachment; see the world as but a temptation to find satisfaction here that never lasts. Yes, it’s fine for a short while, but then it’s gone. Joy in this world is like getting all the Christmas decorations and lights out for a short season, and then sticking them away back into the closets, or at the curb in boredom.
Do you crave a sense of oneness, completeness, total satisfaction? Then crave this sense of Oneness. You can feel it in sharing forgiveness, compassion, and love with all people, especially those who are in most need and vulnerable. And may it lift you above and beyond, into the bliss and joy of Oneness with the Universe, of which we all are.
What then is the fastest growing “religion” then in our country and the “west?” I asked this to a discouraged Roman Catholic golfing partner last Friday. He quickly answered, “Muslim!” “Wrong!” I replied, it’s Zen Buddhism! He said he never heard of it. I told him it’s spreading all over, quietly and without large buildings, evangelistic efforts, or special seminaries and orders. I told him of the early summer article in the New York Times describing the movement as large and outgrowing all others. My son’s partner told me once of how fast it is growing in her home country of the Czech Republic, once called the “Vatican of the North.” Why is growing so quickly? Because it’s simple and powerful. Divine is within, the meaning of the greeting “Namaste.” As Jesus said, “The Kingdom is here, within you!” Accepting this and practicing simple quiet breathing is so accessible as well. Sitting and watching your breath anywhere can do it! Treating them all people and sentient beings with compassion and kindness with deepened it. Next month the Dalai Lama will be visiting Syracuse University, convening another convocation of all religious names and forms, urging them to seek out and experience their Divine Centers, seeing our Oneness, ceasing our hating and judging each other so harshly. It’s the most needed movement for our times with increasing threatening forces of burgeoning populations, expanding nuclear weapons, and growing global warming.
Yes, New Beginnings are in order. It’s part of the very passion of my life as a so-called “spiritual teacher and leader.” I invite all to join in the exciting and hopeful movement, bringing life, hope, love and unity anew to our community, country, and world. And yes, the “proof in in the pudding.”
Summary of a talk prepared by Rev. Dr. David Persons, shared with the folks at the First Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, September 2, 2012.
Wonderfully thoughtful post, Dave. I admire your ability to share very challenging ideas in a welcoming and inclusive way. You embody the non-judgementality that you teach which is quite rare. Thanks.